Exploring the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society. Focusing on the exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, how its design is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates), and its role in spreading conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and aiding groups such as flat-earthers.
It’s easy today to lose sight of the fact that these tools actually have created some wonderful things in the world. They’ve reunited lost family members. They’ve helped people find organ donors. I mean, there were meaningful, systemic changes happening around the world because of these platforms that were positive! However, I think we were naive about the flip side of that coin. These things, you release them, and they take on a life of their own. And how they’re used is pretty different from how we’ve expected. Nobody, I deeply believe, ever intended any of these consequences. There’s not one bad guy. No, Absolutely not.
~So then what’s the problem? Is there a problem, and what is the problem?
It is hard to give a single succinct… there are so many different problems.
Despite facing mounting criticism, the so-called Big Tech names are getting bigger. The entire tech industry is under a new level of scrutiny and a new study sheds light on the link between mental health and social media use. But the reality is, The latest research going on gets no coverage at all.
Tens of millions of Americans are hopelessly addicted to their electronic devices. It’s exacerbated by the fact that you can literally isolate yourself now in a bubble, thanks to our technology. Fake news is becoming more advanced and threatening societies around the world. No one was expecting any of this when Twitter was created over 12 years ago. White House officials say they have no reason to believe the Russian cyberattacks will stop. YouTube is being forced to concentrate on cleansing the site.
For instance, Tik tok, if you talk to any teen out there, there’s no chance they’ll delete that thing. Now, these cosmetic procedures are becoming so popular with teens, plastic surgeons have coined a new syndrome for it – “Snapchat dysmorphia,” with young patients wanting surgery so they can look more like they do in filtered selfies.
Surveillance capitalism has come to shape our politics and culture in ways many people don’t perceive. ISIS inspired followers online, and now white supremacists are doing the same. Recently in India, Internet lynch mobs have killed a dozen people.
It’s not just fake news; it’s fake news with consequences.
How do you handle an epidemic in the age of fake news?
• Can you get the coronavirus by eating Chinese food?
We have gone from the information age into the disinformation age. Our democracy is under assault. The tools that have been created today are starting to erode the social fabric of how society works.
Considering, talking about a new agenda for technology. And why we wanna do that is because if you ask people, “What’s wrong in the tech industry right now?” There’s a cacophony of grievances and scandals, and “They stole our data.” And there’s tech addiction. there’s fake news, there’s polarization, and some elections that are getting hacked. But is there something that is beneath all these problems that are causing all these things to happen at once?
Like, there’s a problem happening in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source, like, one…
When you look around you, it feels like the world is going crazy. You have to ask yourself, like, “Is this normal? Or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?
I wish more people could understand how this works because it shouldn’t be something only the tech industry knows. It should be something that everybody knows. You see, tech brings “ethical design” to its products. It’s a struggle to try and figure out how, from the inside, we could change it.
Everyone in 2006… including all employees at Facebook, just had total admiration for Google and what Google had built, which was this incredibly useful service that did, far as we could tell, lots of goodness for the world, and they built this parallel money machine. We had such envy for that, and it seemed so elegant to us… and so perfect. Facebook had been around for about two years and Tim Kendall was hired to come in and figure out what the business model was gonna be for the company. He was the director of the monetization. The point was, like, “You’re the person who’s gonna figure out how this thing monetizes.” And there were a lot of people who did a lot of the work, but he was clearly one of the people who was pointing towards…Well, we have to make money, and I think this advertising model is probably the most elegant way. If you are scrolling through your social media feed while you’re watching us, you need to put the damn phone down and listen, it is wrecking our lives.
Companies like Google and Facebook are some of the wealthiest and most successful of all time. They have relatively few employees. They just have this giant computer that rakes in money, right? Now, what are they being paid for? That’s a really important question.
Roger McNamee has been an investor in technology for 35 years. During the first 50 years of Silicon Valley, industry-made products– hardware, software– were sold ’em to customers. Nice, simple business. For the last ten years, the biggest companies in Silicon Valley have been in the business of selling their users.
But you see, It’s a little even trite to say now, but… because we don’t pay for the products that we use, advertisers pay for the products that we use. ADVERTISERS ARE THE CUSTOMERS. WE’RE THE THING BEING SOLD.
The classic saying is:
“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
A lot of people think, you know, “Oh, well, Google’s just a search box, and Facebook’s just a place to see what my friends are doing and see their photos.” But what they don’t realize is they’re competing for your attention. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, are companies like this, their business model is to keep people engaged on the screen.
~ how to get as much of this person’s attention as we possibly can? How much time can we get you to spend? How much of your life can we get you to give to us?
