President Obama’s Farewell Address on Social Media’s Threat to Democracy

GARCIN: …So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!

No Exit (Huis Clos), by Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prophetic farewell address famously warned of the growing “military industrial complex”:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Given Eisenhower’s history as a military officer of the highest rank, Ike knew of what he spoke only too well.

In 2017, President Barack Obama may well have given his own prophetic warning of a different unholy alliance between government and industry, but this time there won’t be a song written about it called “Masters of War,” except maybe “Masters of the Internet” (by Ceramic Dog/Marc Ribot) or “March of the Billionaires” by Cracker (written by Faragher-Hickman- Lowery-Urbano).

The President warned in his farewell address (“the great sorting”):

For too many of us, it has become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds. Surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splitting of our media into a channel for every taste. All this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start only accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the information that is out there.

As Maya Kosoff reflects on President Obama’s warning in Vanity Fair:

Today, 62 percent of U.S. adults say they get their news from social media, often relying on news stories shared within their own self-selected digital bubbles. Facebook, which has finally accepted some culpability for its role in disseminating unchecked misinformation, is still experiencing growing pains as it evolves, whether willingly or not, from a social network into a media company. But the problem runs deeper. Studies in recent years suggest media fragmentation has increased partisanship—that is, paradoxically, the vast array of news outlets at our disposal today have given way to more explicitly ideological ones and have helped contribute to an increase in partisanship and polarized political opinion. [Emphasis mine]

Facebook’s own internal studies developed in Facebook’s “Core Data Science Team” as well as medical research into Internet addiction confirms what Sean Parker revealed this week–Facebook intentionally profits from addiction.  And as Professor Adam Alter teaches us about behavioral addictions, the addiction that Sean Parker tells the world was perfected by Facebook is every bit as addictive as substance addiction:

People have been addicted to substances for thousands of years, but for the past two decades, we’ve also been hooked on technologies, like Instagram, Netflix, Facebook, Fitbit, Twitter, and email—platforms we’ve adopted because we assume they’ll make our lives better. These inventions have profound upsides, but their appeal isn’t an accident. Technology companies and marketers have teams of engineers and researchers devoted to keeping us engaged. They know how to push our buttons, and how to coax us into using their products for hours, days, and weeks on end.

Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe that the true purpose of Facebook is to bring the world closer together.  I’m a skeptic, and here’s why.

The good thing about Facebook is that it brings people together in new communities.  The bad thing about Facebook is that some of those people previously only met on Death Row.  And as Sartre said, hell is other people.

 

 

 

 

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