Facebook Dostoevsky Postman and the Demise of Deliberative Democracy

Siva Vaidhyanathan opens his book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018) with a quote from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“Some claim that the world is gradually becoming united, that it will grow into a brotherly community as distances shrink and ideas are transmitted through the air. Alas, you must not believe that men can be united in this way. To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed and by vanity.”

Dostoevsky wrote that more than 130 years ago.

Vaidhyanathan’s book came out this year.

But the message is the same.

The machine will not bring us together and make us happy.

It will only disconnect us and undermine deliberative democracy.

Vaidhyanathan’s first interview for a tenure track job in academia was at New York University in 1999.

Vaidhyanathan was being interviewed by Neil Postman, author of the bestselling book – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin Books, 1985.)

Postman asks Vaidhyanathan: “We talk about how media limit us, how everything is shallow, how corporate interests dictate the nature of our democracy. Yet we expect and encourage our students to get jobs in these very industries we criticize. How can we justify this?”

Vaidhyanathan answers: “Well, we are in many ways like a clergy. Sometimes all that clergy can expect from their work is to make their feel just a little bit guilty about the damage they are about to do.”

Were you admitting there is nothing we can do?

“There is little we can do,” Vaidhyanathan told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I would say we should not be overly optimistic. As a teacher and a writer, what influence I have in the world is going to be a matter of luck if enough people decide that I have something interesting to say and they decide to act upon it. Then I might make a difference. But there is very little I can do to make that happen except write as clearly as possible. But sometimes you just have to accept that like clergy, we just have to instill the guilt.”

“That statement in a lot of ways reflected more Neil’s position than my own, but I share it also. It was also a bit tongue in cheek.”

As a young academic, you were giving him what he wanted to hear?

“It was a job interview, of course. In a sense. It conformed to his sense of our role in society. And it is one that I share for the most part. But again, he and I would disagree on the degree of the potential for hope and the potential for response.”

On the question of what can be done, you write that “only the threat and force of stern state regulation can push companies to straighten up.”

We have these dominant companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter.

What is possible in terms of the threat and force of stern state regulation?

“Two things are crucial here. One is that we adopt strong data protection rights for individuals. As we produce data by clicking and commenting and logging on to new accounts, we should have a stake in how that data is used. And we should be informed about who is using it, who is getting it and to what purposes they are putting it. These are the principles that are now embodied in European law. But in the United States we have nothing close to that.”

“If we had that kind of disclosure and the ability to be asked every time somebody is going to use our data, we could limit the abuses. We could limit what happened with Cambridge Analytica. A political consulting firm got deep and rich data on 87 million Americans, largely just by tapping into Facebook. That would not be allowed if we had strong data protection laws.”

“That’s the most important thing.”

“The second thing we should have is much stronger antitrust enforcement. We should never have allowed Facebook to purchase WhatsApp and Instagram. Those are two very well designed systems that had the potential to become competitors to Facebook. Now, as we see, American young people gravitating to Instagram over Facebook, it would have been helpful if that actually threatened Facebook. It might have pushed Facebook to reform itself. But now it won’t, because there is no market pressure because Facebook is now more than happy to have young people on Instagram. It’s the same company now and they can make money either way.”

“The fact that we didn’t think about antitrust well enough in those days means we are paying the price now. Our antitrust regulators raised no questions when Facebook bought Oculus Rift, the leading virtual reality platform that probably has the best commercial potential. The idea that virtual reality would be dominated by a company that already knows everything about us should make us be very concerned. Virtual reality has the potential for vast and important uses in therapy and entertainment – from games to pornography. It’s one of those things where it is in our interest to have all of that data to be separate from our large Facebook dossiers and therefore have more safety and control over how our virtual reality data gets used.”

“In combination, we need to look at antitrust and data protection.”

What about converting these large virtual monopolies – Facebook, Google and Twitter into public utilities?

“I never know what people mean by that.”

Similar to the public utilities that we know –  like the electricity, telephone and water companies.

“I don’t know what practically that would mean.”

It would practically mean much heavier regulation.

“I would agree. But what specifically does it mean? One of things we do with electric utilities is we regulate rates. But we don’t have a rate problem with Facebook or Google. One of the things we do with telephones is we insist on universal service. But that’s not necessarily something we are concerned about with Google or Facebook.”

“The major things we do with telephone and electric utility regulation – I don’t see corresponding action with Facebook or Google. There may be a model of public utility that makes sense for Facebook or Google. I just haven’t seen anyone make the case that describes it that way. I am not excited about that call because I have not seen in a detailed way anyone describe what that model would look like.”

