A few weeks ago, my wife and I stumbled upon the Netflix documentary
/The Social Dilemma. It was an eye opening experience.
Over the last few days, my wife and I have been watching it again, but this time with our three oldest kiddos. This post is a combination of quotes from the documentary, summaries of ideas presented in the documentary, and some personal reflections.
Social Media and Manipulation
Early on in the documentary, Tristan Harris communicates the idea that because of social media, users “will have thoughts they did not intend to have because of the way the application was designed.”
We often think of social media as a tool – a neutral object or item. But a tool “genuinely sits there waiting to be used.” Per the documentary, social media should not be considered as a tool because these types of apps are demanding things from users, seducing users, and manipulating users.
The goals of the users are not prioritized. Social media has it own goals and own means of manipulation.
What is the Purpose of Social Media?
A lot people believe that the purpose of social media is entertainment, education, and connection. While that might be the intention of the end users, we need to be aware that big tech companies are interested in making money and pleasing shareholders.
The business model being implemented encourages big tech and social media companies to find new ways to get people to engage the screen. More screen time equals more money.
So it is not surprising that every single action a user performs is monitored and recorded. The old say, you can manage what you measure applies here.
Big tech knows …
- every single image you view and how long you looked at it
- what you are doing at night
- what rabbit holes you are prone to follow
From this information, big tech can determine …
- personality type
- emotional status
- what advertisements they should push
The information we are pouring out (freely, I might add) is being feed into supercomputers that build models to predict our actions. And as more data pours into these systems, the models become more and more accurate at predicting future action.
The goal of social media (from the company’s perspective) is growth. There are clearly defined usage goals (ideal time a user spends on a given platform), growth goals (the number of new users being added to a platform), and advertising goals (amount of money that is coming in). Complex algorithms decide what content, notifications, products, etc. are pushed to users in order to achieve the desired goals.
But Isn’t Social Media Free To Use?
I did not have to give a create card number to setup my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account. On the outside, it appears that social media is free to use. But “if you are not paying for the product then you are the product.”
The applications we use are not the products. We are. Over the last 10 years or so, the biggest companies have been selling their user data to their true customers – the advertisers who are willing to pay for our attention. And to be more specific, big tech is in the business of selling certainty. To guarantee results to advertisers, these companies need a lot of data – our data.
I always tell my kids that nothing is completely free. Someone always has to pay somewhere down the line. Although social media appears free to use, the services are not free. Advertisers are gladly paying for our attention.
In the documentary, Jaron Lanier stated that the social connections that we all need and want are being encouraged by people interested in manipulating the situation for their own benefit.
He goes on to say that it is not just our attention that is the product, but rather “it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
Social Media and Addiction
Since social media needs a lot of data to sell certainty, it makes sense that big tech would need/encourage its users to be addicted. There are only two industries that call their clients users - illegal drugs dealers and software companies.
Social media triggers dopamine release as we connect with others. When big tech optimizes social media apps to improve and enhance social connection (which results in the dopamine hit), users are susceptible to addiction.
Tech companies started investigating the idea of “persuasive technology” and “growth hacking.” Entire engineering teams are dedicated to hacking human psychology to get people to use social media even more.
A few of the more common features that draw us in include:
- “Pull down and refresh” – This positive intermittent reinforcement technique is like a slot machine. You know you are going to get something, but are not sure when, so you keep coming back because you don’t want to miss out.
- Photo tagging – An email with notification is sent to the user, which has become something that we “can’t” ignore. The email does not contain the photo, which would be an easier and more efficient workflow. Instead the user receives a link to the photo and is drawn back into the app to increase usage and engagement.
- Ellipses – The three dots shows other peoples’ engagement/activity in real time, which causes you to stay engaged with content more regularly.
Our addictions have caused social media to become a “digital pacifier.” It calls to us when we are lonely, afraid, uncertain, mad, etc. We come back and back again because we want to “feel better” and get our fix.
How Social Media Impacts Children
Several former big tech executives confessed that even though they understand the techniques that are deployed against users, they still struggled with their own social media addiction. For those who had children, they either had a complete no use policy or a very restricted use policy.
One of the interviewees had the following recommendations:
- All devices must be placed outside of the bedroom at a fixed time every night. This was applied to all members of the household.
- No social media until a child turns 16 years old. He stated that middle school is hard enough without complicating things with social media.
- Develop a time budget regarding social media use. Allow children to participate in the conversation.
Tristan Harris stated that big tech was not designed to nurture and protect children, as it is not regulated like Saturday morning cartoons once was. Instead, “social media starts to dig deeper and deeper into the brain stem and take over kids’ self worth and identity
We all seek social approval from the people around us (very natural), but we were not built to seek the approval of 10,000 people. Adults struggle with conflating likes with value and truth. This is even more concerning as impressionable children are seeking the approval of hundreds or thousands.
