Roger L. Simon

Will Social Media Be the Death of Us—Literally?

These days many are justifiably alarmed at the overwhelming data-mining capabilities of our internet behemoths. It was one thing that the NSA and other intelligence agencies knew everything about us — they had a national security excuse, misplaced as that apparently has become — but private concerns from Alphabet to Facebook and back to Amazon now have more information about us than we even know ourselves.

Privacy isn’t only dead.  It’s decomposed.

But it’s worse. Google used to brag “First do no harm,” but they did that big time just the other day — inadvertent though it may have been. Their acquisition YouTube inspired an obvious sociopath — Nasim Najafi Aghdam, 39, of San Diego — to act out wildly, killing one individual and severely wounding several others.

Ms. Aghdam was clearly a highly disturbed individual with delusions of grandeur augmented by a bizarre mishmash of religious and socio-political detritus partially washed up from her native Iran.  (She appeared in one posting in a hijab, asking if it made her attractive, alternatively threatening and flirting with her audience.)

The police have said she was angry at YouTube’s policies, which are, despite claims to the contrary, largely autocratic and self-interested. But that law-enforcement view is legalistic and perforce overly simple. It is only the most superficial part of the story.

A more important question emerges from this particular horrific event the media is now ignoring because it doesn’t fit their tiresome narrative.  Would this sociopathic woman have gone on this rampage were it not for the very existence of YouTube or social media in general, no matter what the policies of those organizations?

Ms. Aghdam sat alone in a room, making videos for thousands, even millions, she had never met.  Unlike on a film set, she could do much of her work alone, without much, or even any, feedback from colleagues.  Few, if any, live people were in evidence.

For an unbalanced personality, this is a prescription for disaster.  All sorts of ideas can float through the brain.  Misunderstandings proliferate without verifiable feedback other than mostly anonymous comments posted for a variety of reasons from the salutary to the pernicious on a website.  Meanwhile, the social media company providing the platform can alienate the performer even on those occasions when it does have good intentions. Paranoia, as the song goes, strikes deep.  The results then are what we saw in San Bruno.

This leads to a second question:  Was the human species evolved over millennia to deal with the rapidly advancing technological world we live in?  Are we ready for this? Are we capable?

Throughout most of human history, humanity has existed in small groups or tribes.  People like Ms. Aghdam were often protected from their worst impulses by those surrounding them. Yes, they were sometimes also treated as witches, but they were less often completely alone.  Now they are alone. Now, more than ever, no one sees them, no one relates to them personally, face-to-face — whatever their public notoriety, whatever the size of their audience.  Lost in an anomie Durkheim could never have conceived of, they are free to weave their fantasies irrespective of reality. When things go wrong, heaven help us.  Social media is anything but social.

So where does this leave us?  Nowhere good, I’m afraid.  As a species, we are playing catch-up. Our DNA isn’t ready — hasn’t yet been evolved — for what is before us and may not be for centuries or millennia.

Ms. Aghdam is only the more extreme public face of this disturbing phenomenon.  Because of her make-up, she acted out violently and aggressively.  In a wider context, many have observed that our young people are being seriously wounded by social media, their ability to grow up privately, to make the mistakes we all do, drastically attenuated and subject to online ridicule. We have no friends, only digital mates.

I doubt Zuckerberg and the others realized what they would unleash, but unleash they have.  Whether the genie can be put back in the proverbial bottle is unknown.  We may have to wait until we are all cyborgs.  Until then, expect more Nasim Najafi Aghdams in various guises.

Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media.  His latest book is I Know Best:  How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If  It Hasn’t Already.   He shamefully procrastinates on Twitter when he should be working on his next novel @rogerlsimon