Social Media, Tech

Social Media: The Case for Deactivation

In 2017, an article sub-titled “The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel” appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I found it scientifically rigorous and persuasive, and so, not wanting to feel worse, I deactivated my Facebook account. But then in the months that followed, I found scientific arguments that seemingly come to the opposite conclusion, namely, that social media are good for you. It turns out that I had only scratched the surface of a mountain of writing on this topic. So which is it? Should I re-activate my Facebook account? Should you deactivate yours?

To answer these questions, we need a common currency for measuring the costs and benefits of using Facebook, and other major social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Surprisingly, perhaps, the mountain of articles on this topic doesn’t yet include this kind of systematic cost-benefit analysis. One of my goals here is to provide one. Drawing on the last two decades of scientific research, I’ll show that major social media platforms do more harm than good, thereby increasing the incidences of psychological disorders.

This gives most of us (not all!) a selfish reason to deactivate our accounts. But it also contributes to a moral case for deactivation. The major social media platforms ‘hijack’ their users’ minds, causing users to check compulsively for updates and prolonging their newsfeed scrolls. When we use a social media platform, we therefore contribute to our friends’ harmful cravings.

Finally, by deactivating our accounts, we can ‘vote’ with our time and attention, just as other consumers ‘vote’ with their wallets. If we deactivate our accounts for ethical reasons, and turn our attention elsewhere, we diminish the profitability of the unethical design features, such as the like button and the newsfeed, and incentivize their reform or removal.

In the wake of revelations that Facebook unethically allowed user data to fall into the hands of strategists working on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the chorus calling on social media to reform themselves—or for government to regulate them—has been growing. While this is a welcome development, the proposals currently being canvassed are narrowly focused on privacy and do not address social media’s role in diminishing our mental health and well-being. My focus here will be on the latter problems, not because I see them as more important, but because their seriousness has so far been obscured by the notion that by ‘bringing us together’ social media compensate for their harms. I see these two calls for change—based on privacy and mental health—as mutually supporting.

Social Media Reduce Subjective Well-being

The most studied and significant of social media’s negative psychological effects is their eliciting negative interpersonal comparisons and envy in users. A typical newsfeed depicts various friends having non-stop fun, achieving ever greater levels of success, and looking surprisingly attractive (often in filtered pictures). The user sees these ‘highlight reels’ of others’ lives on social media, compares them to her own imperfect real life, and when she fails to measure up, feels worse. Of course, many of us also use face-to-face communication to portray ourselves positively. But we don’t do so to the same degree. In online contexts, we have more control over how we are perceived, and therefore more and better opportunities to self-promote. Some users irresponsibly abuse these opportunities. Many more, I prefer to assume, understandably fail to foresee the aggregate effects of many individually reasonable self-promoting posts.

Social media are harmful in at least one other way. In a 2014 paper, psychologists Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer found that people instructed to actively use Facebook were less likely to characterize their time as having been spent meaningfully than were groups instructed to browse the internet or given no instructions on how to spend their time.1 This worsened the Facebook users’ moods as compared to the two control groups.

Those are the psychological downsides of social media. There’s a big upside too, though: social media improve the average user’s social life, strengthening bonds between both friends and acquaintances.2 They do so by lowering the costs of interaction across distances and by ‘nudging’ users to be more social.

So, social media bring with them psychological benefits and harms. To compare the two, we need to be able to appraise them in a common currency, one whose pursuit is central to living well. Since the 1960s, psychologists have been developing concepts of happiness that ground just this kind of measurement and comparison.

The aspect of happiness that has received the most attention in this research is called ‘avowed happiness’ or ‘subjective well-being.’ This refers to the subject’s own assessment of how well they’re doing. It measures how good their life or mood seems to them.

There are two major, relatively independent categories of subjective well-being: mood (sometimes referred to as ‘affective well-being’) and life satisfaction. Mood has to do with the constant flow of positive and negative emotions and feelings. An influential article characterizes affective well-being as “the extent to which a person feels enthusiastic, active, and alert” as opposed to angry, contemptuous, disgusted, guilty, scared, and nervous. Life satisfaction, by contrast, has to do with how well people believe their lives on the whole to be going.