The documentary highlighted some concerning changes that started between 2011 and 2013. Gen Z, the first generation to be able to access social media in middle school, are exhibiting the following:
- more anxious
- less likely to drive
- less likely to be in romantic relationships
- more likely cut themselves or commit suicide
Social Media - Super Computers
/The Social Dilemma also highlighted our primarily opponent in this social media war – super computers who are making decisions on their own. The human brain has not changed much throughout history, but today’s computers are quadrillions times faster in processing information than when the computer was first released.
It like we are playing a game against the supercomputer (the AI). Unfortunately, it knows everything about us, and we know relatively nothing about it. The odds are stacked against the user in this unfair fight.
These super computers execute algorithms embedded in code. A developer has built the machine and the code, but the computer is allowed to run itself. These machine are not objective, because when they were built they were coded with some definition of success (in most cases, make money). Once the stated goal is provided, the artificial intelligence starts working to reach the goal.
Tristan Harris remarked, “We are looking for the moment when technology overwhelms human strength, but there is a far earlier moment when it overwhelms our weaknesses – this moment, checkmate on humanity.”
Social Media and Truth
In addition to some of the concerns presented above, the documentary spoke about how social media is changing peoples’ perception of truth.
Jaron Lanier explained that when two users view an article on Wikipedia, both people see the same article. The same is not necessary true for our social media feeds. Different people see different results in their feeds based on where they live and specific information that big tech has gathered about those users.
We are given carefully, calculated “realities” that support our own biases and views. With these manipulated feeds (which causes increased engagement), we falsely assume that “news” supports everything that we already believe. We falsely assume that everyone agrees with us. Once we have succumbed to this setup, we easily manipulated.
We ask of the other side, “How can those people be so stupid?” and “Don’t they have access to the truth?” The simple answer is that people who disagree with us are being offered a different version of “truth.”
Polarization is extremely efficient at keeping people online and consuming content. The super computer algorithms are not designed to give people what they want, but rather drop them in the rabbit hole that is closet what the user wants. As the divide continues to widen and as we hold on tighter to our version of the truth, we remove all reason to compromise or even interact with people who have differing viewpoints.
The entire system is biased towards false information because polarization and disunity makes more money, not less.
Social Media as a Weapon
So far we have been talking about corporations and advertisers who want to make money, but would happen if dictators, terrorists, or other bad actors used these manipulation techniques?
Any person or entity (including governments) can weaponize social media with the goal of spreading manipulative narratives. Increasingly, social media is being used to destabilize countries and target democratic states.
And it is not appropriate to say that someone is hacking Facebook or other social media apps. It is more accurate to say that bad actors are using these resources for nefarious purposes, in the same way that legitimate advertisers use the same resources to reach out to potential clients.
But instead of selling you a pair of shoes, the bad actor wants total chaos and division. The goal is to create two or more opposing sides within a country that can longer hear or trust people with a different viewpoint.
The Existential Threat
So what happens now? I have experienced by own struggles with social media addiction, and I believe that unless controlled on an individual level and at a societal level, the global implications will continue to increase.
Can we trust big tech companies, the ones who created the technology and allow it to operate as is, to fix the problem? I am not ware of the AI being able to selfheal. It is only acting per its prescribed stated goals.
Can we trust government to fix the problem? I am for additional regulations, but social media already has and can potentially be used in the future to manipulative segments or an entire nation of people. Governments are too prone to provide new, but equally harmful stated goals.
Can we trust ourselves to fix the problem? “The race to keeps people attention is not going away. Our attention will be more valued, the AI will become smarter.” We are fighting a powerful opponent – machines that are designed to manipulate us.
But if we don’t start having honest conversations and taking proactive steps to remove ourselves from the manipulation machine, we will continue to server in a “weird role where we are just a computing node for this giant brain.” Remember that computing nodes are programmable. We are the product. We are being programmed as we allow others in influence our behavior and perception.
I appreciate the opportunities and conveniences that technology brings to my life, but I must remain on guard. I need to be aware of potential goals that big tech has for the applications I use. Perhaps, the technology is not the threat. That might be true. But if left unchecked, the tech can and will be used to bring out the worst in the human race – hatred, greed, division, empathy, etc. This impacts all people within a society, even those who are not users.
I believe that Harris summarized the best next step with the following statement. “At the end of the day, this massive machine is not going to turn around until there is massive public pressure.”
We have a choice:
- to keep our social media accounts or not
- to fall into the rabbit hole of recommended content or not
- to step away from our phones or not
- to engage the people within our homes or not
- to protect our kiddos from addiction or not
- to speak out or stay silent
We have the choice to vote with our clicks (or not)!
Thanks for stopping by, and as always, I want to hear more from you. See you in the comments section