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No, Social Media Isn't Destroying Civilization – Jacobin magazine



No, Social Media Isn’t Destroying Civilization

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma tells a horror story about how social media is creating political extremism and driving children into depression and addiction. But it never even hints that these ills have causes outside of our use of Facebook and Snapchat — and the possibility that what we see on these platforms portrays the reality of a sick society.

Still from The Social Dilemma. (Netflix)

What harm could social media do? Civil war! The end of civilization as we know it! That is the verdict of Silicon Valley’s renegade luminaries, lined up in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. As former Google employee Tristan Harris puts it, in a very TED Talks axiom, social media threatens “checkmate on humanity.”

If you think all that sounds like moral panic, you wouldn’t be far wrong. The dead giveaway is the enormous gap between the purported problem and the solutions — tax data collection, realign financial incentives, and no devices before bedtime. This is a documentary made for worried parents, #resistance liberals, and #NeverTrump Republicans.

All the villains of the liberal techlash are here: fake news, Russian cyberattacks, foreign dictators, “bad actors,” political polarization, and depressed teenagers. The Social Dilemma trundles out one jaded platform boss after another to deliver this familiar homily, dramatized with a background story about a suburban family from Anytown, USA torn apart by social media addiction.

Clichéd though it is, there is something to this. Moral panic usually isn’t wholly manufactured. It tends to be founded in a reality which it distorts. And the industry this documentary is describing in such lacerating terms — let us call it the social industry — deserves all the criticism it gets.

“Like a Dopamine Hit”?

It is by now old news that we, the industry’s users and lab rats, are a product whose every click, scroll, hover, and view is painstakingly monitored by the data giants. This data is collected, aggregated, and then segmented into markets far more precise than any in history.

The main commercial purpose of this data is to sell us as markets to advertisers and more efficiently manipulate our responses. Predicting and manipulating how we will think and act in future, based on the data, has become a huge market in itself: the “human futures” market, as social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff puts it in the documentary.

Perhaps less widely understood is the extent to which tech designers are systematically trained in psychological persuasion by their employers — with the intention of using that knowledge in the design of platforms to make users more suggestible.

Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook exec and now a “conscientious objector,” spent his time there constantly experimenting on users, trying out minute tactics that would work below the radar of conscious awareness to keep them hooked and goad them into “engaging” more. Default settings, infinite scrolling, “read receipts,” and alerts that another user is typing, are all examples of such tactics.

Sean Parker, a former Facebook boss, argues that these techniques knowingly and deliberately exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology.” Using these techniques, they created an addiction machine. User numbers and engagement soared spectacularly. The industry became the most profitable in the world.

Do they know why their techniques work? They have a theory. Palihapitiya argues that social media features, such as “like” counts and bright red notifications, are designed to reward engagement with a “dopamine hit.” Dr Anna Lembke, adding scientific authority to this Silicon Valley shtick, argues: “Social media is a drug. We have a biological imperative to connect with other people.”

Given this evolved imperative, when we receive news of “likes” and other signs of approval, the “reward pathways” of our brains light up, and we receive our hit. The rewards are more effective for being “intermittent” rather than predictable. And the more we repeat the action and get the reward, the more we “learn” to be addicted.

This is nonsense, based on ancient, discredited behaviorist myths. Dopamine doesn’t give anyone a “hit.” And people do not “learn” to become addicted through rewards and reinforcements. William Brewer’s classic review of behaviorist experiments found that the presence or absence of reward stimuli or negative reinforcements made no difference to whether subjects learned or did not learn the behavior that the experimenters were looking for.

Yet, unexamined behaviorist ideology has seeped into addiction research, generally fused with the most reductive evolutionary psychology — and this documentary has more dubious evolutionary babble than a pickup artist’s handbook. Silicon Valley executives have adopted this as if to explain why they’re capitalist geniuses for stumbling on a new way to make money. Thus telling us that they have no idea what they’re doing.

What of the effects of addiction? Here, The Social Dilemma turns to social psychologist and centrist scold Jonathan Haidt to offer the usual array of alarming statistics. According to him, depression and anxiety is up 62 percent among older teen girls since 2011 and suicide up by 75 percent. For preteen girls, the equivalent figures are 189 percent and 151 percent. Those statistics are for the United States, but similar data has come up elsewhere.

