Social Media and Other Diseases

Review: ‘The Social Media Upheaval’ by Glenn Reynolds

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There's something fascinating about social media—the way it spreads, the way it mutates and transforms, the way it seeks its targets. A kind of organic activity seems to pulse within it, as though it were alive. As though it were a virus. An infection. We don't join Twitter and Facebook. We catch them, like a disease.

That's a useful metaphor, of course, which is why Glenn Reynolds uses it so extensively in The Social Media Upheaval, his new and much needed jeremiad against the online businesses that infest us. But we may need to understand Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Reddit, all the well-known platforms, as something more than viruses—for they work with an efficiency that Yellow Fever and the Black Death could only envy. Social media worms its way into our lives, using us even more than we use it, till no one can tell the parasite from the host.

And why should that surprise us? Economic competition is the greatest engine for solving puzzles the world has ever found, and since August 1991 (the moment that the World Wide Web went live), nearly every cyber business has been competing for just one thing: attention. They struggle to capture the eyeballs and the mouse clicks of the approximately 4.3 billion human beings who (as of Spring 2019) have access to the internet.

Yes, the puzzle of the human brain has yet to find a complete explanation; the exact neural mechanisms of attention are still obscure. But the internet doesn't mind. Ignoring the abstract puzzle, cyber-tech uses our trillions of mouse clicks to find a practical explanation of human attention: The companies that figure out how to attract us flourish. The ones that don't go under. And whatever it is that causes the mechanisms of the brain to focus, the internet will find it. The Web gives us the largest experimental data set in history—4.3 billion people, on whom to try out the eye-catching and the click-drawing. The brain is being mapped by practical investigation, just the way a disease does. There's a reason we speak of widespread sharing as a case of something going viral. But social media is infecting more human beings than any actual virus ever managed.

In The Social Media Upheaval, Reynolds looks back to the beginnings of civilization, the first cities, for an analogy to our online lives in what are still (in civilizational terms) the early days of cyber-experience. "One of the interesting aspects of the earliest agricultural civilizations," he notes, "is how fragile they were." The rapid spread of disease was always a threat, since "an early city was more like a (badly run) refugee camp than a modern urban area."

The dangers of urbanization were probably not apparent to the earliest of city dwellers (although, with Cain named as the builder of the first city, the Bible had its suspicions). And, in parallel, at least some of the first internet users found the experience beneficial. Reynolds contrasts the early Usenet forums, which often dissolved in acrimony, with the early blogs, which were much more loosely interactive communities.

As the founder of the Instapundit blog, Reynolds may be a biased observer, but he's surely right that the next generation of online platforms—the social-media upheaval—would prove more akin to Usenet than to blogs. Social media encourages reactions to content far more than it encourages actual content, and the companies' algorithms promote posts that cause the audience reaction of "likes" and "shares." As the algorithms for deciding which to promote grow more sophisticated and more hidden from users, the super-virus grows stronger. "Social media not only makes informed debate more difficult on their platforms," Reynolds argues, but also "rewires people's brains in such a fashion as to make such debate more difficult everywhere else."

The political consequences of all this are profound. Alongside the corruption of discourse we have witnessed the emergence of monopolistic entities that control the platforms on which debate takes place. The two phenomena are not necessarily related; you could imagine one without the other. But in combination they diminish the public square. The computer revolution began with a general philosophy of left-leaning libertarianism, with a good dose of big-think futurism mixed in, promising that Computers Will Change Our Lives!

And they were right. Computers did change our lives—and one thing they clearly changed was the ability of anyone to hold that old naive optimism about computers. Glenn Reynolds’s version of libertarianism is often right-leaning, and perhaps that's why he sees so clearly what the powerful internet companies are doing with their monopolistic positions. They limit competition, ban speech against their preferred causes, and manipulate government to preserve their business successes.

The easiest solution to some of our internet problems would be to undo Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts internet platforms from the libel suits with which print publishers are threatened. Section 230 had as its original and not unreasonable purpose the idea of helping small bulletin boards and neighborhood chat rooms. But now that it "protects services like Facebook or Twitter from liability for effectively everything on their sites, since everything there is content provided by someone else."

As it happens, no chance exists for the repeal of Section 230 in the current political environment. Nonetheless, in fear that a large public reaction would make them liable, the social-media giants have begun an increasing campaign of censorship—and in doing so, have revealed an astonishing amount of collusion and monopolistic power.

Most of this censorship by YouTube, Facebook, and the other large social-media companies has been directed at the right. In part that reflects the left-leaning political views of the management of those companies. If they have to practice censorship, why not a censorship that will be applauded by their friends? In greater part, however, the censorship reveals how deliberately these companies can act to preserve their positions.

The solution, Reynolds suggests in The Social Media Upheaval, is trust-busting—a return to the early 20th-century campaign against the powerful companies that had locked out competition. If anything, he thinks, our situation is worse than what, say, Teddy Roosevelt faced. The large social-media companies occupy a position parallel to the old rail and oil companies, but they do so in an arena of speech, allowing them "control over communications, including communications about politics," which slips too easily into political power. Conservatives ought to be worried about their escalating banishment for social media. They ought to be even more worried about large corporations having the power to banish any political discourse.

The Social Media Upheaval is a brief text, more a pamphlet than a treatise. But it does point us, in the pared-down style of Glenn Reynolds's trademark prose, toward what has created the problems of social media. Take a dash of brain chemistry. A pinch of censorship. A dollop of antitrust violation. Stir it all up, and we have a recipe for disaster.