2017 was the year our social media innocence died.
Sadly, the biggest tech trend this year is the one that has dominated headlines for months: how social media has been usurped from its original personal sharing intentions into becoming a cesspool of hatred, trolling, threats of violence against women and revenge porn.
It has also been easily manipulated by Russian propagandists and right-white fascists, as well as other fringe groups who have been able to manipulate our online discourse. And then there is the rampant misogyny, the utterly disgraceful attacks on prominent women (and the threats of rape) and the seeming indifference of Twitter and Facebook to meaningfully prevent such attacks.
Social media, in short, has been weaponised. Created in a democracy and used by people to express themselves, social media had been turned into a tool for powerful manipulation by narrow-interest groups: be they Russian hackers trying to manipulate the American election, our data analytics firms trying to sway the Brexit vote to leave the EU, or fascists trying to attack Jews, or misogynist everywhere trying to denigrate women, especially gamers. Then there are the millions of “bots” used to foment propaganda, like those used by the Guptas and their various malevolent lackeys, including the disgraced Bell Pottinger.
Social media is no longer just about fear of missing out (Fomo), or reaching an audience, or building a community. Social media had been captured.
A stream of high-profile former executives and investors, particularly from Facebook, have gone public to express their remorse at the monster they say they helped create. Most recently, Justin Rosenstein – the man who built Facebook’s Like button, which was originally called an “awesome” button – flagellated himself for helping create what he called “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure… everyone is distracted. All of the time”.
His comments follow former Facebook vice-president for growth Chamath Palihapitiya’s that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”.
Feeling “tremendous guilt” he said “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem – this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”
Meanwhile, in what’s become a terrible dual-edged sword, social media not only takes people attention away from real news, and real sources of news, but is eating away at our media organisations by stealing all the digital advertising that supports a free and accurate media.
Equally, fake news is also a major threat to our democracy. But it was only towards the end of the year, during American Senate hearings into Russian electoral manipulation that executives at these powerful firms admitted just how bad it was. Facebook guiltily owned up to 126m people being exposed to Russia-backed propaganda that played a part in getting Homer Simpson into the White House.
Perhaps the most damaging is the slow, irreversible way we have surrendered our privacy online – giving away this precious commodity to social media networks, oversharing our activities, posting endless pictures of our children, and other things that should stay private. All for Likes, followers, and mindless public adoration from people we don’t know.
The death of our privacy will be the thing we regret the most when we look back at this period.
What is the solution? The jury will spend a long time debating that. But just as we know Marcus Jooste did something that caused Steinhoff to implode, we know socialmedia has moral accounting and democratic auditing problems whose far-reaching consequences are being revealed.
The rot is there, and has taken hold of a now vital part of how our societies communicate. We just don’t know how gangrenous it is.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail