Aaron Miller: Social media change is up to us

We are living through a time of dramatic change in human history. For the past 50 years, innovations in computing and telecommunications have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. They have affected our relationships and the fabric of our society.

Last month, whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, gave damning testimony to Congress about the social media empire. Haugen had also released thousands of pages of documents. The internal Facebook papers confirmed what we already knew: Instagram and Facebook were aware of the destructive impact they had on society as well as our individual lives but did little to stop it.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats condemned the social media giant for failing to curb misinformation and hate speech. They also criticized Facebook for the negative psychological impact it was having on people, especially children.

The transformation of our lives as a result of the information revolution reminds me of the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution over a century and a half earlier. Some of the parallels are striking.

The Industrial Revolution created fantastic wealth. But that wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few — people such as J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

The information revolution has also widened the gulf between classes. Just the names have changed to Bezos, Gates, Musk and Zuckerburg.

Both the information and Industrial Revolution created monopolies or trusts, as they called them 100 years ago, with immense economic and political power. Monopolies run counter to the competitive nature of our economy that so many cherish.

The Industrial Revolution made mechanized warfare possible, leading to the deadliest wars in human history. We are still seeking to understand the environmental impact of the Industrial Revolution. It poisoned our water and air, consumed natural resources with a voracious appetite, and changed the climate of the planet. The Industrial Revolution wiped away an economic and social system, one based on agriculture, that had lasted for thousands of years.

The information revolution has also fundamentally changed our society. Texting has made us terrible drivers. Big data tracks our every keystroke and movement. It pushed our political parties further to the extremes. It has promoted ridiculous conspiracy theories. The other day, hundreds of people waited in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, for the return of John F. Kennedy and his son just because of something they saw online.

Haugen also revealed that the algorithms used by Facebook encouraged our basest human emotions: anger, rage, and hate. Those posts are the ones that keep us clicking, spending more time on their platform. All the while, creating divisions in our community.

The most damning and tragic testimony Haugen gave was about how time spent on Instagram led to increased thoughts of suicide and body dysmorphic disorder among teen girls. And executives knew about it.

Despite all of these negatives, I do not think for one second we will abandon social media. I also have no hope that these mammoth conglomerates will suddenly grow a conscience. Doing what is right will never get in the way of the almighty dollar. Can we count on Washington to do the right thing and help? I’ll pause for a second until you stop laughing.

No, it has to be up to us. We don’t have to be historical victims; we have agency. If you are sick of the widening political divide and the fear and loathing in our communities, let’s avoid the hate online.

We also don’t have to support social media monopolies with our money. There are plenty of other stocks and bonds out there. And some of those companies care more about the planet and our community.

Let’s take social media back from them. We can use it for good. Let’s just post and like pictures of our Halloween costumes, puppies, and the winners of the cross country meet. Don’t go down rabbit holes. If anything sounds crazy, it probably is. If anyone obtains their knowledge of law or medicine on social media, ignore them. And if anyone says something hateful or cruel, ignore them, too. Attention is what they want. After all, what you are reading is not real. It is only pixels and a series of ones and zeros.