He begins his piece by recalling relatively recent moral panics over offensive music and violent video games:
Today, we chuckle at the hair metal bands of the late eighties as innocent fun while the shocking hip hop of the early nineties has evolved into a cornerstone of our modern culture. And after hundreds of studies across multiple decades, the American Psychological Association reports that they still haven’t found any evidence that playing video games motivates people to commit violence...Time has resolved our collective anxiety. The new has become the old, the shocking has become the expected. Yet, today we find ourselves in the grips of another moral panic—this time around social media.
1 - The New Culprit
Manson lists a number of books decrying the effects of social media and notes that:
...one has hit that “sky is falling” pitch of hysteria quite like the recent Netflix film, The Social Dilemma. I would call it a documentary except that there is a conspicuous absence of any data or actual scientific evidence in it. Instead, we’re treated to fictionalized reenactments of the repeated warnings given by tech industry “experts,” all of whom simply repeat and reinforce one another’s opinions for 94 minutes...The tech author and social media defender, Nir Eyal, has told me that the entirety of his three-hour interview was left out of the film, as was all but about ten seconds of the interview with another skeptic of social media criticism, Jonathan Haidt.Then,
The problem is the data...there’s been research on social media and its effects on people. Lots of it...how it affects adults, how it affects children, how it influences politics and mood and self-esteem and general happiness...the results will probably surprise you. Social media is not the problem...We are.2 - Three Common Criticisms of Social Media That Are Wrong
Criticism One: Social Media Harms Mental Health
...over the past two decades, we have seen a worrying increase in rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety, especially in young people. But it’s not clear that social media is the cause...A lot of scary research on social media usage is correlational research...lots of social media usage = lots of depressed teenagers...The problem with studies like this is that it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Is it that social media causes kids to feel more depressed? Or is it that really depressed kids are more likely to use social media?..correlational studies kind of suck... So why do people do them?...because they’re easy.
It’s very easy to round up a few hundred kids, ask them how much they use social media, then ask them if they feel anxious or depressed, and create a spreadsheet. It’s much, much harder to round up thousands of kids, track them over the course of a decade and calculate how any shifts or changes in their social media usage actually affect their mental health over the years...Well, researchers with a lot of time and money have run those longitudinal studies, and the results are in...Manson lists a number of studies that are...leaning towards the conclusion that it’s anxiety and depression that drives us to use social media in all the horrible ways we use it—not the other way around.
Then, there’s the studies you never hear about. Like the one from 2012 that found posting status updates on Facebook reduces feelings of loneliness. Or the one from earlier this year that found activity on Twitter can potentially increase happiness. Or one that found that active social media use actually decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety...Those of us who were around in 2004 can remember why social media was such a big deal in the first place—it connected you to everybody in your life in a way that was simply impossible in the before-times. And those initial benefits of social media are so immediate and obvious that we’ve likely become inured to them and take them for granted.
Criticism Two: Social Media Causes Political Extremism or Radicalization
...three facts make it unlikely that social media is the culprit:
-Studies show that political polarization has increased most among the older generations who use social media the least. Younger generations who are more active on social media tend to have more moderate views.
-Polarization has been widening in the United States and many other countries since the 1970s, long before the advent of the internet.
-Polarization has not occurred universally around the world. In fact, some countries are experiencing less polarization than in previous decades.
Criticism Three: Big Tech Companies Are Profiting Off the Mayhem
...social media is not destroying society, and even if it was, Big Tech is not fanning the flames. They’re actually spending a lot of money trying to put it out...These companies have spent billions in efforts to fight back against disinformation and conspiracy theories. A recent study to see if Google’s algorithm promoted extremist alt-right content actually found the opposite: the YouTube algorithm seemed to go out of its way to promote mainstream, established news sites far more often than its fringe looney figures...Similarly, last year Facebook banned tens of thousands of conspiracy theorist and terrorist groups. This has been part of their ongoing campaign to clean up their platform. They’ve hired over 10,000 new employees in the past two years just to review content on the site for disinformation and violence.3 - But Clearly Something’s Not Right… So What Is It?