Imagine forgetting your cares and cutting loose at a party despite knowing that your life, on the whole, isn’t going well. This is high affective well-being and low life satisfaction. Or imagine sitting in traffic, getting irritated and hostile, though you know that your life is going well. This is high life satisfaction and low affective well-being. Both kinds of subjective well-being are good in and of themselves and yield benefits like longevity and protection against disorders.

The preponderance of the evidence indicates that social media make us subjectively worse off in both senses. On the whole, there are more and methodologically stronger studies supporting this conclusion than its denial. For example, the paper by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis—the one that convinced me to deactivate my Facebook account—is significantly more rigorous than any other study on social media and well-being to date. In the study, Shakya and Christakis asked a group of Facebook users to report on their sense of mental well-being and life satisfaction once a year for three years. After controlling for income, education, age, sex, marital status, race, and offline relationships, they found that after a typical user increases their Facebook usage over the course of a year, they consider themselves worse off in both senses. This study has a large sample size, relies on actual records of social media usage rather than user reports, tracks changes in well-being over time (it’s ‘longitudinal’), and tracks these changes over a long period of time. None of the studies associating social media with increased well-being can boast all of these crucial virtues.

Perhaps more importantly, findings of a positive association between social media and well-being really link specific uses of social media to increased well-being. The research indicates that tailored and targeted communication is generally beneficial while posts broadcast to one’s entire network, liking, and following links are harmful. That there are some beneficial uses doesn’t tell us much about whether social media are themselves beneficial. By analogy, if we were to find that it’s healthy to consume a miniscule amount of refined sugar under certain specific conditions, we wouldn’t conclude that people should stock up on M&Ms and rely on their willpower to eat the right amount of them in the right way. We know that many people give in to temptation when M&Ms are too available. The problem, then, is that social media users probably can’t just choose to avoid social media activities they know to be harmful; I’ll return to this point.

But maybe quitting major social media platforms altogether would be isolating to a significantly greater degree than any mere decrease in usage. And so maybe we shouldn’t deactivate our accounts.

The evidence directly addressing this possibility favors deactivation, although it’s a bit more conflicting. There are two relevant studies. In one of them, by Morten Tromholt, a group who quit Facebook for a week reported significantly better mental health and well-being than a control group who continued to use the platform.3 But in another recent study, by Eric Vanman and colleagues, a group who quit Facebook for five days reported lower life satisfaction—but also lower cortisol levels (which are an indicator of stress) and more time devoted to face-to-face interaction.4

What should we make of these conflicting results? I think the Tromholt study commands higher credence both for methodological reasons (larger sample size, longer interval between measurements) and because it better coheres with the research on social media’s negative overall effects on well-being. Furthermore, if we’re going to apply Vanman and colleagues’ life satisfaction results to the decision about deactivation, then we should also apply their finding that social media increase stress. Given this finding, and the serious long-term consequences of stress, Vanman and colleagues conclude that “[t]aking short breaks from Facebook could be beneficial to one’s health, as any prolonged stress could contribute to mental and physical disorders.”5

Social media’s effects on well-being and stress levels are especially alarming in light of their associations with psychological disorders like depression, insomnia, and anxiety disorders. As psychologist Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers states in her review of the scientific literature on the subject, “a majority of studies seem to provide evidence” that Facebook is associated with depression.6

How Social Media’s Mental Hijacking Will Prevent Users From Making Better Choices

I can imagine a proponent of social media responding: “We know which activities are beneficial and which are harmful, so it’s up to users to choose the former and avoid the latter. To blame social media for their users’ reductions in well-being would be like blaming the phone when someone gets an upsetting call.”

I think this response reflects a naïve understanding of behavior and of social media. The major social media platforms are designed to condition their users to spend more time on them. They are perfecting this conditioning process internally, in their own research departments, while receiving contributions from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, which aims to understand how to “change people’s beliefs and behaviors” through “computing products.” As a result of this research, to quote Tristan Harris, the smartphone is “possibly the largest source of influence over 2 billion people’s thoughts that has ever been created.”

As profit-seeking corporations, social media platforms have been changing our behavior in ways that maximize their profits. And this means getting and keeping our attention, whether we want to give it or not. The more attention a social media platform gets, the more advertising revenue it will receive.