Tim Kendall, former president of Pinterest, is emphatic that “these services are killing people.” A more scrupulous documentary might have examined all these issues more closely. Might there be other causes for the rise in depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among young women? Have the lives of young people recently become worse, for example? If there are other causes, how would it be possible to isolate the role of social media? How could we prove that social media is not simply magnifying and purifying existing social trends?

The Social Dilemma notes that young women reportedly suffer from something called “Snapchat dysmorphia.” Some have been known to seek plastic surgeries to make their bodies look more like the filtered images they circulate. These stories are largely based on anecdotes shared by plastic surgeons.

It seems intuitively plausible that an attention economy based around trading images of self-perfection, of “living your best life,” would encourage young women to hate their bodies more. Yet, the fact that someone produces an image of themselves on Snapchat, tweaking and manipulating it to explain the plastic surgery they want, doesn’t mean that Snapchat is the cause of the desire for surgery. The industrial transformation of female bodies to please some idea of male desire is older than the Boomers blaming everything on social media.

Whose Power?

What is it that has been displaced and distorted in The Social Dilemma, to produce this moral-panic cinema? Capital. The documentary is very clear-sighted about aspects of the social industry and how it works. It is, as Harris says, “a totally new species of power.” The social industry doesn’t just monitor and manipulate us. The more of our social lives is spent on these platforms, the more of our social life is programmed.

Jaron Lanier, the soft-spoken granddaddy of computer science, speaks of the way the platforms introduce a “sneaky third person” between every pair of interlocutors, who is paying for the conversation to be manipulated. But one could go much further, and author Cathy O’Neil does when she says that the algorithms which regulate how we interact are just “opinions embedded in code.” Whose opinions? Largely, those of wealthy white men in northern California out to make a huge profit and reputation. That is an intensely important political issue, which the Left has been slow to grapple with.

The Social Dilemma is right to highlight the power that is at stake here. And when it draws attention, with palpable horror, to the exponential growth in computer processing power, it clearly apprehends that processing power is political power. However, it’s extraordinary that it doesn’t occur to anyone to think of it as class power. For what is being automated most efficiently in the cybernetic offensive on living labor are the imperatives of capital.

The absence of capital from the film’s imagination results in some very strange and telling formulations. We are told that AI runs the world. That “as humans, we’ve almost lost control over these systems.” That a “checkmate on humanity” is afoot. That the machines are “overpowering human nature,” whose operating systems and processing power evolves much more slowly. The only sense in which any of this is true is the sense in which AI is just the programmatic expression of capital.

For The Social Dilemma, the real political questions that arise out of such programmed reality have to do with the way in which the social industry platforms promote polarization and undermine consensus reality. Everyone, we are told, is working with a different set of facts. Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google software engineer, explains that the algorithms which he helped design, such as YouTube’s “up next” recommendation system, work best by polarizing people. There is something riveting about “extreme” content, sufficient to keep users hooked.

Harris points out that “fake news” reportedly spreads six times faster than the truth because “the truth is boring.” There follows the familiar social media horror stories about conspiracy theories, racist propaganda, Flat Earth ideologies, and rumors benefiting murderous dictators — all thriving on social media. And of course, Russia “destabilizing democracies.”

There is obviously some truth to all this, but it’s still just begging the question. For what the documentary really needs to explain is, what is so addictive about conspiracy theories and bullshit? If YouTube and Facebook seem to promote far-right infotainment, that may say more about the societies in which the social industry profits than it does about the algorithms per se. Mark Zuckerberg may be amoral enough to profit from Holocaust denial, but no one is arguing that he is actually trying to promote it.

Perhaps still more insidious is the claim that “polarization,” and disagreement over the facts, is a political problem. There are, visibly, forms of volatile and exhausting cultural polarization that are accelerated on social media, if not exactly caused by it. The online culture wars do tend to favor reaction. However, that is not what the documentary is worried about. What it’s worried about is kids being brainwashed in online bubbles and becoming the sorts of “extremists” who get arrested by police.

Behind that, the worry is that, as Harris insists, we can’t even agree on what’s true anymore. But it’s normal in democracy for there to be some disagreement over the facts. And polarization may be evidence of renewed democratic engagement prompted by real civic issues, rather than of kids being brainwashed into supporting Bernie by TikTok. Unsurprisingly, the political heroes of the documentary at this point — both given their moment to shine, as they decry the collapse of civility — are Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio.

