In addition to that, our phone use has had a disastrous impact on our attention spans. Ask yourself: when was the last time you immersed yourself in a single activity for one hour without interruption? And even if you did, how tempted were you to reach for your smart phone and check messages, news alerts, or social media feeds? These days, even humanities professors at Ivy League colleges don’t hand out assignments to read entire books anymore because the “Generation Z” undergraduates don’t have the necessary attention span to read a book cover to cover. A recent poll found that the proportion of Americans who never read a single book per year has tripled between 1978 and 2014, with the result that now 57 percent of Americans don’t read any book at all in a given year. Reading is by far the most elementary activity for personal growth and the acquisition of knowledge. Reading fiction allows us to delve into unfamiliar worlds, to mind-travel to foreign countries, to learn to empathize with a variety of different characters. What does it say about our civilization and the future of our society that a majority in our country has largely abandoned that activity in order to spend an average of 5.4 hours a day looking at their phones?
As if these worrying social effects weren’t enough, social media have also failed us on their core promise: to bring individuals together and foster a new sense of community. So far, the digital revolution hasn’t had the effect that we grow closer together and develop and maintain better relationships. In fact, it’s made us lonelier, angrier, and more divided than ever.
Social media platforms found out that by far the greatest factor to keep customers scrolling and hooked to their ad content was outrage. This phenomenon is based on a psychological phenomenon called “negativity bias” — we’re hardwired to focus far more intently on something threatening and upsetting than at something beautiful and pleasant. So the Silicon Valley corporations designed algorithms that would feed their users postings that they knew were hot button issues to these individual customers. It wasn’t their intent to intensify hatred and resentment, it was purely a business decision to generate more clicks and screentime. Yet that decision proved to have deadly consequences.
It is well documented that the Russian government employed a highly-skilled troll army to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Posing as average Americans, they flooded Facebook channels with postings and fake news stories that were geared towards generating outrage and resentment. At a far deadlier level, Facebook’s algorithms stoked the flames of the genocide of the Rohingya in Burma in 2018 that resulted in the deaths of 25,000 people, with over 700’000 being violently displaced (the UN found that Facebook played a “determining role” in these massacres). Facebook disinformation also contributed to the victory of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, which led to scores of indiscriminate police killings in favelas. And of course we’re all familiar with the images of the mob, whipped up by false social media claims of a stolen presidential election, that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January, 6th, 2021.