Social media condition us to devote our attention to them by channeling the chemical signals of social approval and entertainment (dopamine) into the region of the brain responsible for cravings and addiction (the nucleus accumbens). Initially, some messages, likes, or interesting newsfeed content cause a pleasurable dopamine release. After enough such pleasurable experiences, the brain associates them with the look of the newsfeed or sound of a notification. At this point, the sight of a newsfeed or sound of a notification will release dopamine in anticipation of the associated pleasurable experience. This anticipatory release grounds a craving for the actual reward and typically initiates the bodily movements involved in seeking it—in this case, swiping one’s finger to scroll through the newsfeed or checking one’s notifications.

Now acquiring a craving through this kind of dopamine feedback loop isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our distant ancestors evolved the craving system to calibrate the strength of certain urges with their contributions to survival and reproduction. Thus, the typical Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would have enjoyed reasonable cravings for fresh, whole fruit, which contained a healthy balance of unrefined sugar and fiber. We can contrast these kinds of natural cravings with artificial cravings. This is the kind of craving that results when one person, A, hijacks the process in another, B, by aligning B’s dopamine releases to A’s interests. This is precisely social media’s business model. Another aspect of artificial cravings is that the hijacker ramps up the dopamine release to unnaturally high levels or times them to unnaturally effective intervals. Zeroing in on the most effective such interval is one way to “change belief and behavior” through “computing products.” Think of how the like button caused notifications to occur far more frequently than would feelings of social approval in any natural setting.

I fear that social media’s mental hijacking will persistently thwart users’ informed choices about best uses of the media. That is, I would wager that most users will sooner or later succumb to psychologically harmful cravings, such as to scroll through their newsfeeds. It’s a sad fact that, in general, artificial cravings—for gambling, junk food, drugs, and pornography, e.g.—are formidable. Too many people indulge them to the point of serious self-harm. Maybe social media-related cravings will turn out to be more manageable; I hope they will. For now, those who assume as much again assume the burden of scientific proof.

Technologically speaking, social media could steer their users’ hijacked minds towards the known beneficial functions and away from the harmful ones. I fear that, financially speaking, they won’t. Or at least, not without concerted pressure from consumers or government regulation. As Shakya and Christakis have shown, liking is highly psychologically harmful and can’t be justified by appeal to bringing people together—early studies conducted before the introduction of the like button already detected social media’s positive effects on relationships. But the like button gives the owners of social media platforms an endless supply of irresistible ‘ding!’s going straight to users’ nucleus accumbens. Until a consumer movement makes this and other functions less profitable than beneficial alternatives, social media will continue to diminish their users’ well-being.

Deactivation

So what should we do about the harms of social media? Some of us might be in a position to help The Center for Humane Technology, a consumer advocacy group dedicated to freeing our minds from the control of social media apps. An important part of their strategy is to pressure Apple, Microsoft, and Google to develop operating systems that give users more defenses against social media’s mental hijacking. But this hoped-for, large-scale change in computer operating systems may be a long way away. What should we do in the meantime?

We can do our best to be better social media users. The Center for Humane Technology also has several suggestions on how to do so. But our vulnerability to mental hijacking makes it unwise to rely on this strategy alone. Even if we managed to limit ourselves to the beneficial kinds of communication, we would still be helping social media instill cravings in our friends. When we write on a friend’s timeline, for example, we might make them feel supported and connected to us. But we might also send their nucleus accumbens a habit-reinforcing shot of dopamine, thus keeping them hooked on their psychologically harmful newsfeed.

Many of us therefore have good reason to deactivate. By deactivating, we escape the harms of social media, inflict fewer of these harms on our friends, and stop contributing to social media platforms’ mental hijacking of our friends.

Deactivation may also pressure social media companies into ethical reforms. If the harmful features of major social media platforms cost them enough users, and therefore enough profit, they will be forced to re-think their inclusion of these harmful features. To be successful, therefore, deactivation must be part of ‘a cultural awakening,’ with a clearly articulated basis in morality and public health.

I’ve been careful to say that “most” of us should deactivate. There may be some people who shouldn’t. For example, it may be that social media provide a helpful alternative to face-to-face interaction for those with high social anxiety.7 Some people who use social media for special political or artistic purposes might find meaning in doing so.