When you think about how some of these companies work, it starts to make sense. There are all these services on the Internet that we think of as free, but they’re not free. They’re paid by advertisers. Why do advertisers pay those companies? They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us.
WE’RE THE PRODUCT. OUR ATTENTION IS THE PRODUCT BEING SOLD TO ADVERTISERS.
That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. And that is the product. It’s the only possible product. There’s nothing else on the table that could possibly be called the product. That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are. It’s a gradual change. It’s slight. If you can go to somebody and you say, “Give me $10 million, and I will change the world one percent in the direction you want it to change…” It’s the world! That can be incredible, and that’s worth a lot of money.
This is what every business has always dreamt of: to have a guarantee that if it places an ad, it will be successful. That’s their business. They sell certainty. In order to be successful in that business, you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative: you need a lot of data. Many people call this surveillance capitalism, capitalism profiting off of the infinite tracking of everywhere everyone goes by large technology companies whose business model is to make sure that advertisers are as successful as possible.
This is a new kind of marketplace now. It’s a marketplace that never existed before. And it’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. Just like there are markets that trade in pork belly futures or oil futures.
We now have markets that trade in human futures at scale, and those markets have produced the trillions of dollars that have made the Internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity.
What people should know is that everything they’re doing online is being watched, is being tracked, is being measured. Every single action they take is carefully monitored and recorded. Exactly what image they stop and look at, for how long they look at it. Oh, yeah, seriously, for how long do they look at it?
The techies know now when people are lonely. They know when people are depressed. They know when people are looking at photos of your partners. And they know what you’re doing late at night. They know the entire thing. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or what kind of neuroses you have, what your personality type is like. They have more information about us than has ever been imagined in human history. It is unprecedented. And so, all of this data that we’re… that we’re just pouring out all the time is being fed into these systems that have almost no human supervision and that are making better and better and better and better predictions about what we’re gonna do and… and who we are.
People have the misconception it’s our data being sold. It’s not in Facebook’s business interest to give up the data. What do they do with that data?
So basically, they build models that predict our actions, and whoever has the best model wins. On the other side of the screen, it’s almost as if they had this avatar voodoo doll-like model of us. All of the things we’ve ever done, all the clicks we’ve ever made, all the videos we’ve watched, all the likes, that all get brought back into building a more and more accurate model. Model, once you have it, you can predict the kinds of things that person does. Where you’ll go. AI can predict what kind of videos will keep you watching. It can predict what kinds of emotions tend to trigger you.
At a lot of technology companies, there are three main goals. There’s the engagement goal: to drive up your usage, to keep you scrolling. There’s the growth goal: to keep you coming back and inviting as many friends and getting them to invite more friends. And then there’s the advertising goal: to make sure that, as all that’s happening, we’re making as much money as possible from advertising. Each of these goals is powered by algorithms whose job is to figure out what to show you to keep those numbers going up.
At Facebook, this idea of being able to just dial that as needed. And, you know, we talked about having Mark Zuckerberg have those dials. “Hey, I want more users in Korea today.” “Turn the dial.” “Let’s dial up the ads a little bit.” “Dial-up monetization, just slightly.” And so, that happens– I mean, at all of these companies, there is that level of precision.
We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary, especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, any time two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people. So, we’ve created an entire global generation of people who are raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation. We’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
Magicians were almost like the first neuroscientists and psychologists. They were the ones who first understood how people’s minds work. They just, in real-time, are testing lots and lots of stuff on people. A magician understands something, some part of your mind that we’re not aware of. That’s what makes the illusion work. Doctors, lawyers, and people who know how to build 747s or nuclear missiles, don’t know more about how their own mind is vulnerable. That’s a separate discipline. And it’s a discipline that applies to all human beings.
From that perspective, you can have a very different understanding of what technology is doing. How could they use everything we know about the psychology of what persuades people and build that into technology?
There are many prominent Silicon Valley figures who went through that class– key growth figures at Facebook and Uber and… and other companies– and learned how to make technology more persuasive. Persuasive technology is just a sort of design intentionally applied to the extreme, where we really want to modify someone’s behavior. We want them to take this action. We want them to keep doing this with their finger. You pull down and you refresh, it’s gonna be a new thing at the top. Pull down and refresh again, it’s new. Every single time. Which, in psychology, we call a positive intermittent reinforcement.
You don’t know when you’re gonna get it or if you’re gonna get something, which operates just like the slot machines in Vegas. It’s not enough that you use the product consciously, I wanna dig down deeper into the brainstem and implant, inside of you, an unconscious habit so that you are being programmed at a deeper level. You don’t even realize it.