Back in the 90s, conspiracy theories like like the Y2K computer armageddon were just as common as they are now. The difference was that they were far less harmful because the social networks that existed at the time cut them off aggressively at the source...But today someone goes online, finds a web forum, or a Facebook group or a Clubhouse room, and all the little Y2Kers get together and spend all of their time socializing and validating each other based on the shared assumption that the world is about to end...Facebook didn’t create the crazy Y2Kers. It merely gives them an opportunity to find each other and connect—because, for better or worse, Facebook gives everybody the opportunity to find each other and connect...This asymmetry in beliefs is important, as the more extreme and negative the belief, the more motivated the person is to share it with others. And when you build massive platforms based on sharing… well, things get ugly.4 - The 90/9/1 Rule
The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule states that 80% of results come from 20% of the processes. I.e., 80% of a company’s revenue will often come from 20% of its customers; 80% of your social life is probably spent with 20% of your friends; 80% of traffic accidents are caused by 20% of the drivers; 80% of the crime is committed by 20% of the people. Etc.
People who have studied social networks and online communities have found a similar rule to describe information shared on the internet, dubbed the “90/9/1 Rule.” It states that in any social network or online community, 1% of the users generate 90% of the content, 9% of the users create 10% of the content, and the other 90% of people are mostly silent observers...Let’s call the 1% who create 90% of the content creators. We’ll call the 9% the engagers—as most of their content is a reaction to what the 1% is creating—and the 90% who are merely observers, we’ll refer to as lurkers.
The...dynamic of social networks comes to reflect Bertrand Russell’s old lament: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”...The creators are largely the fools and fanatics who are so certain of themselves...It’s not necessarily the platform’s algorithms that favor these fanatics—it’s that human psychology favors these fools and fanatics and the algorithms simply reflect our psychology back to us...Issues that are important to small but loud minorities dictate the discussion of the majority...Because radical and unconventional views exert a disproportionate influence online, they are mistakenly seen as common and conventional...
People develop extreme and irrational levels of pessimism. Because creators online tend to be the doomsayers and extremists, the overall perception of the state of the world skews increasingly negative. Polling data shows optimism in much of the developed world to be at all-time lows despite the fact that by almost every statistical measurement—wealth, longevity, peace, education, equality, technology, etc.—we live in the best time in human history, and it’s not even close...Much of this can be summed up in the simple phrase: social media does not accurately reflect the underlying society.5 - Optimizing for Controversy vs Consensus
A few generations ago, there were only a few television channels, a few radio stations, and a few international news services...if you were in charge of one of these few channels of information, it was in your interest to produce content that appealed to as many people as possible...what we saw was a traditional media in the 20th century that largely sought to produce content focused on consensus.
But with the internet, the supply of information exploded. Suddenly everyone had 500 TV channels and dozens of radio stations and an infinite number of websites to choose from...Therefore, the most profitable strategy in the media and entertainment stopped being consensus and instead became controversy...This optimization for controversy trickled down, all the way from politicians and major news outlets, to individual influencers on social media...The result is this fun-house-mirror version of reality, where you go online (or turn on cable news) and feel like the world is constantly falling apart around you but it’s not.
And the fun-house-mirror version of reality isn’t caused by social media, it’s caused by the profit incentives on media/entertainment in an environment where there’s way more supply of content than there is demand. Where there’s far more supply of news and information than there is time to consume it. Where there’s a natural human proclivity to pay more attention to a single car crash than the hundreds of people successfully driving down the highway, going on their merry way.6 - The Silent Majority
What we get is a cultural environment that looks like this:
Social media has not changed our culture. It’s shifted our awareness of culture to the extremes of all spectrums. And until we all recognize this, it will be impossible to have serious conversations about what to do or how to move forward.
You can affect the culture simply by shifting people’s awareness about certain subjects. The hysteria in the media over their irrelevance has pushed our culture to a place where we overestimate social media and underestimate our own psychology.
Instead, we must push our perception back to a more realistic and mature understanding of social media and social networks. To do this, it’s important each of us individually understands concepts such as The Attention Diet and the Attention Economy, that we learn to cut out the most news consumption, and, you know, maybe spend some more time outside.
Moral panics find a scapegoat to blame for what we hate to admit about ourselves. My parents and their friends didn’t ask why kids were drawn to such aggressive and vulgar music. They were afraid of what it might have revealed about themselves. Instead, they simply blamed the musicians and the video games.
Similarly, rather than owning up to the fact that these online movements are part of who we are—that these are the ugly underbellies of our society that have existed and persisted for generations—we instead blame the social media platforms for accurately reflecting ourselves back to us.
The great biographer Robert Caro once said, “Power doesn’t always corrupt, but power always reveals.” Perhaps the same is true of the most powerful networks in human history.
Social media has not corrupted us, it’s merely revealed who we always were.