The revolution will not be on social media

In a new guest essay for Larger Us, Friends of the Earth Co-Executive Director Hugh Knowles – writing here in a personal capacity – argues why he thinks the urgent conversations we need about huge shared challenges like climate change are too important to take place in the flawed ‘public square’ of social media.

By Hugh Knowles — 29th Sep · 9 min read

Editor’s note: We’re delighted to be publishing this guest essay from Friends of the Earth Co-Executive Director Hugh Knowles. You’ll find a summary blog below, and the full essay here.

Please note that Hugh is writing in a personal capacity, and the blog and essay do not reflect the views of his employer.

In the past decade, social media has become our lens to the world, a role amplified by Covid-19. Yet, in 2023, the effectiveness of these platforms in driving societal change is debatable.

Once a Twitter enthusiast, my departure in 2021 stemmed from the belief that its current business model hinders rather than helps efforts to tackle major challenges like climate change.

The urgent conversations we need shouldn’t take place in the flawed ‘public square’ of social media and we should be far more mindful of the impacts of many other digital tools, including AI.

1. Social media was not built for us

Despite their lofty and inspiring mission statements, social media is designed not to empower us, but to create profit for companies through advertising.

This ‘attention economy’ rewards content that fuels bias and evokes strong emotional responses. Our attention is commercial and political real estate, to be exploited by a range of actors – from those who want to sell you something to those who want to change your mind or even your election results.

Unlike traditional public squares, which fostered responsible interactions, social media platforms lack transparency and accountability, leaving us at the mercy of corporate and sometimes authoritarian interests.

These platforms aren’t engineered for societal change but for their own gain, often undermining nuanced discourse

2. The medium is the message, and the message is wrong

No matter what you say, it’s where you say it that dictates what is heard and what happens next.

When we choose social media, we choose a medium where ‘attention wins’. In this ‘attention wins’ environment, any engagement – whether it is a click, like, or retweet – is feeding the attention machine. Actions intended to counter a message, like retweeting something controversial to argue against it, just fan the flames.

This medium fosters individualism and personal branding at the expense of societal change, creating a toxic cycle of affirmation and outrage. It has turned politicians into influencers, favouring reductive, polarised communication over substantive debate.

3. The illusion of immediacy

Social media’s allure of instant action can be a trap, that substitutes for and often undermines the effort required for lasting change.

While rapid mobilisation via hashtags can gather large crowds, these movements usually lack the consensus-building necessary for lasting impact. The platforms foster impatience and offer the illusion of progress, diluting the focus and strategies required for real change. Additionally, the immediacy of social media can prematurely expose radical ideas to opposition, stifling their development.

Patience remains an undervalued but vital tool in activism, one that leads to well-founded and lasting change.

4. Your agenda is not your own

Digital platforms are increasingly weaponised for geopolitical agendas.

A significant volume of social media message is from bots, and it is well known that Russia has targeted divisive issues online, not only creating and amplifying content, but even manufacturing organisations on both sides of debates to sow division. The goal is often not direct influence but the subtle disassembling of values and societal cohesion in ways that erode trust.

Nor is it only malevolent state actors that have this divisive impact. It is also a side effect of the algorithms trained to push you in the direction that is most likely to hold your attention. It is increasingly hard to discern genuine discourse from manipulative noise.

5. The centre cannot hold

Social media platforms are dominated by extremes which only represent a tiny fraction of the general population and overshadow the moderate majority. Mainstream media magnify this imbalance, intensifying polarised debates.

These extreme factions exhibit a strong in-group mentality, viewing dissent as a threat and fostering outrage which can then be manipulated by external forces. Such divisive dynamics risk escalating online culture wars. Radical positions can deter potential supporters who may need to make a journey to the outcome rather than being dropped straight in the deep end.

The rules baked into social media platforms inherently favour a minority — a few influencers amass massive followings, while the majority remain voiceless, a trend visible across various digital platforms. This digital landscape, which promised democratic engagement, ironically creates a hierarchy where only a select few really have a voice and power.