What I am claiming is that for a large majority, deactivation is the psychologically and ethically safe bet.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Madeline Comeau, Anthony Cross, Felipe Dias, Bob Fischer, Corbett Hancey, Stephen Makin, Alan Surovell, and Rhonda Watson for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this essay.

 

Jonathan Reid Surovell is a lecturer in philosophy at Texas State University, San Marcos. His publications span ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of science, and are available on his personal website.

References:

1 C. Sagioglou and T. Greitemeyer, “Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it,” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 35, pp. 359-363, 2014. Doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.003
2 C. Qilin, Y. Lu, D. Dong, Z. Tang and L. Yongqiang, “The Roles of Bridging and Bonding in Social Media Communities,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, vol. 64, no. 8, pp. 1671-1681, 2013. Doi: 10.1002/asi.22866
3 M. Tromholt, “The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 19, no. 11, pp. 661-666, 2016. Doi: 10.1089/cyber.2016.0259
4 E. Vanman, R. Baker and S. Tobin, “The Burden of Online Friends: The Effects of Giving Up Facebook on Stress and Well-Being,” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. Published online, 2018. Doi: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1453467
5 Vanman and Colleagues, 2018.
6 M.-L. N. Steers, “‘It’s Complicated’: Facebook’s relationship with the need to belong and depression,” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 9, pp. 22-26, 2016. Doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.10.007
7 M. Indian and R. Grieve, “When Facebook is Easier Than Face-to-Face: Social Support Derived from Facebook in Socially Anxious Individuals,” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 59, pp. 102-106, 2014. Doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.11.016

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16 Comments

  1. Benjamin Perez says

    I used to think that social media was barely either (the shallowest manifestation of the former utilizing—“consuming”—the lowest materializations of the latter)—but now I’m pretty sure that the latter actually comes at the expense of the former; that it’s really the former that’s being consumed (digested, decomposed) by the latter. In the end, there might only be media; at the end, even worse.

  2. Emanuel Nazareth says

    Is there a better-designed (from a health perspective) alternative to Facebook? It sounds like now is the time.

  3. Mike C says

    I bailed when you mentioned Trump. Facebook let the DNC scrape huge amounts of information from their social graph. There’s little reason to think the Facebook somehow gave an advantage to the GOP in 2016.

    • Brennen says

      I really don’t think the author was attempting to politicize anything. It’s unfortunate you quit reading the article for this reason. It was quite worth the read and this was the only point in the article where anything could be construed politically one way or another.

      I’m sure the author would concede your point anyway.

  4. J. H. McD says

    This is one of the best articles yet to appear in Quillette. Hard to judge, but pretty much a tie between this and the pieces by Preston Stovall.

  5. Alex Russell says

    Using social media and smart-phones in a healthy manner are now things parents have to teach their children, like looking both ways before crossing the street. As is true for many things, moderation is very important.

  6. ga gamba says

    In the wake of revelations that Facebook unethically allowed user data to fall into the hands of strategists working on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the chorus calling on social media to reform themselves—or for government to regulate them—has been growing. While this is a welcome development… […]

    What I am claiming is that for a large majority, deactivation is the psychologically and ethically safe bet.

    Did wastebook behave unethically? Or, have a lot of people jumped on a bandwagon of a sexed-up report by the Guardian and others?

    Firstly, my disclosure: until just a few weeks ago I was not a Facebook user. In the wake of many people deleting their accounts I joined. At the very least I expect to find fewer people I dislike on the platform. Yippee.

    I joined knowing Facebook is not a privacy platform. It’s neither your financial info at the bank nor your medical info held by your doctor and insurer. The platform is for a person to be a public persona – the key word is public. It’s about ‘being your own brand’. Facebook gave the user the power to be a publisher and broadcaster, and it offered the user greater control of his/her message than ever offered by legacy media which could recontextualise a quote. Still, it seems to astonish people when they that by learn putting their personal info on virtual billboard they have shared it with the world.

