Book Review: Social Media and Morality–Losing Our Self Control

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Social Media and Morality: Losing Our Self Control. By Lisa S. Nelson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 225 p. Includes bibliographic references and index. ISBN 9781107164932 (hardcover) $114.95. ISBN 9781316616574 (softcover) $39.95.

Reviewed by Sally Sax
Collections Librarian (Business, Public Affairs, Legal Studies)
Carleton University
In CLLR 44:2

Social Media and Morality is Lisa S. Nelson’s contribution to a growing body of literature exploring the consequences of our engagement with social media platforms. Nelson adopts a postphenomenological approach, which “is built on the premise that technology cannot be isolated from methods, interests, materials, and institutions influencing its constitution” and views technology not as a neutral tool, but as “a medium through which subjective perceptual experience is created and mediated” (p 7).

The first chapter draws on the history of technology and law to examine social media’s political significance. This chapter also introduces the postphenomenological view of technology as an agent of change. One example Nelson uses to illustrate this view is the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to privacy. She notes a generational shift toward “a certain resignation to surveillance and data harvesting,” and that in contemporary society, “[p]eople expect less privacy and do less to preserve it” (p 42) than previous generations did when technologies such as the telephone were the primary means of remote communication. Nelson touches upon the limits to which legal and regulatory frameworks can protect the constitutional rights of social media users, stating:

Our increased reliance on and acceptance of social networking technologies undermine the prospects of blanket protections for privacy and anonymity … While we like to think of ourselves as the agents in our social networking activities, reliance on third-party providers leads to a counterintuitive outcome when it comes to maintaining our privacy and anonymity in cyberspace (p 43).

The remaining five chapters probe more deeply into philosophical inquiry. Chapter 2 describes social media as a moral entity capable of altering our perception of reality:

Whether in the form of images or misrepresentations or the vilest of what our imagination might otherwise resist, social networking technologies deliver us a reality to which we react despite its factual validity. In this way, social networking technologies interweave subjects and objects in the interpretation or constitution of reality and, in doing so, mediate human perceptions, not necessarily revealing the “thing themselves”, but instead constructing our perceptions of the “real” without a direct and accessible reference for it (p 86).

Chapters 3–5 further explore how social media affects human behaviour online and offline. Chapter 3 focusses on the way humans contextualize their actions in cyberspace, while Chapter 4 examines the disruptive effect that networked time has on our behaviour and moral judgment. Social media’s “emphasis on the present or ‘specious present’—lacking in depth, divorced from the past and future, and perpetually accessible—influences our subjective understanding of time but also shapes our moral judgments” (p 137). This “specious present” prompts us to react in ways that seem reasonable in the moment we first observe social media content, but unreasonable when the real-life context of that content becomes known to us (if it ever does). Chapter 5 explores the ethics of constructing an online identity that improves upon or is radically different from our offline selves, and the impact this has on our sense of accountability and moral responsibility to other online citizens.

The final chapter uses postphenomenology to expand upon the subject of regulation discussed in Chapter 1. Nelson’s approach allows her to move beyond legal and political frameworks and turn her attention to the personal. Nelson’s aim is not to propose a definitive solution for “harmful online behavior such as cyber bullying, digilantism, sexual harassment, threats, racism, and terrorism” (p 57), but to caution against relying on regulatory and technological solutions for changing these behaviours. In her view, individuals must first become aware of how technology manipulates them before there can be any hope of improving the larger social media experience. This call for critical reflection will resonate with librarians who provide information literacy instruction.

Social Media and Morality neatly moves the reader through various philosophical approaches to technology and the self, and Nelson draws upon widely reported social media phenomena to illustrate her points. Social Media and Morality is a thoughtful work that provides additional depth and dimension to similar themes covered in popular non-fiction works such as Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. Scholars researching internet law and policy development should consider Nelson’s approach when considering why we have thus far failed to regulate our way to a more respectful and trustworthy social media environment.

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