The Sins of the Digital Era

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Social media narrows our range of information by spreading misinformation.


We used to think of the digital world and the “real” world as two very separate arenas. Today, we understand that there is no way of knowing where one begins and the other ends. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, when we contemplate our behavior in the real world, maybe we should also hold a digital day of reckoning. Adults can start with the little things: “I sleep with my phone under my pillow;” “I ignore the children because I’m on Facebook;” “I have lost interest in my partner because of too much screen time;” I use words online that I’d never use face to face.” For adolescents, the confessions might include: “I take too many selfies;” “I learn about relations with girls from free porn videos;” “I’ve intentionally blocked people from my WhatsApp even though I know how much it hurts them;” “I suffer from terrible FOMO (fear of missing out).” And if we can talk in terms of sins, we might refer to deceit (on Tinder), jealousy (on Facebook), prying (on Google), sloth (on Netflix), greed (on LinkedIn) and pride (on Instagram).

At this point, it might have been possible to conclude this article with some general call for greater morality, that each of us reviews our behavior and takes responsibility for it: Let us cut down on our screen time; educate ourselves and our children what we can and cannot say to friends in WhatsApp groups, and avoid misuse of the Internet; refrain from using our phone as an alarm clock and turn off notifications that are the source of constant distractions. And of course, exert better control over our personal information and read the terms and conditions of apps before giving anyone and everyone access to our data.

However, this last year has taught us that there might be something greater at stake than the sum of our digital sins as individuals. We learned about apps that are designed to exploit our greatest vulnerabilities, addicting us and inducing us to hand over even more private information; how our private information is used to influence our understanding and decision-making and undermine our free will; the fact that our Facebook feeds, search results and Twitter accounts are designed not to increase the range of information we have access to and broaden our thinking, but rather to narrow them or to spread misinformation.

Moreover, this past year has been a turning point – throughout the entire world, but perhaps even more so here in Israel. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised public awareness of the fact that, notwithstanding the blessings provided by digital technology, and in addition to the explosive increase in our screen time as a direct result of our social distancing and isolation, we are currently in the throes of a deep crisis. Coronavirus deniers and anti-vaxxers have gained a level of influence and power via social media that far outstrips their number and significance in real life. Thousands of fictional stories designed to spread fear and uncertainty with regard to the vaccine have led directly to increased rates of infection and mortality.

In the midst of these events, we held elections in Israel and discovered that our politicians utilize social media to deceive us, using fictitious videos, malicious spin, targeted messaging and networking, open Facebook groups and closed Telegram groups and plenty of fake everything – fake accounts, fake likes and fake news about fake election “fraud.” We also experienced internal violent confrontations during Operation Guardian of the Walls, the likes of which we had never experienced, in the course of which hooligans and lawbreakers used TikTok videos, Facebook posts, and WhatsApp groups to incite and carry out physical violence and to attack neighbors and fellow citizens.

In short, we have come to understand that what is at stake is not just our behavior as individual digital sinners and our ability to function as intelligent and autonomous beings, but rather an existential threat to our social cohesion; an issue that affects our health, indeed our very lives, and our capacity as a state to cope with threats that we never imagined existed.

Thus, a collective effort of contemplation and soul-searching is essential, because after several years of legislative paralysis in Israel, we now finally have a functioning government. And over the coming year, we will have to begin providing real solutions to address the threats facing us as a society, and not just as individuals: protecting our information, preventing the political manipulation of social media before elections and creating systems to effectively identify and remove dangerous content from cyberspace. All those who seek to spread lies and violence, along with the tech giants whose business model allows them to bloom, must be made to understand that the day of judgment is imminent.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.