    The TOS, which I suspect many people didn’t read, explained (in legalese) how one’s information would be collected and used. By becoming a public persona people chose to join the status of public figures such as politicians, business leaders, celebrities, and journalists. Their loss of privacy was ‘the price of fame’, which is one of the reasons public figures don’t have the same level of legal protection when defamed. Further, given the number of tour buses in the road and maps to the homes of Hollywood stars sold, public figures aren’t protected from doxxing either. Into the public realm private individuals, the once voiceless masses, entered.

    By trading one’s privacy one gains the infrastructure of hardware servers, switches, routers, and firewalls, chilly data centres with halon gas fire-suppression systems, unlimited bandwidth, and no-cost-to-you electricity to run it; a team of administrators and developers who allow you to upload your data, store it, back it up, and provide an ever growing assortment of tools to interface with it; highly reliable 24 x 7 x 365 accessibility; a worldwide directory (now with over two billion accounts) making it easy to find people and services, host events; a way to promote oneself and one’s products and services, and to disseminate one’s opinions; a messenger service providing free international telephony-like service to other Facebook users; single sign-on authentication to hundreds of websites thereby reducing the need to create unique user accounts and manage that; and if you happen to live in the third world where Facebook Basics is offered, one receives Internet.org access on their mobile at little to no cost. Many in the developing world don’t have mobile service data plans common to consumers in the developed world, rather low-income consumers prepay for limited-duration service on a daily or weekly basis, so Facebook partnered with local telcos to reduce or waive this fee.

    For all of this your cost is zero your currency. Has anyone costed how much s/he would have to pay to duplicate this? We have to acknowledge it would be impossible to attain such a bundle of integrated services from the convenience of one provider, and even by purchasing them from the variety of alternatives one doesn’t get a comparable directory. Economies of scale allow Facebook to distribute these costs amongst its enormous user community, and for this investment Facebook earns a bit more than $20 per user on average, www(dot)statista(dot) com/statistics/234056/facebooks-average-advertising-revenue-per-user/. So, is it worth the trade?

    Legacy media was an early evangeliser of Facebook when it ceased being restricted to .edu users in 2006. One need only recall that many centre-left and left-wing media outlets celebrated the ‘Facebook revolution’ that helped bring about 2010’s Arab Spring. For it, Facebook offered a way for readers to share links to articles to their friends thereby enlarging the readership and the potential to increase advert revenue. At no cost to themselves Facebook not only allowed media to promote their news and their brands, many media outlets partnered with Facebook to allow single sign-on which eliminated some of their web hosting costs associated with readers’ comments. Media could still engage with readers, but now at a lower cost. Using third party tools such as adblockers, a user will find embedded on each webpage Facebook tracking tools that allow both Facebook and the legacy media sites to collect user information to determine ways to engage and deepen relationships with readers.

    The 2012 Obama re-election campaign further demonstrated Facebook’s power by influencing the election. Time magazine reported:

    … the Obama team had a solution in place: a Facebook application that will transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future. […] That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. […] the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button. More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind.

    MIT’s Technology Review reported:

    the [Obama] campaign should be able to create tools that prompt supporters to approach voting-age friends in swing states and craft personalized appeals based on what the campaign can infer about those friends’ interests and views […] the permission screen that comes with the app makes clear that it has another purpose as well. When I installed the app, I noticed that it said it would grab information about my friends: their birth dates, locations, and “likes.”

    Even the 2016 Clinton campaign got in on the action, reported Politico.

    … Hillary Clinton’s campaign has recreated it [Obama’s app], allowing her volunteers to contact vast numbers of people they know on the social network — and giving her what her backers consider a key advantage over Donald Trump just weeks before the election. […] Facebook had no comment on the Clinton campaign’s tactic, which relies on specific features in how the company’s iPhone apps interact with users’ contact lists. […] In contrast, Trump’s campaign app offers only rudimentary tools for supporters… […] The Clinton app prompts users to pick a friend and ask them via scripted text message to give money, join the mailing list, or go knock on doors and ask for votes on Clinton’s behalf.

    Clearly, Facebook users were offering their friends (and their data) to the campaign. They were consenting on the behalf of others, which isn’t how consent works. Accessing this data, the campaign performed analysis to determine which messages would be most effective, scripted those, and asked the Facebook user to ‘send’ them on behalf of the campaign.

