SANTA CRUZ — Social media is destroying Democracy.

Or so goes the punchline to tech pioneer Jaron Lanier’s visit to Santa Cruz on Monday, where Lanier — whose varied career includes coining the term “virtual reality” and earning a spot on Time Magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people — met with UC Santa Cruz students and delivered an evening lecture.

A renowned computer scientist, thinker and author, Lanier has been sounding the alarm about the supposed perils of social media for more than a decade, warning that the ad-revenue-driven, attention-hoarding algorithms of companies such as Facebook and Twitter are inherently structured to trigger a fight-or-flight response, and claiming the platforms could threaten the stability of modern society itself.

But it’s only recently, as current events provide frequent fodder for Lanier’s case, that an audience beyond the hills of Silicon Valley has perked up its ears.

“I’m really concerned Facebook is going to kill all the democratic governments before we have a chance to regulate it,” Lanier told an audience of freshmen from UCSC’s College Scholars honor program.

The students had just finished reading Lanier’s newest book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” as part of their coursework and were invited to ask its author questions directly.

Lanier’s visit, which kicked off a year of “Data and Democracy” programming at the UCSC Humanities institute, could hardly have been better timed to underscore his central claim.

In the U.S, the past week has seen wave of partisan and hate-fueled violence with bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, shots fired into a Florida GOP headquarters and 11 people killed in a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

And on Sunday, Brazil elected far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency, becoming the latest Democratic nation to lurch toward nationalism amid an increasingly vitriolic and polarized political climate.

The growing list of nations grappling with populist are culturally and politically diverse, Lanier said. “But the one thing they all have in common, is this recent — relatively recent — arrival of social media, followed by this wave of nasty, irritable politics coming to the fore all at once.”

Before answering questions and laying out what he sees as a potential path forward, Lanier reflected on a time in his teenage years when he “bummed through” Santa Cruz as a young hippie.

Clad in Birkenstocks and sporting long dreadlocks, Lanier’s anecdote drew few raised eyebrows.

Lanier’s conclusion, however — that society would be best served if many of us deleted our social media accounts — did.

Kora Fortun, a freshman linguistics and math major, told Lanier that she agrees with many of his premises but sees a different path forward.

“I see more hope in a new generation of social media users being aware and thus maintaining some control of the platforms we use,” Fortun said.

Lanier responded that he “loved the idea” of a population with the wisdom to avoid being herded by the algorithms, but he doesn’t believe it’s possible. “It’s all this algorithmic adaptive process that keeps trying a million experiments on populations of millions of people until it finds what works,” he said. “Given that that’s the way the system operates in many cases, I respectfully have to inform you that you have no hope of being self-aware about this.”

Later Monday, Lanier fleshed out his thesis in more detail as he delivered the 2018 Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture, drawing a narrative of tech companies selling users’ data and attention as their true product in order to meet an expectation that web services should be free.

“We’ve created a world in which anytime two people connect online it’s financed by a third person who believes they can manipulate the first two,” Lanier said.

Feeding the cycle, Lanier claimed, is an addictive tendency on behalf of social media users that he compared to gambling or cigarette smoking.

And his proposed solution is designed to account for that addictive tendency: If enough social media users can break away from dependency, Lanier claimed, they could serve as an unbiased base of advocates to reform the system — as, in his telling, happened with tobacco legislation.

He invited the audience to run the experiment in their own lives by foregoing social media for six months to test if the platforms are having a negative impact on their lives and emotions.

“I’m not telling you what’s right for you, but I demand that you discover what’s right for you,” he said. “That, I think, is a fair demand, given the stakes.”