Why the Social Internet Is Not a "Neutral Tool"

It's a hammer with a sharp claw and a glass mallet.

The weekend following the rush of articles published regarding the Facebook Papers, the Wall Street Journal devoted almost the entire “Review” section of the print paper to a series of short essays with perspectives on “How to fix social media.” I read all of the essays and found them all insightful in one way or another, even if I didn’t agree with all of them.1 I was, however, bummed to see a tired argument from a person I greatly respect: David French.

David French is one of the most thoughtful and wise conservative writers around today, in my view. We’re also Nashville-suburb-neighbors, as he’s just next door in Franklin. I think highly of David and he has helped me develop a lot of my thinking on many key issues. In his insightful piece against regulating social media, French writes:

Social media is a two-edged sword. The same technology that connects old classmates and helps raise funds for gravely ill friends also provides angry Americans with instant access to public platforms to vent, rage and lie. Social media puts human nature on blast. It amplifies who we are.

But so did the printing press—and radio and television.

Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, this is the common refrain I hear from people who maintain that social media is a “neutral platform,” that isn’t a problem in-and-of itself, but is just a neutral amplification device for human behavior which is, more often than not, bad.

What David also sort of insinuates with his thought that “the same technology that connects old classmates…provides angry Americans with instant access to public platforms to vent, rage, and lie,” is that these activities happen in equal measure. I’m not sure David would actually say that, but paralleling them in that sentence makes them it feel like, “Well, you tend to do one or the other.”

What David fails to see, or what he sees and fails to mention, I’m not sure, is that social media (or what I prefer to call the “social internet”) incentivizes venting, raging, and lying, over connecting with classmates and raising money for ill friends. Likewise, though I am not here today to write about regulating social media, David says that the government didn’t “solve” radio and TV with regulation, which is a bit confusing. The government did regulate radio and TV through the FCC, and in some good ways! I am grateful, for instance, that the government restricts predatory advertising toward children on TV, and I’m grateful the FCC makes network TV a relatively clean environment compared to other television environments.

So, leaving the specifics of David’s piece aside, let’s examine two common ideas that people—especially conservatives, in my experience—have about social media and its neutrality. These ideas are similar, often uttered in the same conversation, but they are a bit different. So we will treat them individually.

“Social media is a neutral tool.”

This is wrong. No social internet platform is a neutral tool.

At a foundational level, no social internet platform is a neutral tool because they’re all created by biased, sinful human beings who either intentionally or unintentionally bake their bias and inject their interests into the algorithms and other bits of architecture that power their platforms.2

One of the most fascinating phenomenon around this conversation for me is that the people who often complain that, “Social media censors (or threatens to censor) conservatives,” are the same folks who also say that, “Social media is a neutral tool that amplifies bad behavior.” These ideas are inconsistent with one another. A platform that is neutral cannot actively censor—that would mean it is being preferential toward one viewpoint over another…making it not neutral.

But the basis for my reasoning regarding social media’s lack of neutrality has very little to do with content censorship3 and very much to do with incentives and how the incentives at play in the ecosystem of the social internet make social media very not neutral.

We have plenty of evidence, especially with the most recent revelations from the Facebook Papers, that social media companies generate the most profit when their users are angry or otherwise use their platforms for divisive behavior. This is because internal data from companies like Facebook shows that the more divisive someone is on Facebook, the more time they spend on the platform.

We have seen that Facebook, which ultimately exists to make as much money as possible, makes the most money when their users are divisive, not cooperative, not happy, but angry and upset and fighting. Further, we see that Facebook actually incentivized this behavior on foundational, mathematical level with their news feed algorithms. Let me briefly explain how that works. But before I do, let me remind you: we’re looking at Facebook here because we have been able to see behind the curtain now with the Facebook Papers. We have every reason to believe other platforms profit off of anger and divisiveness. What we haven’t seen, though, is other platforms intentionally promoting divisive content. Here’s how Facebook has:

  • When you see your Facebook News Feed, you’re not seeing the most recent content. You’re seeing what the Facebook algorithms have decided you probably want to see out of a pool of content posted in the last few days.

  • The way Facebook decides what you want to see is by a bunch of mathematical equations (algorithms) in which the variables are: timeliness of the content, the amount of engagement on the content, and your past activity on and off of Facebook.4

  • Every piece of content is given a score by the algorithm based on how much it believes the piece of content would be relevant/interesting to you, thus, making you spend more time on the platform.

  • In the calculation of this score, we learned from the Washington Post’s reporting on the Facebook Papers that “likes” were worth 1 point and angry/laughing reactions were worth 5 points. The laughing reactions were discovered by Facebook researchers to be negative/mocking in nature far more than actual representations of good-natured laughter.

