The wish that Facebook did not exist may have achieved some level of popularity among social thinkers, who associate it with the recrudescence of hate and mental health disorders of adolescents In his 1922 book (Wikipedia) Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann anticipated some of this, by description of how public opinion is formed. Read the Wiki; I vouch for the accuracy.
Lippmann’s description is intricate. Since you’re going to read the Wiki, and hopefully the book, what follows is guiltless simplification. Each of us understands a tiny bit of the world. To form our opinions about the greater world, we rely on a hierarchic structure of increasing expertise. Your opinions, and mine, are to a greater or lesser extent reliant on a chain of trust relationships.
At some point, perhaps in the lead-up to World War I, Lippmann divested the idea of pure democracy, replacing it with “engineered” public opinion. It was his solution, which he saw as extant practice, to what he described as the inability of the voter to understand more than a small piece of the world, and therefore a good thing.
It is surprising that Lippmann’s reputation could survive repudiation of the myth of democracy. But in 1922, censorship and segregation were institutions even in D.C. Free speech had been abridged for two years by the Sedition Act of 1918. J. Edgar Hoover was just beginning his assault on freedom. Perhaps Lippmann’s rep survived because he never attacked the institution of democracy, but only the way it works.
A century later, we might take a fresh look at Public Opinion. We might consider validity of the myth of how democracy works less important than preservation of the institution. We are preceded by Winston Churchill, who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
We begin with reality of the group mind, not as the helpful superintelligence of (Wikipedia) collective consciousness, but of the atavistic human, the crowd run amok, the groupthink of hatred, of awakening the Beast in Five Million Years to Earth.
Unless you have the gift of natural nobility, it takes conscious effort to free yourself from the Beast, while developing the capacity to interact in a positive way. Some people finish thoroughly socialized, while other acquire just the veneer. Though teens are in delicate flux, many adults come undone. The evil peer, and groups of such, are just a click away. There have always been group minds; Facebook is the first network cyborg, melding millions of minds by digital agency.
In 1942, Isaac Asimov anticipated a related trouble with the Three Laws of Robotics. But this was not anticipated: a cyborg of which we are the atomic parts. We had in mind Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, which could be retitled, “Hey Alexa!” Our predictions missed because in the old days, a computer was completely passive until you toggled a program, and hit the run button. Today, Facebook pushes your buttons, as you unknowingly contribute your synapses to the group mind.
All this came about with abandonment of Lippmann’s hierarchy of influencers. Now the world is full of lateral connections. Instead of asking someone who you think knows more than you, you ask someone who thinks like you. And he asks you; you ask”them”, they say to him…ad infinitum.
Facebook is a distributed computing entity with biologic and nonbiologic elements. If it were my machine, I’d pull the plug, wipe the disks, and take care there isn’t a hidden virus to resuscitate the monster on the next power-up. The murderous computer: Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey – Deactivation of Hal 9000.
Not likely; the mighty cyborg that is Facebook will break Asimov’s Laws to prevent it. So what else can we do? The amplification algorithm can be changed:
- Amplification can be reduced by negative feedback.
- The product of amplification can be softened by substituting from increasingly distant friends.
- The output of the amplification algorithm can have random substitutions.
- AI can drastically tighten content filters. The cost: false positives for objectionable material. It’s worth that cost.
In combination, this is a less user focused approach, which favors diversity. Legal scholars should also consider the liability angle.
The stakes are so high. We’ve already seen a bit on January 6: