Ross Boswell: Why I refuse to join ‘anti-social’ media


My late father-in-law, a wise and thoughtful man, said more than once that he would die
never having worn jeans. I believe that, as it turned out, he was correct. I, in turn, intend to
die never having established a Facebook login account.

From that standpoint of ignorance, I would like to criticise the current fixation with what is generally described as “social media”.

My refusal to participate is not based on failure to come to terms with the technology. I
began writing computer programs more than 50 years ago and I have a research degree in theoretical molecular biology. I adopted word processing before there were word
processors, and international email before there was an internet. I was a regular user and
contributor to Usenet newsgroups, established a gopher hole before there were
web servers, and I have administered my own mail server and web server for 25 years.

What keeps me from participating in this modern phenomenon is the sheer banality,
inaccuracy and irrelevance of the “information” shared on it.

Much is made by the proponents and purveyors of social media of freedom of information, of the right to free speech. Information is only useful if it is accurate. Free speech has always been curbed – the classic example given is that while I have a right to shout “Fire!”, I may not use that right to shout it in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, because that might cause great harm to those who would be caught in the consequent stampede for the exits.

So why does our society give idiots the “right” to claim that Covid-19 is caused by 5G cellphone towers, and provide immunity for the platforms that amplify and promote their lies, leading others to wreck them?

One of the most pernicious features of these platforms is that they tailor the misinformation they provide to individual users. If a newspaper publishes something, that thing is visible to all readers and those who disagree with it can voice their disagreement.

If you choose to take your “news” from Facebook, then the information you see is targeted at you, and other users can have no idea what it may be. That feature was designed to be exploited by advertisers, but it has also been used, notably in the most recent US presidential election and in the Brexit campaign, by political actors intent on selling false information in order to garner votes.

I am particularly incensed that large commercial and government organisations are too lazy or tight-fisted to set up their own communication channels, and instead want me to contact them through their “Facebook page”. I refuse. Where I can, I abandon that organisation for one with a more appropriate communication strategy. I am bemused that both central and local government seem to think that “putting it on our Facebook page” or “tweeting” is an appropriate strategy for communicating essential information to citizens.

The lure, the sweet seduction of all of this is that it is “free” – you don’t have to pay to use
it. In all of this, there is one thing I would ask you to remember. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody has to pay the bills for your tweeting, posting and reading. So if you aren’t paying, then that’s because it is you, your attention, your eyeballs, that are being sold.

• Ross Boswell is a pathologist and physician in the public hospital system.

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