Social media and the dangers of modern conveniences

Social media and the dangers of modern conveniences
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In accepting the conveniences of modern life, we have made ourselves more vulnerable. Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the proliferation of white supremacist groups in the United States and other nefarious trends are in part born from our willingness to become active consumers of internet media and social platforms. By doing so, we present ourselves to big tech companies, foreign governments and extremist groups as human commodities to be leveraged for profit or political gain. People across the globe have effectively given up freedom in exchange for access to modern conveniences. 

While we have become active in online media, we have become passive in real-life politics, with most of our involvement limited to a quick take on a breaking issue on Twitter or Facebook. The real threat to the future international order is thus not any individual politician or violent fringe group with an extremist ideology, but the passive politics of the modern consumer and, in turn, the lack of empathy that it breeds. 

In the U.S. we willingly consume spoon-fed partisan rhetoric, sealing ourselves off in echo chambers of self-affirmation. This behavior is not limited to politics. We consume to experience a reaffirming sense of euphoria by hearing others confirm our existing views and biases. This is symptomatic of the American millennial, who may be interested in larger social and political issues but often will not make the sacrifices necessary to challenge what he or she sees as injustice (though there are notable exceptions). But this phenomenon also mirrors a larger trend worldwide.

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In China, young citizens have become active enablers of unprecedented technological development. Their implicit recognition that it is natural to be watched – that surveillance is to be expected – allows a society of 1.4 billion people to be accounted for in the surveillance apparatus of the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party has effectively avoided any significant challenges to its political supremacy and stymied what would otherwise be the amplified voices of its citizens. They’ve done this by propping up tech giants that serve to provide a limitless repository of personal information on the Chinese people’s personal preferences, whereabouts and political activity.   

Through the use of these technologies – from social media platforms, to ride-sharing apps to on-demand delivery – our lives have ostensibly improved. But do we enjoy freedom in the same way people used to?

On the U.S. side, profit and self-interest are driving the future of technology. Our political views have become data to be boughtmanipulated or suppressed. It is certainly remarkable that an individual citizen can now directly engage with the president of the United States via Twitter. But if such interaction amounts to nothing more than shapeless bits of communication that do not materialize into any meaningful participation in the political process, then tech companies will continue to thrive as the political process consumes itself from within.  

We as citizens must recognize that this is happening, and that we are complicit unless we become more active political participants. The short-lived endorphin rush produced by a record number of likes on what was likely a post that will eventually be forgotten will not ensure our political future. Participation in the political process will.  

Given these trends, U.S. tech companies should take steps to show that they are not American in name only. Their leadership should recognize that they have the power to shape the future of the international order in their respective approaches toward data privacy and corporate social responsibility and, most importantly, their engagement or lack thereof with questionable foreign actors and authoritarian governments. 

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At the individual level, we should leverage our unprecedented interconnectedness to seize the power of the populace as technology was widely expected to do instead of allowing autocrats, extremist groups, or profit-driven interests to wield it against us. Such interconnectedness could serve as a legitimate forum of collective political debate and facilitate positive contributions to global governance and international standards.

The key is avoiding individual capture—that is, the tendency to reduce ourselves to our most immediately identifiable social and political identities and hide behind the most vocal of our like-minded peers.  

To this end, we should ultimately limit our use of social media technologies. Such platforms can be used for mobilization. But they should not replace actual activism or political engagement. Real connections should not be replaced by Instagram or Twitter followers.

Start with basic steps. Next time you are walking down the sidewalk, appreciate where you are and your freedom to be walking. Don’t hide within the confines of your online persona or work email by looking at your phone. Over time, this will empower you as an individual. It will also enable us to collectively shape the future global order for the better. 

We must return to basic human interaction as the standard mode of communication. Otherwise, we are reduced to online personas, stereotypes and political and consumer identities. Getting this right will play an important role in determining the future course of democracy—and the relative viability of more illiberal political systems worldwide.

Austin Lowe is a Washington, DC-based consultant and analyst specializing in U.S.-China relations and Asia policy.