“Every time someone raises it in a conference or on Twitter. I ask – what precisely do you mean? And I never get a response. I get a lot of hemming and hawing. And I get generalities. I’ve never seen anyone outline what that would mean.”

“There are specific other regulatory approaches. Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale Law School, proposes that we require Facebook and Google to act as information fiduciaries. Lawyers are information fiduciaries. As clients of lawyers, we have control over the information we give lawyers. Same with doctors. Through federal law, we have determined rights about what doctors can do with our information. Having Facebook and Google considered information fiduciaries, much like doctors and lawyers, that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m bullish on that idea. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how that would work. But that route makes sense to me.”

Vaidhyanathan said he got to know Neil Postman between 1999 and 2003 when he passed away.

“And during those years, I was very optimistic about the ability of the Internet to democratize our public sphere, to give many more people a voice,” Vaidhyanathan said. “I thought we would quickly build up our capacity to deliberate. We would build the platform and the habits of mind that would allow us to have deep and informed and respectful debates with each other. I knew it was not an early and obvious thing with the Internet. The Internet has always been the sort of place where it is easier to call another person a Nazi and insult each other. But I just assumed that because smart people recognized that problem and were working on the problem, that we would actually build up those facilities and those platforms.”

“There were some early attempts to do that. Between 2000 and 2004, there were a number of web sites that resembled blogs that had rules and structures to enable deep deliberation and argumentation. And there were attempts to moderate conversations and comments. And then everything got wiped out by Facebook and later Twitter.”

“Once Facebook and Twitter took over our attention and drew all of the energy out of the blogosphere and out of all of those other experimental platforms, we just all started arguing and bickering on Facebook and Twitter.”

“Once I started thinking deeply on the effect Facebook has had on our lives, I realized that I was starting to sound lot like Neil Postman. And I dipped back into his work after more than a decade. I recognized that again, I had become the grumpy old man. But more than that, he had been on to something very important. He would have been more right about Facebook than he was about television. But that’s because Facebook is a radical distillation of all of the problems he saw with television.”

“His major critique of television was that as a medium it flattens out all expression and distills all expression and has no patience for anything sustained or deep or complex. That’s 90 percent true of television. We can find thoughtful elements of television – Frontline documentaries and we can watch deep debate shows. But the medium of television itself limits our ability to delve deeply. On Facebook that is even more extreme.”

You are not a Luddite. You are immersed in the technology. You met your wife on a social media dating app. You are a geek. You know all of the platforms. You love the technology.

I can go on Facebook and read your writings. And read your books. I can immerse myself in your writings, think deeply about your writings and deliberate about your writings.

On page 212 of your book you say — On the internet, learning becomes “a matter of searching, copying and pasting rather than immersing, considering and deliberating.”

But I can do all of that immersing, considering and deliberating with your work on any of these internet platforms.

“You can but the platforms work against your desire to do that. On Facebook itself, I don’t ever put up more than 200 words. If you write more than 200 words, those words gets lost.”

But I can link to your entire book and someone can read your entire book from that link. All of that can be done online.

“Yes. But Facebook works against that. Facebook only delivers snippets of information about the place to which you were linked. Overall, people tend not to click on the link. They tend to comment before clicking and reading. And there are studies showing how few times people actually click through to the article, or the book or the video. And they more often than not comment on the headline or the caption. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that Facebook is set up so that you are constantly being attracted by the next thing in the feed. So, while you might see some link to something I have written on Facebook, and be intrigued by it, it takes a little bit extra effort to click through and take the time to read it and think about it.”

“Meanwhile Facebook is calling you back. It has a siren call of what you might be missing out on. And Facebook itself is designed to fracture our attention, to work against the idea that you might move from Facebook to something deeper and immerse yourself. Facebook does nothing to prevent you from doing that. Facebook tempts you away from it quite effectively. That is why the overall experience is one of cacophony and fractured attention rather than sustained attention. And if you decide on Facebook to interact with something I posted, you comment on it, you criticize it, you question it, the response to your comment will be nestled beneath it. And it will be visible to the next visitor. So the next visitor comes in and sees the caption and maybe your comment or somebody else comment. And people will react to the latest comment – not necessarily the best or the smartest comment, or the strongest criticism. They will react to the latest. And you end up getting nothing that resembles a deliberative discussion among people interested. You get something closer to a bunch of people talking over each other in a crowded bar room. And the overall effect is not deep or healthy, but ends up being loud.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t work against it. It’s just really hard to work against it.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 35(10), Monday September 10, 2018, print edition only.]

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..