    So, what caused legacy leftwing media to sour on Facebook? Certainly Trump’s improbable victory caused it to panic and search for anything to blame. The centres of cultural capital such as Hollywood, journalism, and the academe had gone all in for Clinton, and here was ‘stupid’ Trump using the same social media tools of Facebook and Twitter only more effectively. Trump spent about half of the Clinton campaign, yet he was able to overcome the stacked deck in her favour. Legacy media’s dominance of sense making to the public was gone. It must’ve been a king-and-his-clothes moment for the chattering class. In repsonse, anything Trump had done must not be ‘normalised’, and legacy media enjoyed an upswing in subscriptions, the ‘Trump Bump’, www(dot)reuters(dot)com/article/us-newspapers-trump-campaigns-analysis/newspapers-aim-to-ride-trump-bump-to-reach-readers-advertisers-idUSKBN15V0GI. Still, despite the bump in subscribers, newspapers still are facing major headwinds, said newspaper analyst Ken Doctor. “Print advertising is in free fall,” Doctor said. “The fundamentals haven’t changed.”

    As Facebook’s user community and influence grew, so did its ability to pull adverts away from legacy media to itself, www(dot)statista(dot)com/statistics/271258/facebooks-advertising-revenue-worldwide/. Today, Facebook and Google take almost 75% on online advert revenue in the US, www(dot)cnbc(dot)com/2017/12/20/google-facebook-digital-ad-marketshare-growth-pivotal.html. More worrisome to news publishers, Facebook and Google control 83% of all digital advertising growth – legacy media is being abandoned. Using the same tactics as Obama, Clinton, and Trump, online advertisers, be they for candidates or tinned tuna, may craft more persuasive targeted messages using social media apps and analytics than what legacy media offers them.

    Rightwing media had earlier soured on Facebook due to its ‘suppressing’ of conservative news, www(dot)gizmodo(dot))com/former-facebook-workers-we-routinely-suppressed-conser-1775461006, and the perception rightwing users were targeted for account suspension and banning.

    Facebook is the victim of its own success and the inability of Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to explain clearly that the company’s service is for establishing and maintaining a public persona. Further, both have repeatedly capitulated to critics complaining about the social aspects of socal media. Often the best answer is no, yet neither leader says this. When conservatives were upset by female nipples, policies were enacted that later offended those who wanted to post photos of Napalm Girl, nursing mums, and ‘Slut Walks’. To deal with online harassment and phony accounts, those accused were required to provide proof of identity; this later outraged trans people (and their progressive allies) whose IDs still used their ‘dead names’. To address demands for more privacy, configuration settings were updated to that end, yet more than 70% of users never touch them. Governmental entities, political parties, and legislators maintain Facebook profiles whilst enacting legislation to restrict it in ways to harm their political opponents and restrict personal freedoms. It’s accused of violating children’s privacy because parents upload photos and tag them with identification information. The idea of launching a fee-based option where user data is never released to others is shouted down as ‘favouring the rich’. The company faces deranged demands by some users to pay them for selling their data to advertisers, and many want it to provide the same level of data privacy provided by financial institutions. “Allow me to reap the benefits of (free) publicity, but keep my info strictly confidential” contradicts Facebook’s raison d’etre. You want privacy? Facebook is the wrong place.

    The company has appeased moochers and moaners for far too long. It ought to start deleting accounts of its critics, beginning with journalists and politicians, and sever relationships (single sign-on and collaborative analytics) with those media organisations that are its most vocal opponents. Better to have fewer users who appreciate, or at least understand, the arrangement than many more who resent it.

    • Nate D. says

      I agree. I’ve always seen Facebook as one sees a bank or credit union. You give a credit union your money, they use it for their profit while providing you a service. Facebook uses your data for profit while providing you with a social/journaling tool. Expecting them to provide that service while also expecting them to keep their hands off your data is like expecting a bank to stick your cash under a mattress in a back room. Naive.

  7. It’s too bad that my brief aside on the Cambridge Analytica situation has drawn a disproportionate number of responses. It’s too bad because it really is an aside that plays no role in my case for deactivation. In fact, I see my premises as independent of the various political persuasions or tribes. We all—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens—value mental health and well-being, and that’s what my argument appeals to.