6. Our digital future risks baking in the past

The problem with the algorithms that underpin much of the digital world is that they are trained on the past, not on the world we would like to see. Researchers have found evidence of systemic bias built into everything from image sets to large language models. It is hard to create a new world if the old one is constantly reinforced by software in ways we may not see.

7. Everyone is here but not in a good way

Social media’s widespread use is often justified by claiming “everyone is there”. As discussed above this reach is largely an illusion and the conditions for change are often absent.

Pivotal global challenges are overshadowed by a sea of trivial content, and rather than broadening horizons, these platforms often cocoon users in ideological bubbles, causing shock or disdain when confronted with differing opinions offline.

Additionally, the nature of these platforms promotes attention-seeking behaviour above the nuanced and complex art of dialogue and persuasion.

8. Our brains are not evolved for this

Our brains, evolved for our ancestral environment, are overwhelmed by the unceasing novelty of modern digital platforms, hindering focus and deep thinking. The ceaseless influx of content deprives us of reflective moments vital for creativity.

By capitalising on our primal brain mechanisms, these platforms render smartphones almost as extensions of our nervous system. This continuous interaction, even when offline, affects our real-world behaviour, escalating anxiety, suspicion, and anger.

Consequently, our ability to connect compassionately and understand others diminishes just when humanity most needs unity.

9. There is no shared reality for us to act from

 Despite the need for healthy debate, a functioning democracy still needs a rough consensus about reality.

However, digital tribalism and evolving news consumption are eroding this consensus. Information is increasingly filtered through tribal biases rather than objective truths.

This polarisation, most evident in nations like the US, generates disparate realities, undermining cohesive actions and diminishing the role of genuine expertise. As Hannah Arendt highlighted, only by sharing diverse perspectives can we form a common understanding; currently, we risk isolating ourselves within self-reinforcing views.

10. Nothing is real

There is plenty of concern about George Orwell’s big brother and ‘surveillance capitalism’ but perhaps we should be more worried about Aldous Huxley’s prediction that the truth will be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance”. The deluge of information we face, much of it misleading or false, is erasing the distinction between truth and fiction.

Already an estimated 99% of new Facebook accounts are fake, and manipulators from Putin to Bannon want erode belief in consensus reality to the point where no-one knows what is true. With the revolution in generative AI, the cost of producing convincing bullshit has almost dropped to zero, and the targeting will be order of magnitude more sophisticated.

If most of what you come across is fake and designed to manipulate how useful can online platforms be?

What next

I am convinced that, for all the reasons laid out above, the current engagement business model means social media is a net negative and a major barrier to societal transformation.  There is a bigger conversation to have, but here are some principles for how we might go forward:

Invest in Offline: Prioritising human interactions over digital is crucial. Embracing community work and real connections can build lasting power and reduce polarisation. It’s about long-term impact rather than immediate reach.

Have an Information Hierarchy: Being constantly updated doesn’t equate to being informed. In the deluge of online information, deeper sources, like books, offer reflection and understanding, acting as anchors in a storm of fleeting news.

Just Enough of the Right Technology: While digital tools are invaluable, they must be designed to enhance our best human traits. Tools like vTaiwan show potential, but we must be cautious of platforms that amplify extremes and monopolise power.

Know Yourself Better Than the Algorithms: Awareness of online nudges and manipulation is key. Approach online content with scepticism and understand the motives behind them. Resist the allure of personal brand building in favour of genuine collective efforts.

Final Word: To paraphrase Katherine Rundell – attention is the thing we owe most to this precious world.  Campaigning and activism, and your mind, have been co-opted by the attention-based business model. We cannot build the future where the aim is to monetise your attention no matter what good things happen there. So, delete your social media accounts, put down the phone – and go and start a real-life conversation about what we do next.

You can download the full essay here.

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