'Antisocial Media' by Siva Vaidhyanathan

'Antisocial Media' by Siva Vaidhyanathan
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy” which is published by Oxford University Press.

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“We are in the midst of a worldwide, internet-based assault on democracy,” proclaims author Siva Vaidhyanathan in his book, “Anti-Social Media,” about the damage Facebook and other social media have done to our politics. Facebook, of course, has been subject to a great deal of criticism for a range of transgressions: mishandling users’ personal data; fostering addiction, anxiety, and neurosis; creating bubbles that emotionalize and disfigure political debate; and facilitating disinformation in the run-up to the 2016 election. Vaidhyanathan treats each of these failings with much-needed detail and nuance, while also showing how misguided faith in technology and progress inured us to the storm until it was already on us.

In the book’s introduction, Vaidhyanathan assents to a general impression he finds among tech journalists that Mark Zuckerberg is “a deeply thoughtful, sincere, idealistic, and concerned person” — not at all, Vaidhyanathan assures readers, like the character portrayed in David Fincher's film “The Social Network.” Vaidhyanathans good will notwithstanding, the Zuckerberg that appears in “Antisocial Media” is arrogant, prone to doublespeak, and in denial about the mischief his platform has wrought — he is much like Fincher’s Zuckerberg. His “techno-fundamentalism” and penchant for “neutral, almost meaningless language” papers over the insidious political effects of Facebook. In the pursuit of a “more open and connected world,” he has left one more confused and divided.

One of the most valuable sections in the book sees Vaidhyanathan retell the role of social media in the “Arab Spring.” Journalists credited Facebook and other social media with sparking democratic revolution in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran. While organizers did use Facebook to communicate and to stage protests that would have been difficult without the technology, there remains little evidence Facebook played anything like the starring role journalists cast it in. Its legacy is mixed at best. Vaidhyanathan quotes organizer Wael Ghonim who, in 2011, held Facebook partially responsible for the breakdown of the democratic movement in Egypt: “We failed to build consensus and the political struggle led to intense polarization... Social media only amplified that state [through] the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers, and hate speech.” Indeed, Facebook, as Vaidhyanathan details, has proven far more useful to autocrats than activists.

These kinds of toxic politics are by now familiar to all of us. But Facebook’s role in the degradation of American political discourse is not as simple as echo chambers, Cambridge Analytica, and Russian hackers, and its more lasting effects have perhaps yet to be left. In his discussion of the 2016 election, Vaidhyanathan instead emphasizes the Trump campaign’s innovative, above-the-board Facebook advertising strategy, which was facilitated and guided by Facebook employees and which leveraged the platform’s reams of personal data to present users with highly targeted and tailored messaging. Manipulation, Vaidhyanathan’s analysis suggests, is not a misuse of the Facebook; it is what it was designed for.

As with many books of its kind, the diagnosis offered in “Antisocial Media” is ultimately more compelling than its prescriptions. But we must see the problem before we can solve it, and Vaidhyanathan’s book offers a clear first look.

Alexander Stern is the editor of RealClearPolicy and RealClearBooks.

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