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College People: Siva Vaidhyanathan

AntiSocial Media: Professor’s New Book Deconstructs Facebook

by Molly Minturn

When the news broke in early 2018 that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm, had acquired private profile information on more than 50 million Facebook users, UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book manuscript, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, had just been through the copyediting process with Oxford University Press, and was slated to publish in the fall.

“I had more publicity for a book that didn’t exist yet than I’ve ever had for any book that did exist,” said Vaidhyanathan, the Robertson Professor of Media Studies, director of UVA’s Center for Media and Citizenship, and the author of four previous books, including The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry (University of California Press, 2011).

In March, Vaidhyanathan published op-eds about Facebook in the New York Times and Slate, and was interviewed by nearly 100 newspapers, websites, podcasts, and television stations. He revised his book to include the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Oxford pushed the book’s publication date up to June 15, 2018. It has received positive reviews—“Put this important book on your summer reading list,” writes Inside Higher Ed.

But with all of the attention and praise his work has received, Vaidhyanathan does not think it can change the mechanisms or effects of Facebook. The platform can certainly reconnect you with old friends, among other benefits, but Vaidhyanathan is concerned about how it has eroded democracy, not just in the United States but worldwide. “Facebook is good for you and me, but terrible for us,” he said.

“If you were to design a media system to benefit authoritarian or nationalist movements, you could not do better than Facebook. The platform amplifies extremism and distracts us from any process of collective thought or deliberation. The problem is in the very idea that we should have a global social network. That in itself invites a large percentage of humans who go to other humans to create trouble,” he said.

Facebook’s algorithmic system favors emotional content—puppies and babies, yes, but it works the same way with hate speech and conspiracy theories, Vaidhyanathan said. Its advertising platform is the most successful ever created, precisely targeting ads by geography, interest, gender, race, profession, and educational level, because Facebook makes it its mission to know everything about us.

Authoritarian leaders use Facebook’s precise targeting tools to flood social media with propaganda and harass opposition parties, journalists, and human rights activists. “Perhaps the greatest practitioner of this is Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who was one of the first world leaders to sign a contract with Facebook to help him manage his campaign,” Vaidhyanathan said.

Facebook use has plateaued in the U.S. with 220 million regular monthly users, but has 2.2 billion monthly users worldwide, far more than any other social media platform, and those numbers are expected to grow. “I would like us to grasp the enormity of the situation, and step one of that is grasping the enormity of Facebook itself. The numbers are too big to govern. The problems are too diverse.”

Vaidhyanathan doesn’t expect Mark Zuckerberg to call him for advice, but he has some for him at the ready: “Why don’t you take a two-year sabbatical and come to UVA? Finish your bachelor’s degree. I will introduce you to the best professors. Get a sociology degree. By the time you’re done, you will have a deeper historical sensibility and finer critical faculties, and you will be a better citizen as well as a better CEO.”

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