In the middle of the seventh volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the author describes at length a scene of impeccable civility. The Baron de Charlus, by then aged and physically diminished, bows deeply, in spite of his physical discomfort, to a remote acquaintance, Madame de Villeparisis.
So what? Most of the novel deals with the mores of French society’s refined upper echelons between 1890 and 1920, a declining age of innocence and splendour when politeness, nonetheless, reigned supreme.
The tenacious reader of the Recherche will recall that we first encountered the baron in the first volume of the book, about 2,000 pages ago. Then, and in every appearance since, the narrator has emphasised the cantankerous and turbulent temper of the aristocrat who would not so much as tip his hat to nobles of lower ranks. The personal journey of the baron, from choleric to meek, is nothing short of remarkable.
It seems to me the exact opposite is happening on social media. The cheeky and friendly connections of the early days of FaceMash have morphed into heated, crude — and worse — exchanges across most platforms. (Maybe LinkedIn is immune still.)
The amount of angry and rude stuff put out on the internet by people who are probably calm and reasonable in their nondigital environment has grown almost uncontrollably. By the end of 2018, 34 percent of youngsters in the United States had experienced cyber bullying at least once. This has led some commentators to observe that social media’s negative impact on the mental health of users, especially young ones, may be irreversible. Others say social media may be incompatible with democracy. Put simply, social media is on the verge of becoming antisocial.
Given the size of the problem, platforms are taking actions — some human-based, some technology-enabled.
Facebook announced the creation of a “supreme court” (an “Oversight Board”) to oversee content policy and, if deemed necessary, override CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In a related development, the number of fact-checking outlets has quadrupled globally in less than 5 years, reaching almost 200 by the middle of 2019. This remains a figurative minefield, and the legal framework is changing, too — with newer laws coming in to curb online harassment and stalking.
Is technology the solution to reinjecting civility into our civilization?
In tandem with this attempt at human moderation, technology has been introduced. Instagram, in a bid to defuse “fear of missing out” (FOMO), is making “likes” invisible to users. More sophisticated tools that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) exist. In Mile 22, a subplot sees secret agent Alice Kerr (played by actress Lauren Cohan) use the Family Wizard app in between car chases and cold-blooded shoot-outs.
Dubbed a “shared parenting” tool, Family Wizard is essentially Grammarly for angry divorced couples. To assist agent Kerr in keeping her temper under control when interacting with her ex-husband, and to protect the child from her parents’ exchanges of abusive language, the software suggests removing insults as Alice types them on WhatsApp. A digital penalty box of sorts (and you have to admire the product placement if nothing else).
Can social manners be imposed online?
Should something like Family Wizard be switched on at all times across digital social networks? However tempting, going down that road brings up a number of thorny questions.
Here are 10 for starters:
- Would users have to give consent?
- If they did not, would the social platforms be prepared to accept a significant drop in numbers? (If the General Data Protection Regulation exercises are anything to go by, seeking explicit consent might reduce the base by as much as 80 percent.)
- How does consent square up with local jurisdictions’ freedom-of-speech provisions, such as France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment?
- How would the app deal with images and videos, as well as humour and irony?
- Can users override the changes suggested by the app and publish unacceptable content?
- If they did, what punishment might be imposed on them?
- Who would decide on such reprimands, and would they vary by country or culture?
- Would these penalties extend to offline — that is, real life contexts — as powerfully described in the last episode of the third series of Black Mirror?
- Would these shunned users decide to migrate to alternative, less-regulated platforms?
- And if so, would these new platforms turn into ever-increasing vitriolic spaces, with the result being that an effort to make the online world more decent would drive more extreme behaviour?
There is then an intractable paradox: In wishing us to be more polite and civil, we might end up encouraging more abusive behaviour. Perhaps instead, we have to grow up, both individually and collectively, as the fictional Baron de Charlus did, to get to a better place
Did you enjoy this article? Read more insights by Vincent Rousselet on THRIVE.