Feeble Solutions

Nonetheless, if all the recent chaos of the US political system, from QAnon to armed militias, can be conveniently blamed on the social industry, then it makes sense for Kendall to claim that a “civil war” is a likely short-term result of the way social media currently works. Lanier goes further, predicting that if we don’t sort this out now, then climate change will not be solved, civilization will be destroyed, and “we don’t survive.”

It is with near-farcical bathos, then, that The Social Dilemma proceeds to its solutions. It tells us we need to realign financial incentives by, for example, taxing data collection; insist on no devices in the bedroom before bedtime; and never click on a “recommended video.” One former executive goes so far as to shrug that there’s little that can be done, as “the toothpaste is out of the tube.” Of all the talking heads, pleasantly prattling away about business models, only Zuboff comes close to the scale of the problem when she says that the market in data — “human futures” — should be abolished.

The emotional heart of this appeal is perhaps best expressed in Lanier’s claim that, every time things have changed for the better, it is because someone has said: “This is stupid, we can do better.” It is difficult to swallow the idea that this immortal legend really heralded the great emancipatory moments in history, from the abolition of slavery to votes for women. Nonetheless, as Lanier explains, he doesn’t want to hurt Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, or Snapchat. This is his world.

Few of the guests really want to do anything other than remedy what they see as a flawed “business model.” But what is the evidence that these companies can “do better”? They are doing exceedingly well. The documentary repeatedly hammers home how this industry has become the most profitable and politically salient in the world. And it is a rapidly evolving industry, learning new ways to game its laboratory subjects. Why would “realigning financial incentives” really deter them?

The Social Dilemma is a slick horror story with an improbable redemptive ending. It lacks the scruple or subtlety to ask how much of the horror emanates from society, rather than the machine. This is because the conversation is being led by liberals hurt by the social industry’s hugely profitable alliance with Trump and the Right — and all this, after Obama and Clinton were so nice to Silicon Valley. This, really, reflects the Left’s tardiness in engaging with this terrain.

The cyber-Marxist Nick Dyer-Witheford once remarked that all programs are political programs. Where is the communist program for the social industry?

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BCE says Bell group president Wade Oosterman to lead Bell Media starting next year – CTV News



BCE Inc. says Wade Oosterman, Bell group president and vice-chair, will assume operational leadership of Bell Media next year.

Oosterman will take on the responsibilities following the departure of Bell Media president Randy Lennox on Jan. 4.

BCE also said that Devorah Lithwick will become chief brand officer in January, as Oosterman who holds the title now focuses on his role at Bell Media.

BCE CEO Mirko Bibic called Lithwick, who has more than 25 years experience in Canadian brand development and marketing communications, an ideal choice to be chief brand officer.

Oosterman joined Bell in 2006 as president of Bell Mobility and chief brand officer.

He was promoted to president of mobility and residential services in 2010 and to group president in 2015.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2020

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Despite Media Attempts To Sow Fear, Signs Of Durable Growth Continue To Emerge – Forbes



Typically, the media gives scant attention to the Census Bureau’s monthly report on new capital goods orders. Their negligence is understandable. The subject seems arcane and lacks the attention-grabbing quality of news on jobs or real estate. Nonetheless, the oversight is unfortunate, for business decisions on new equipment tell of the economy’s future productive power and even more important, of the level of confidence among business decision makers, an especially sensitive matter after the shock of the pandemic. On both counts – spending and confidence – these recent figures put overall economic prospects into a positive light.

The Census Bureau release is remarkable in may respects. Orders for new capital equipment, after plunging in response to the lockdowns and quarantines of last spring, surged 20% in July and August, the most recent period for which data are available. Even abstracting from the budgeted jump in orders for defense-related equipment, civilian orders for new productive equipment rose 19% during these two months. That would amount to a 190% increase were it to persist for a year, an unprecedented jump by any comparison. The drop last spring was so precipitous that even this recent surge leaves such orders some 17% lower than a year ago, but at the recent rate of increase they should quickly erase that deficit.

To be sure, much of the swing involves orders for new commercial aircraft. For obvious reasons, these fell especially hard during last spring’s lockdowns and quarantines. Airline executives must have doubted that traffic would ever return or even whether their firms would survive. Certainly, they had no incentive to upgrade their existing fleets much less enlarge them. But that dreary sense began to lift as the lockdowns eased last June. Airline decision makers re-established formerly cancelled orders and actually added new contracts to the mix.