  • Because Facebook gave angry/mocking-laughter reactions five times as many points as likes, content that proved to be divisive was intentionally floated to the tops of people’s feeds more frequently than other kinds of content.5

  • Why would Facebook give more points to angry reactions and other such signals of negativity and divisiveness? Because their research showed that divisiveness and negativity increased users time on platform, and when users spend more time on Facebook, Facebook makes more money.

Social media, in this case Facebook, is financially fueled by the time users spend on their platforms. The more time users spend on their platforms, the more money these platforms make. That’s why the war over our collective attention is so violent.

So if a platform like Facebook discovers that they make a lot more money when their users fight with one another, how on earth can Facebook be a neutral platform? Do we trust a platform like Facebook to not do whatever it takes to make the most money? Why would we trust them to care about their users more than their revenue? We have no reason to trust them in this way. And given all of the revelations we have now in the Facebook Papers, the idea that social media in general, or at least Facebook in particular, are “neutral tools” is, frankly, ignorant.

Let me give a brief analogy to address this idea that social media is a “neutral tool” and then we will move on to the second matter of discussion.

Pretend Facebook is a hammer company. They make hammers. Hammers are neutral tools, right? They can be used to build with the mallet side or destroy with the claw side. One side hammers nails into boards and allows you to build. One side allows you to pull nails out or otherwise tear apart whatever needs demolished. A hammer is a neutral tool because nothing in the design of a hammer motivates you to disproportionately use it for building or tearing down. There are no incentives to use a hammer for building up or for destroying things.

So Facebook the Hammer Company invites 65,000 people to Nissan Stadium in downtown Nashville and they give all 65,000 people a hammer because, after all, they’re a hammer company.

Mark Zuckerberg, hammer extraordinaire, says to the throng of people:

You’ve been given a hammer. You’ll notice that the mallet end of the hammer is actually made of glass, but the claw end is extra sharp. Also, your hammers are equipped with special trackers that tell us every time you’ve struck something with the claw side of the hammer.

We’ve brought you all here to Nissan Stadium to tear it down. The faster you tear it down, the more money Facebook Hammer Co. makes. The more times you strike with the claw side, the more points you score, and the people with the most points at the end will be recognized and rewarded. Maybe you’ll even become famous!

The hammers Zuckerberg has given his contract demolition crew are not neutral tools anymore, are they? These are no ordinary hammers. They are tools that are specially engineered to accomplish the lucrative purposes of Facebook Hammer Co., with some meager rewards of recognition for the users of the hammers.

I hope you see the parallels here. Facebook has specially engineered their platform to accomplish their financial goals, not to create a neutral, blank-slate communication platform for their users.

Now, onto the next claim, which is somewhat related but slightly different.

“Social media is just like the printing press, or radio, or television.”

Like I wrote above, this line of reasoning is often used in conjunction with the idea that social media is a neutral tool, but the points are different. One could say, theoretically, that social media is just like other media but also say that other media are not neutral tools.

Of course social media and other forms of media are similar in some ways. To some extent each of these media relies on advertising to pay the bills, which means they all want our attention. They are all designed to communicate a wide array of information, from important news about global events to road closures in your town.

So, let’s focus on the ways social media is not like books, radio, or TV. There are many ways—more than we can explore in this space—so we will focus on speed, accessibility, and psychology.

Social media is faster than other media.

Social media and books are the most different of these three different kinds of media. To say “Social media is like the printing press” is to grossly underestimate how much more powerful social media is than the printing press. First, let me say, books are much more valuable than social media and have clearly shown to be incredibly powerful over centuries. I’m a book guy—I work for a publisher! But despite how much more important and valuable books are than social media, they are far less powerful. You have to know how much it pains me to say that, but I think it’s true, so I’m not going to just ignore it.

Explaining all of the reasons I believe it’s unequivocally true that social media is more powerful than books would take a newsletter itself. But the primary reason social media is more powerful than books is speed.

Social media is communication at the speed of light—literally. Books require many months and sometimes years to be written and published. The main reason social media is more powerful than books can best be captured in the adage/cliché, “A lie can travel around the world before the truth laces its shoes.” The speed with which news, or worse and increasingly common misinformation, can travel makes it impossibly hard to verify and understand. The speed with which we communicate on social media makes it wildly different from radio, TV, and books. Surely we see the difference?

In addition to that, a different, but related point: radio, TV, and books have historically not been communication platforms for everyone. You have generally needed some measure of credibility to communicate through one of those forms of media. This is, obviously, not the case for the social internet. And I’m not saying that makes the social internet bad! I love how open it is, and how it has given everyone a voice. I’m just saying that it makes it wildly different from legacy media.

Beyond all of this, social media is different from older media platforms because of its preeminent accessibility.

Social media is always available.

Radio and television, in their heyday, required proximity to a device of some size (until pocket radios came to be). Books, of course, require carrying and storing, and not every book you have is available at all times (before the ebook’s invention). Social media is available anywhere, anytime, as long as one has a smartphone and an internet connection, which are both virtually ubiquitous at this point, at least in the West, and even in the global South. Very few places on the earth have radio, TV, and books but do not have internet capabilities.

