24 Dec 2018

Danyl Mclauchlan: how social media is warping society

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:17 pm on 24 December 2018

It's not fake news but Facebook and other social media platforms that are really polluting our media landscape and our lives, argues Wellington writer Danyl Mclauchlan.

His recent essay on the subject has struck a chord with many New Zealanders.

Danyl tells Jesse Mulligan that after publishing the essay, he came across a 1967 piece by American journalist Joan Didion which expresses what he's getting at better than he managed to.

In the essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem (from the book of the same name), Didion visits the hippie epicentre of Haight-Ashbury in California, yet many people refuse to talk to her because she's part of "the 'mainstream media that is poisoning society".

Yet some of these same people saw no problem with joining a cult or giving LSD to children, Danyl says.

"The media is not a perfect institution, but it's not a cult leader or a drug dealer."

Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, most of us are now oversaturated with information and ideas fed to us by corporations which profit by propagating confusion, he says.

"We should be wary when our media changes and the change seems to be completely unregulated … that's something we should be paying attention to."

Danyl McLauchlan

Danyl McLauchlan Photo: University of Victoria

It's no longer true that we 'curate' our own social media feeds, Danyl says.

"The feed is being created to try and modify your behaviour and make you engage with the platform more. It really wants to maximise the amount of time you spend on the platform, which increases the amount of ads you see, which is where the revenue stream comes from. And it also wants to incentivise you to start creating content – tweet or do Facebook updates or comment on a video – because that's more content for the platform."

Social media platforms are geared towards eliciting negative responses from their users (such as anger or outrage) and the people who are most privileged in this environment are those adept at attracting attention, often by saying shocking or outrageous things, he says.

"[After almost two years as US president,] Donald Trump can still shock people and surprise people and grab all the media attention."

Danyl recommends people think about deleting their social media accounts if they don't need them for work.

"Lots of people are just on it because they're on it … they almost absentmindedly log on to it and start clicking things and liking things when they're waiting for the bus or whatever.

"[Effectively] you're working for Facebook for free, you're increasing the value of the company, giving away data about your psychological status to this extremely unetrhical, extremely invasive company. Ask yourself whether that is a thing you need to be doing. Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – is arguably even more invasive technology. Query your use of the platform and ask if it's something you really need to be doing on a daily basis."

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