The medium is the message

It's common knowledge today that social media has a tendency to amplify negative emotions, often based on falsehoods.

The New York times recently published a piece about a study showing how Facebook fuelled anti-refugee attacks in Germany.

The numbers are astonishing:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

Yes, that's 50 percent.This doesn't imply an explosion of attacks as the average number of hate crimes per area is probably quite low. But that's still significant.

The converse is also true:

Could Facebook really distort social relations to the point of violence? The University of Warwick researchers tested their findings by examining every sustained internet outage in their study window.

German internet infrastructure tends to be localized, making outages isolated but common. Sure enough, whenever internet access went down in an area with high Facebook use, attacks on refugees dropped significantly.

And they dropped by the same rate at which heavy Facebook use is thought to boost violence. The drop did not occur in areas with high internet usage but average Facebook usage, suggesting it is specific to social media.

An internal memo made public by Buzzfeed a while back pointed at Facebook's "connect above everything" ethos:

We [at Facebook] connect people…Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.

Nikhil Sonnad in an article for Quartz – Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason – illustrates how the failure to consider the humanity of others ends up making organisations unintentionally evil:

Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans. The company’s singular focus on “connecting people” has allowed it to conquer the world, making possible the creation of a vast network of human relationships, a source of insights and eyeballs that makes advertisers and investors drool.

But the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.

Until Facebook and others do some serious soul-searching and don't only do the right thing when forced to by bad PR, you best bet is to just delete your accounts and get away from feeds designed to addict and manipulate you. Yes, I know it's easier said than done, Facebook counts on people being too addicted to leave but, for most people, these services are a convenience, not a necessity.

Jaron Lanier clearly explains why in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I'm not a fan of his acronym use in the book but I highly recommend it.