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Are we all prisoners of Facebook?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote address at its developer conference in San Jose on May 1. Facebook says it’s expanding its fact-checking program to include photos and videos as it fights fake news and misinformation on its service.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote address at its developer conference in San Jose on May 1. Facebook says it’s expanding its fact-checking program to include photos and videos as it fights fake news and misinformation on its service. AP

Some people run afoul of Facebook’s rules and find themselves locked out of their accounts for a few hours or a few weeks. They call it “Facebook jail.”

I’m a Facebook prisoner of a different kind. About a month ago, I tried to delete my Facebook account. I couldn’t quite pull it off.

Deleting or deactivating an account is supposed to be easy, just a matter of a few clicks. But I kept trying and failing. My laptop screen would go blank. The app on my phone would keep popping up timeout errors.

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Truth is, I’ve been wanting to leave social media for a long time. I kept finding excuses to stay.

But I also had the inescapable sense that I was wasting huge amounts of time. Didn’t I have a mountain of books to read? Shouldn’t I be writing something? And don’t I have kids?

BEN BOYCHUK.JPG
Ben Boychuk

I started calling Facebook “Zuckerberg’s dopamine hit machine” because that’s really what it is. Read some of the growing literature on the perniciousness of social media and you’ll get my meaning. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like are a behaviorist’s dream. You make a post. You wait for “likes.” You scroll. You “like.” Over and over. More likes, more smiles. No likes, more frowns.

Now multiply that by 2 billion users around the globe. Dr. Pavlov, call your office. Dr. Skinner, you, too.

Jaron Lanier, a dreadlocked scientist and musician known in Silicon Valley as the godfather of virtual reality, earlier this year published “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” He explains in straightforward prose how social media platforms were built specifically to reinforce and reward negative emotions.

Because social media relies on advertising to make money, the platforms have devised ways to keep users coming back for more. The most effective way to do that is to coax users into seeking some kind of validation. But validation is a rare and precious commodity. Keep scrolling and clicking those likes and maybe you’ll find some.

As a result, Lanier argues, social media is eroding our free will, undermining truth, destroying our capacity for empathy, and generally making us into . . . well, I can’t use the word he uses here, but he refers often to a particular bodily orifice.

The solution? Ditch the model. Instead of using sophisticated algorithms to tailor content and advertising to each user’s tastes, chuck it and create a model in which the user is in control. In short, if you want your Facebook and your Twitter, you should pay for it. Otherwise, you aren’t really the customer. You’re the product.

We can see the result in our politics. Social media platforms are becoming more and more like echo chambers because that’s what they were built to be.

The result is toxic. Check out the new trend, fueled by Twitter and Facebook, of confronting elected officials in public places. Protest is a First Amendment right, but things are getting out of hand.

“SmashRacismDC,” the group that organized a “protest” this week of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his wife at a restaurant in Washington D.C., posted on Twitter: “No — you can’t eat in peace — your politics are an attack on all of us. You’re (sic) votes are a death wish. Your votes are hate crimes.”

Votes as violence? If this is the logic, why stop at ruining a politician’s meal? At what point do these groups drop the pretense and resort to physical violence, even deadly force, and call it “self-defense”?

The group wrapped up its tweetstorm with a warning to “right-wing scum:” “You are not safe. We will find you. We will expose you. We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others.”

If one subscribes to the idea that a climate of hatred begets violence, it’s really only a matter of time before somebody gets shot, right? Actually, it already happened in 2017, when a former Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on Republican members of Congress at a ballpark in Virginia, nearly killing House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

The kicker is that Twitter on Tuesday said that the SmashRacismDC tweet and the thread that followed somehow did not violate its community standards, which clearly state: “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so.”

Politics has always been a rough and tumble business, and I’m not about to issue another lame appeal to civility. At this moment in our politics, no, obviously we “can’t all just get along.”

But we can cool off a little. There’s a way to do that right now: Delete your accounts.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He can be contacted at ben@amgreatness.com or on Twitter @benboychuk.

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