Every time you see it there on the counter, and you just look at it, and you know if you reach over, it just might have something for you, so you play that slot machine to see what you got, right? That’s not by accident. That’s a design technique.
Another example is photo tagging. So, if you get an email that says your friend just tagged you in a photo, of course, you’re going to click on that e-mail and look at the photo. It’s not something you can just decide to ignore. This is a deep-seated, like, a human personality that they’re tapping into. You should ask yourself: “Why doesn’t that e-mail contain the photo in it? It would be a lot easier to see the photo.
When Facebook found that feature, they just dialed the hell out of that because they said, “This is gonna be a great way to grow activity. Let’s just get people tagging each other in photos all day long.”There’s an entire discipline and field called “growth hacking.” Teams of engineers whose job is to hack people’s psychology so they can get more growth. They can get more user sign-ups, and more engagement. They can get you to invite more people.
After all the testing, all the iterating, all of this stuff, you know the single biggest thing we realized? Get any individual to seven friends in ten days. That was it. A business model.
And these growth tactics from Facebook have then become the standard playbook for Silicon Valley. They were used at Uber and at a bunch of other companies. One of the things that he pioneered was the use of scientific A/B testing of small feature changes. Companies like Google and Facebook would roll out lots of little, tiny experiments that they were constantly doing on users. And over time, by running these constant experiments, you… you develop the most optimal way to get users to do what you want them to do. It’s manipulation.
You are a lab rat. We’re all lab rats. And it’s not like we’re lab rats for developing a cure for cancer. It’s not like they’re trying to benefit us. Right? We’re just zombies, and they want us to look at more ads so they can make more money.
Once, Facebook conducted what they called “massive-scale contagion experiments.”How do we use subliminal cues on the Facebook pages to get more people to go vote in the midterm elections? And they discovered that they were able to do that. One thing they concluded is that we now know we can affect real-world behavior and emotions without ever triggering the user’s awareness. They are completely clueless. We’re pointing these engines of AI back at ourselves to reverse-engineer what elicits responses from us. Almost like you’re stimulating nerve cells on a spider to see what causes its legs to respond. So, it really is this kind of prison experiment where we’re just, you know, roping people into the matrix, and we’re just harvesting all this money and… and data from all their activity to profit from. And we’re not even aware that it’s happening.
So, they want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. You know, Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it. I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that… that a hacker would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology…
No one got upset when bicycles showed up. Right? Like, if everyone’s starting to go around on bicycles, no one said, “Oh, my God, we’ve just ruined society. Like, bicycles are affecting people. They’re pulling people away from their kids. They’re ruining the fabric of democracy. People can’t tell what’s true.” Like, we never said any of that stuff about a bicycle.
If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you. It wants things from you. And we’ve moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment. That’s what’s changed. Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: – illegal drugs and software.”
Well, I mean, it’s sort– it’s interesting that knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my usage. So, that’s a little scary. Even knowing how these tricks work, I’m still susceptible to them. I’ll still pick up the phone, and 20 minutes will disappear.
I tried through willpower, just pure willpower… “I’ll put down my phone, I’ll leave my phone in the car when I get home.” I think I told myself a thousand times, a thousand different days, “I am not gonna bring my phone to the bedroom,” and then 9:00 p.m. “Well, I wanna bring my phone in the bedroom.” And so, that was sort of… Willpower was kind of attempt one, and then attempt two was, you know, brute force.
So, here’s the thing. Social media is a drug. I mean, we have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people. That directly affects the release of dopamine in the reward pathway. Millions of years of evolution, um, are behind that system to get us to come together and live in communities, to find mates, to propagate our species. So, there’s no doubt that a vehicle like social media, which optimizes this connection between people, is going to have the potential for addiction.
Remind yourself about the pleasure-pain balance, dopamine deficit states, about the risk of addiction. These technology products were not designed by child psychologists who are trying to protect and nurture children. They were just designed to make these algorithms that were really good at recommending the next video to you or really good at getting you to take a photo with a filter on it. It’s not just that it’s controlling where they spend their attention. Social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity.
We evolved to care about whether other people in our tribe… think well of us or not ’cause it matters. But were we evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us? We were not evolved to have social approval being dosed to us every five minutes.
Featured Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik
This is a piece of work by Ananya Rastogi. Know about this young, talented, and enthusiastic upcoming writer in her own words.
Hi! My name is Ananya Rastogi.
I’m 18 years old and studying in 12th grade (Arts). I’ve always been fascinated by the subject English. It is also a language I can mostly express my emotions in. I find it less complicated for me to converse and comprehend in English rather than other languages. All the people I have been close to say that I have a way with words and a knack for writing.