Trump, Musk and Kanye Are Twitter Poisoned

Credit…Sargam Gupta

I encountered Donald Trump a few times in the pre-social media era, and he struck me as someone who was in on his own joke. He no longer does. Elon Musk used to be a serious person more concerned with engineering and building businesses than with petty name-calling. He didn’t seem like the kind of person to amplify a preposterous, sordid story about Paul Pelosi. Kanye West was once a thoughtful artist. Now known as Ye, he radiates antisemitism on top of his earlier slavery denialism.

I have observed a change, or really a narrowing, in the public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media a lot. (“Other social media” sometimes coming into play after ejection from Twitter.) When I compare Mr. Musk, Mr. Trump and Ye, I see a convergence of personalities that were once distinct. The garish celebrity playboy, the obsessive engineer and the young artist, as different from one another as they could be, have all veered not in the direction of becoming grumpy old men, but into being bratty little boys in a schoolyard. Maybe we should look at what social media has done to these men.

I’m not claiming that Twitter is the sole influence, of course. Traditional demons summoned by great wealth have not vanished. I have no access to what goes on in the brains of other people. What I’m talking about is plain public behavior. The personalities of a great many famous and powerful people have changed in a similar way — a way we could do without.

I believe “Twitter poisoning” is a real thing. It is a side effect that appears when people are acting under an algorithmic system that is designed to engage them to the max. It’s a symptom of being part of a behavior-modification scheme.

The same could be said about any number of other figures, including on the left. Examples are found in the excesses of cancel culture and joyless orthodoxies in fandom, in vain attention competitions and senseless online bullying.

My purpose is not to ridicule anyone, though it might be impossible to be perceived in any other way, given the near-monopoly status that ridicule has taken on in the era of social media. The human brain did not evolve to handle modern chemicals or modern media technology and is vulnerable to addiction. That is true for me and for us all.

Behavioral changes occur as a side effect of something called operant conditioning, which is the underlying mechanism of social media addiction. This is the core mechanism analogous to the role alcohol plays in alcoholism.

In early operant conditioning, pioneered by famous behaviorists like B.F. Skinner, animals were given positive and negative feedback in the form of treats and electric shocks. The behavior of each individual animal was monitored so that the stimulus given was constantly optimized to a purpose. A similar scheme targets people through their phones today.

In the case of digital platforms, the purpose is usually “engagement,” a concept that is hard to distinguish from addiction. People receive little positive and negative jolts of social feedback — getting followed or liked, or being ignored or even humiliated. Before social media, that kind of tight feedback loop had rarely been present in human communications outside of laboratories or marriages. (This is part of why marriage can be hard, I suspect.)  

I was around when Google and other companies that operate on the personalized advertising model were created, and I can say that at least in the early days, operant conditioning was not part of the plan. What happened was that the algorithms that optimized the individualized advertising model found their way into it automatically, unintentionally rediscovering methods that had been tested on dogs and pigeons.

What do I think are the symptoms of Twitter poisoning? There is a childish insecurity, where before there was pride. Instead of being above it all, like traditional strongmen throughout history, the modern social media-poisoned alpha male whines and frets. This works because his followers are similarly poisoned and can relate so well.

To be clear, whiners are much better than Stalins. And yet there have been plenty of more mature and gracious leaders who are better than either, even if we can no longer agree about who they were, because of our intense tribalism, which is amplified by the prevalence of social media addiction.

I’ll suggest a hypothesis about the childishness that comes to the surface in social media addicts. When we were children, we all had to negotiate our way through the jungle of human power relationships at the playground. When we feel those old humiliations, anxieties and sadisms again as adults — over and over, because the algorithm has settled on that pattern as a powerful way to engage us — habit formation restimulates old patterns that had been dormant. We become children again, not in a positive, imaginative sense, but in a pathetic way.

Twitter poisoning makes sufferers feel more oppressed than is reasonable in response to reasonable rules. The scope of fun is constricted to transgressions. Unfortunately, scale changes everything. Taunts become dangerous hate when amplified. A Twitter-poisoned soul will often complain of a loss of fun when someone succeeds at moderating the spew of hate.

Twitter poisoning is a little like alcoholism or gambling addiction, in that the afflicted lose all sense of proportion about their own powers. They can come to believe they have almost supernatural abilities. Little boys fantasize about energy beams shooting from their fingertips.

The degree of narcissism becomes almost absolute. Everything is about what someone else thinks of you. After Ukrainian officials verbally lashed out at Mr. Musk for suggesting a peace plan that included ceding territory to Russia, Mr. Musk said his company couldn’t indefinitely fund satellite support to Ukraine. The pre-addict Elon Musk would probably have brushed it off. Who cares that much about what someone else thinks? The answer is: either a child learning how social perception of oneself works or an adult suffering from Twitter addiction.

These observations should inform our concerns about TikTok. The most devastating way China might use TikTok is not to misdirect our elections or to prefer pro-China posts, but to generally ramp up social media disease, so as to make Americans more divided, less able to talk to one another and less able to put up a coordinated, unified front.

Modern techies have revived a technocratic sensibility: a belief that great engineers can and should guide society. Whether that idea appeals or not, when technology degrades the minds of those same engineers, then the result can only be dysfunction.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist who pioneered research in virtual reality and whose books include “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” He is Microsoft’s “prime unifying scientist” but does not speak for the company.

New York Times – November 11, 2022

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