    (So, Ga Gamba, when, at the beginning of your comment, you present this aside as if it were a premise for my conclusion that deactivation is the ethically safer bet, you misrepresent my argument.)

    One point of the aside about Cambridge Analytica was to distinguish my case for deactivation from the privacy-based case that others have made. As I point out, the reforms proposed to address privacy issues won’t change social media’s negative effects on mental health and well-being. Moreover, some social media, like Messenger, are fine from a mental health perspective but would be opposed by advocates of privacy-based reform.

    Another point of the aside was to propose a kind of alliance between the movements for reform, i.e., the mental health-based and the privacy based. If you reject the privacy-based movement, you’re still welcome in the mental health-based movement! We don’t require that you have any particular view about Facebook’s policies on privacy.

    But, whether it plays a role in my argument or not, I did claim in my aside that Facebook behaved unethically in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Ga Gamba denies that its behavior was unethical and I take it Nate D. does too. While I think they raise a powerful challenge to privacy-based critiques of social media, I’m not persuaded. Facebook’s terms of services don’t, in my view, give it carte blanche to share user data in just any way. For one thing, there are legitimate questions about the adequacy of the wording of these terms. In his exchange with Zuckerberg, Senator Lindsey Graham raised such questions.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/04/10/transcript-of-mark-zuckerbergs-senate-hearing/?utm_term=.ee689dd66f66

    More importantly, in my view, there are many applications of the terms of service that a reasonable user can’t be expected to anticipate and when such an application arises, I think the ethical thing for Facebook to do is to either inform users of it or put the kabosh on it. In general, it’s unethical to exploit consumers’ lack of fluency with legalese and their apathy towards terms of service–even if consumers should be less apathetic.

    In any case, the privacy questions are big and complex, and I wouldn’t want to try to sort them out in these comments; they deserve a full essay. So I will conclude by re-iterating that our reasonable disagreement over the ethics of privacy on social media shouldn’t prevent our agreeing about social media’s psychological harms to its users or, therefore, about the ethical grounds for deactivation.

    • Nate D. says

      Jonathan,

      The mention of Cambridge Analytica was necessary to your point in bringing into question the role and responsibility of social media within a society; especially one whose very democratic process can be swayed by so powerful a tool. It behooves us to discuss it. It is a shame that people will turn you off for the mere mention of an important point – which is exactly the kind of behavior Quillette champions against.

      I do feel my point about trading personal data for a service needs clarification. I believe that trading data for a service is a fair and ethical trade. I’ll tell Facebook my age, education level, hobbies, reading preferences, and political leanings (which they can sell to companies who want to target their ads at people of my ilk) in exchange for an application that allows me to communicate with my family overseas and store/catalog/share photos of my goings-on.

      Having this understanding allowed me to be less surprised by what has unfolded. Only the naive were shocked that Facebook had this data and used it for monetary gain. Facebook can still act unethically with the data they’ve been given, just as a credit union can behave unethically with the money I’ve deposited at their establishment. There is no carte blanche blessing here. Only an awareness that data is the currency that social media peddles.

      The question at the center of this debate (among others) is: what is the ethical use of data? Where are the lines of personal privacy, and how can we respect these while keeping the system viable? …which is why your mention of Cambridge Analytical was apropos.

      (Great article, by the way. I stopped using Facebook about 3 months ago, though I did not deactivate my account because I use Messenger to communicate with family overseas.)

    • Hey Jono–great article. It’s good to see this kind of research being drawn together in the interest of reflecting on the social significance of new media, and proposing changes for how we relate to one another via new media.

      As for the concern about Cambridge Analytica, my sense is that the outrage on the right about the outrage on the left comes from a recognition of the fact that when this kind of politically-oriented data-mining was being done by the democrats (e.g. during Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012), there seemed to be no problem. Indeed, as the ga gamba notes, this kind of tactic appears to have been praised by the scions of the liberal elite when it was leveraged by the left. So what’s the difference that makes a difference when it’s done by the right? And let’s not forget that one thing that came out of the wikileaks dump was that the Democratic National Committee, under two different chairwomen, colluded with major media organizations to secure Clinton the nomination over Sanders. Finally, revelations that conservative viewpoints are reguarly suppressed by Facebook make it seem, to many conservatives, like the whole thing is rigged.