To compare social to radio and television, Walter Cronkite was once considered the most trustworthy man in America because of his nightly news show. But Cronkite, as amazing and well-respected as he was, only had five 30-minute segments to talk to the American people each week. That’s 2.5 hours of time with Walter Cronkite each week before you take commercials into account. In 2021, people spend as much time on social media every day as their grandparents could with Walter Cronkite in a given week…really.

If you tried to bring Walter Cronkite’s method of information transfer to the 21st Century, nobody would know who he is or care what he has to say. He would be as irrelevant as David Muir, Lester Holt, and Norah O’Donnell6 who, no offense to them, cannot hold a candle to the influence of Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and other media influencers who dominate social media.7

A side point to this, but related, is that social media is global. Walter Cronkite wasn’t well known on the other side of the world…but Joe Rogan is world famous. The global availability of social media makes it so much different than legacy media platforms.

Anyone can present themselves as an expert. Anyone can gain a following. Anyone can gain a hearing. The barriers to being heard in the legacy media of books, radio, and television are gone in social media. We can lament that all day and whine about how bad it is—I whine about this myself—but we can’t deny its reality. And it does make social media a bit more powerful and different from these other forms of media!

Social media hacks the mind.

We don’t need to go into all of the brain research behind this, but I think it is quite clear that social media has a way of hijacking human brain activity in a way that passively watching TV or listening to radio or reading a book does not.

Rather than me trying to explain all of the brain science here. Let’s look at a couple of experts who built these platforms and let them explain how they hack our brains.

Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook8, said in 2017:

The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments. It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.

Tristan Parker, former design ethicist at Google, explains in this video:

Please Pay Attention

No offense to those who have said to me that “Social media is no different than the printing press, or radio, or television,” but are you paying attention? Like are we really naive enough to think that books are hacking brains like this? Of course, books can change our minds, but not at the scale or speed of social media. I just don’t understand how you step back from scrolling Twitter or Instagram for a moment and miss how different these platforms are from legacy media platforms.

As John Green, author and thoughtful observer, says in this video from 2018:

The architecture of the social internet always seems to lift up the loudest and most divisive voices over more cautious and nuanced ones.

….

We need to look at the difference between our goals as a species and the goals of the private companies that host so much of our public discourse.

All right imagine you work at a zoo and someone comes up to you and says, I'll give you a thousand dollars every time you get that lion to roar.

Maybe at first you teach the lion that when it roars it gets extra food.

But then over time you start to notice that the lion roars whenever it sees something weird.

So you start to show it lots of surprising information.

You also might notice that lions roar when they feel threatened but they'd learned pretty quickly that your threats were empty.

So you'd have to vary them up. You'd have to find a million different ways to make the lions feel like their lives were in danger or their families were about to be broken up or their territory was threatened. Twitter is not structured to make us better informed or happier. It is structured to keep us on Twitter.

The same is true for Facebook and Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and cable news.

All of these companies want as much of our attention as they can get because that is how they make money which is what they exist to do.

Everyone wants our attention. But we would be better off if we started paying more attention to how these platforms work than we do to the content on the platforms themselves.

Social media is not a neutral tool. It’s a hammer with a glass mallet and a sharp claw. It is driven by incentives that generate the most revenue with little regard for our wellness.

1

The only one that was mildly frustrating was the one written by Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs at Meta/FB, in which he wrote (bolding mine), “We want to better understand how our services affect people, so we can improve them. But if companies that conduct this sort of research—whether internally or with external researchers—are condemned for doing so, the natural response will be to stop.” Mr. Clegg, no one is upset your company did this research—we’re upset you didn’t do anything with the research. Anyway, this mischaracterization was the only frustrating bit of these essays.

2

I was thinking about it, and I think that the closest thing we’ve ever had to a “neutral social media platform” is maybe Twitter pre-algorithm and pre-ads, when the content was delivered 100% chronologically. But even that platform wasn’t truly neutral, it just had a feed that was pretty pure, not chained to algorithms to boost revenue.

3

I am on record very clearly saying censorship is not a big deal (yet) here.

4

It’s a bit more complex than this, but I’m simplifying so as to not make this all about the inner workings of the Facebook algorithms.

5

Have you or others you know complained about Facebook being “so negative all the time” sometime in the past five years? You may be entitled to financi…just kidding. That negativity is a direct result of what’s being described here—the negativity was scored higher than anything else.

6

The three nightly network news hosts here in America, which, if you didn’t know them, would make my point.

7

This is because most people don’t want the clear and balanced nightly news that Cronkite or any of the fine folks listed above deliver—they want therapy journalism that strokes their feelings and tells them they’re right and everyone else is wrong, a desire that social media is happy to fulfill.

8

And not Justin Timberlake, but played by him in The Social Network.