Abstracting from these swings in purchases by airlines, the pattern of new civilian capital goods orders looks tamer. They fell less during the anti-virus strictures and have come back less dramatically with the economy’s reopening. The Census bureau records that these orders rose 4.3% in July and August. Even this muted figure is impressive. It amounts to a 30% annual growth rate, still unprecedented and enough to all but erase the spring shortfall. Such orders for capital goods other than aircraft are only 1.4% below year ago levels. Though that improvement stands on its own, there is no reason to dismiss the surge in orders from airlines. After all, they constitute a spending flow into the economy and also signal an encouraging surge in the confidence among business decision makers. According to the Census Bureau, the recent overall upswing in non-defense capital goods orders has brought the monthly dollar flow for capital goods purchases to some $75 billion, almost $900 billion a year, about 4% of the whole economy.

Such a dollar commitment not only should lift the economic activity over time, but because it also speaks to high levels of confidence among business decision makers, it signals a widespread desire for expansion, which will create still more spending down the road by business. Because that expansion will also prompt hiring, it points to a rise in consumer spending as well. In other words, the pattern should build on itself. These decision makers could, of course, be wrong. They are not clairvoyant. But itself the willingness to spend and hire makes future growth more likely. It is a prophesy that is to a high degree self fulfilling, making these data extremely encouraging about overall growth prospects.

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China accuses Canada of condoning media criticism of Hong Kong comments – Global News



China said Monday that it has complained to Canada for allegedly condoning anti-China comments that appeared in Canadian media following controversial remarks made by the Chinese ambassador.

Ties between the countries are at their lowest point in years amid China’s outrage over Canada’s detention of a top executive of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. Last week, China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, branded pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as violent criminals and said if Canada grants them asylum it would amount to interference in China’s internal affairs.

“If the Canadian side really cares about the stability and the prosperity in Hong Kong, and really cares about the good health and safety of those 300,000 Canadian passport-holders in Hong Kong, and the large number of Canadian companies operating in Hong Kong SAR, you should support those efforts to fight violent crimes,” Cong said in a video news conference from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa.

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Read more:
China denies Canadians ‘arbitrarily’ detained in response to Meng Wanzhou arrest

Cong was asked whether his remarks amounted to a threat, to which he replied, “That is your interpretation.”

On Saturday, the Toronto Sun published an editorial calling on Cong to either apologize or leave Canada. “It’s not enough for the Trudeau government to publicly scold Cong,” the paper said. “If he won’t apologize and retract his threats, boot him back to Beijing.”

Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group that advocates for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, called Cong’s comment a “direct threat” to all Canadians.

“It should not be lost on Canadians living in Hong Kong or China, they could be next. Ambassador Cong suggested so himself,” Wong said.

Click to play video 'China lodges complaint with Canada over Trudeau’s remarks on Hong Kong, Xinjiang'

China lodges complaint with Canada over Trudeau’s remarks on Hong Kong, Xinjiang

China lodges complaint with Canada over Trudeau’s remarks on Hong Kong, Xinjiang

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did not identify specific comments that he said resulted from a deliberate misinterpretation of Cong’s remarks, but said Canadian leaders “did not verify, but also condoned the anti-China comments spreading across the nation and made groundless accusations against China.”

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“We express strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to it and have lodged solemn complaints with the Canadian side,” Zhao told reporters Monday at a daily briefing.

Protests against the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments swelled last year, and Beijing clamped down on expressions of anti-government sentiment in the city with a new national security law that took effect June 30.

Click to play video 'Trudeau condemns China’s diplomatic approach, says it shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘successful tactic’'

Trudeau condemns China’s diplomatic approach, says it shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘successful tactic’

Trudeau condemns China’s diplomatic approach, says it shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘successful tactic’

The law outlaws subversive, secessionist and terrorist activity, as well as collusion with foreign powers to interfere in the city’s internal affairs. The U.S., Britain and Canada accuse China of infringing on the city’s freedoms.

Cong also flatly rejected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that China is engaging in coercive diplomacy by imprisoning two Canadian men in retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese Huawei executive on an American extradition warrant. The executive, Meng Wanzhou, is living under house arrest in Vancouver while her case wends through a British Columbia court.

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In December 2018, China imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and charged them with undermining China’s national security. Convicted Canadian drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg was also sentenced to death in a sudden retrial shortly after Meng’s arrest.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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