      Anyway my sense is that this apparent hypocrisy, together with a suspicion that the ‘Russia collusion’ story has morphed into a muck-raking campaign, is what’s really driving a lot of the conservative animus against the Cambridge Analytica blowback. Of course, the Republican establishment’s zeal to impeach Bill Clinton over the Lewisnky debacle makes the charge of ‘hypocrisy’ look a bit, well, hypocritical when coming from American conservatives today. None of this stuff is clear-cut, of course, but I think we’re better off if we try to speak to the middle and open up more pathways toward mutual understanding, particularly in the face of the kind of divisive and mentally unhealthy tendencies you’re calling attention to in this article. So keep on keeping on!

  8. Preston,

    It’s good to hear from you. And thanks for the positive review!

    I think your diagnosis of the right’s sensitivity about Cambridge Analytica is probably largely right. I would speculate that the right hasn’t got this entirely right, though (which is not to say they’re entirely wrong). It seems to me that a further, and perhaps more significant reason why Cambridge Analytica has gotten such a different reaction than similar activities by Obama’s 2012 campaign is that Cambridge Analytica involves Trump specifically (not just the right generally). Trump is an unprecedented magnet for media attention and outrage. Would Romney have aroused nearly as much outrage in 2012 as Trump/Cambridge Analytica have just now? Would he have aroused more than Obama? How much more? I’m inclined to think the answers are: no, yes, and we don’t know, but I doubt anyone can be too confident about such hypotheticals. Either way, this point I’m making about the role of the Trump phenomenon is consistent with the right’s *seeing* this as a purely/mostly left-right thing, and being sensitized based on that perception.

    I also think your account grounds a legitimate critique of much of the outrage surrounding Cambridge Analytica. In the present context, I think we’re also seeing the sensitivity you analyze connecting to a bug of human nature, and not just of the right. The problem, I think, is that when one discusses a misdeed of kind K committed by side x, without adding that side y is also guilty of K-misdeeds, then x-partisans leap to the conclusion that the author ignored y’s misdeeds out of partisanship, hypocrisy, or what have you. (x-partisans’ brains also short circuit, so that they miss the point of the author’s discussion of x’s K-misdeed.)

    This is, of course, an uncharitable inference. (Lack of charity in a comments section??? Gasp!) But to accede to it and put my cards on the table: my understanding is that the 2012 Obama campaign’s acquisition of Facebook data was as unethical as Cambridge Analytica’s in 2016. The paragraph in my article devoted to privacy concerns addresses the one but not the other because it’s about the etiology of the #DeleteFacebook movement and the recent concerns about online privacy, not American party politics or the ethics of data and privacy. Causal responsibility for the existence of #DeleteFacebook is a pretty simple, straightforward matter. But I was naive to focus on what was relevant to the etiological question while failing to anticipate the uncharitable inference I just described.

    So yes, I’m for speaking to the middle. And also for being sensitive to readers’ cognitive biases!

    Nate D.,

    I don’t take my argument to rest on a view about “the role and responsibility of social media within a society.” I see my argument as relying only on the idea that individuals–specifically, social media users–have reason not to harm themselves or to contribute to others’ cravings for harmful things. But maybe I can be convinced. I agree with everything else you say and thank you for your kind words.

    • On further thought, I think it might be worth adding that the “uncharitable inference” I described in my previous comment probably leads to true conclusions in many cases. But I like to think it doesn’t in this case, and therefore inhibits the kind of mutual understanding you rightly say we should strive for.

  9. Jared Stuart says

    I agree. In the last five years I’ve had a total of seven Facebook accounts. Each time I felt like I was spending too much time on social media, I deleted my account, but somehow created new ones. To me, using Facebook can easily become a replacement for building real relationships with genuine individuals. Obviously, it can be utilized to facilitate organizational details of a social life, but it winds up risky in the quest for virtual friends. For example, I have a total of 1,367 Facebook friends, many of whom I’ve never seen before. Yet it gobbles up the time that ought to be utilized to nurture 8 good friendships that will last or in a more profitable way. Social media has drastically changed our lives. These platforms offer many advantages but also have some downsides.

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