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Jaron Lanier’s social media report reads like sci-fi. The dystopia he presents thrives on surveillance, behavior modification and fake people spreading lies, propaganda and hate. Lanier, a virtual-reality pioneer, says social media’s toxicity arises from its business model, letting advertisers exploit user data to create and post targeted, manipulative messages. He says users should force change by deleting their accounts. Despite repetitiveness and slightly vague examples, this is a provocative, sometimes shocking overview for both social media users and emerging entrepreneurs seeking to disrupt current practices.

Facebook and other social media outlets normalize perpetual user surveillance.

A virtual-reality pioneer, Lanier recognizes that social media companies assert that they have a noble mission and worthy purpose: to help people connect. But their methods, tactics and practices, he cautions, generate many sinister side effects. To optimize their advertising-based revenue model, he argues, Facebook and other social platforms conduct perpetual mass surveillance of their users in order to compile gigantic amounts of data about their preferences, activities and relationships. Advertisers pay these companies to mine and exploit their user data. The result, according to Lanier, is a heretofore unseen universe of marketing tantamount to a mass “behavior-modification” program.

Lanier finds that darker forces, like hate groups and hostile foreign powers, have surreptitiously exploited the networks’ data-driven algorithms to spread propaganda and disinformation. Legal regulations and industry self-policing haven’t worked in the past and aren’t likely to ameliorate social media’s dangers in the future. They refuse to address the central, underlying problem that Lanier identifies: the data-centered profit model. The best and maybe only road to reform, he asserts strongly, is for users to delete their accounts to force companies to change their policies.

About the Author

Scientist, musician and writer Jaron Lanier’s VPL Research start-up developed the first commercial virtual-reality products.

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