If you haven’t seen it yet, and you subscribe to Netflix, I suggest you watch The Social Dilemma. It’s about ninety minutes and attempts to explain how social media sucks up our time and manipulates susceptible people into accepting misinformation as true. Part interviews with knowledgeable people from the worlds of Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, Firefox, Apple, Instagram, Uber, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google, and part docudrama, I found the show to be very informative.
It all boils down to the monetization of social networking platforms. There’s no free lunch. What you think is free is costing you your time and, if you don’t take responsibility for verifying information, your ability to know what is true. There are some pretty scary forces out there trying to hack our brains and, in many cases, succeeding.
Part of what I discuss below is in the Netflix movie, some isn’t. Likewise, not everything mentioned in the film is discussed below, so I recommend watching The Social Dilemma to learn about everything it covers.
Social networking started off as mainly a force for good. It kept people connected—united family members, helped bring attention to good causes, and kept people informed about local events. Monetization wasn’t important back in the good ol’ days. The turning point for that was 2012, when Facebook went public. It had many users hooked, and now was poised to make a lot of money.
In the 2010s, the biggest moneymakers in Silicon Valley have not been the hardware and software companies that garnered the area’s reputation for tech innovation and profit. The biggest profit centers in recent years have been the social networking platforms, the companies basically selling YOU, their users. More specifically, they are selling YOUR ATTENTION. To be clear, the people who use these platforms to connect with friends and search for the best deal on a laptop are the USERS, not the customers. The real customers are the advertisers.
As I see it, there are two main problems here: 1) the insinuation of these platforms into our lives, causing addictive behavior and wasting our time, and 2) the changes these platforms can produce in our view of the world.
In the movie, Jaron Lanier explained it best: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product” using manipulation and persuasion techniques. Sounds like a slow form of brainwashing to me. What’s really scary is that as the companies gather more and more information on us by following our likes, the videos we watch, and how long we stay on a page, they constantly improve their algorithms, allowing them to “sell certainty” that a particular ad will get the attention of the users they target and therefore enhance their already substantial bottom line.
How do they draw us in, keep us engaged and coming back, inviting friends? A technique called positive intermittent reinforcement. In the case of social media, rewards are doled out unpredictably, on a variable-ratio schedule. By offering rewards (a notification, a like, an email, a news item you like) in an unpredictable fashion, it keeps you checking your phone and scrolling. A slot machine operates in the same manner – you never know when you’re going to come up with three cherries. Maybe with the next quarter . . . Having studied behavior modification in the past, I’m familiar with the power of intermittent reinforcement, especially if given in a variable-ratio schedule. It can be much stronger than a predictable reward, such as picking a certain number of apples for a predictable paycheck.
With so many users, companies are able to optimize manipulation using small changes in subsets of users which they can test, tweaking and continually improving their behavior modification techniques. Even people who work in these companies say they fall prey to the manipulation.
In the movie, some attention is given to the harmful effects social media has on children. I won’t go into that here, but will repeat that members of Gen Z, those born after 1996, are the first generation to use social media in middle school, and it’s probably not good for them.
Wasting your time and conning you to spend lots of time scrolling through junk is bad enough. The really scary aspect, however, is how social media has been hijacked by people and groups with a nefarious purpose. This has been easy because YouTube and Facebook are set up to present information to you based on your profile (gleaned by spying on you), the goal being to keep you engaged (in contrast to Wikipedia, where everyone sees the same content, and they don’t strive to keep you on their site).
For example, a search for climate change will give you different results depending on your interests. You may be directed to sites indicating it is a great hoax, or sites showing it to be a great threat. Whichever type of site you are led to, you can get a false sense that everyone agrees with you. Then you can easily fall prey to manipulation. When people are presented with different information they deem to be credible, they will come to different conclusions.
Interestingly, an MIT study concluded that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than accurate stories. The more outrageous the story, the more interesting it is, and the more it spreads. The Social Dilemma used Pizzagate as an example.
I remember first hearing about Pizzagate on the news, where it was described as a belief some people had that Hilary Clinton and other high-ranking Democrats were involved in a child sex ring working out of restaurants, including a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. I dismissed the story as being so ridiculous, nobody would believe it, but the facts show that I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, one poll showed that 9% of registered voters thought Hillary Clinton was involved in this child sex ring, and 19% weren’t sure.
The conspiracy theory, which was subsequently connected to Michael Flynn and his son, was spread by a number of right-wing news organizations. One man became so upset by the story, he drove to the pizzeria from his home in North Carolina and shot into the restaurant three times with his rifle.
You may wonder how so many people believed the story. Apparently, once the conspiracy groups popped up, Facebook started suggesting these groups to other users deemed susceptible to conspiracy theories, such as anti-vaxxers and believers in chemtrails. These malleable individuals were directed to social media platforms discussing Pizzagate, even though they had never searched for it. The ultimate goal of Facebook was to keep the users engaged, so they could be shown ads from paying customers. However, often those customers, paying for directed messaging, have perverse intentions.
Charging for directed ads has become sophisticated and lucrative. I first heard about this from my son who attended a conference where this was discussed. Platforms can have instant pricing where advertisers agree to spend a certain amount of money to reach a particular sort of user.
By targeting users who meet specific demographics, social media has been weaponized. People with a lot of money, or governments (Russia for example), can send out manipulative messages quickly and cheaply. In this way, a government can be destabilized. Right now, most countries targeted in this way run democratic elections. Russians don’t need to hack into our system – they just exploit our existing platforms to sow chaos and division.
How is this done? Facebook can find thousands of people who believe the earth is flat, for example. A nefarious actor can promote conspiracy theories and misinformation to these people, influencing their beliefs, and, ultimately, their vote.
If you have someone in your household who you know has very different opinions than you do, I suggest you do an experiment and see what shows up on your searches when you enter certain words, such as: Trump, Biden, the second amendment, Palestinians, fracking, the affordable care act, etc. You get my drift. I would be interested in finding out what happens.
At the core of the problem is the business model. There is little in terms of rules, regulation, and competition. All businesses need to be reined in. I think of them as like bacteria – they will seek the most profits they can get mindlessly, without regard to the ultimate outcome. Just as bacteria mutate to evade antibiotics, businesses hire lawyers to get around regulations. Governments must constantly adapt to keep companies in line, just as we do what we can to overcome bacterial infections. Our lawmakers have a new challenge – they need to come up with ways to prevent the manipulative techniques at play.
Facebook has promised to set up and oversight board to protect us from false information. That still hasn’t happened. Recently, a group of concerned citizens has organized the “Real Oversight Board” in an attempt to hold big tech accountable. Until a better way is found, we need to judge for ourselves what to believe and what not to believe.
Here’s my approach: look at reliable news sources from both the right and the left. Importantly, check things out. If something doesn’t seem reasonable, search for reliable information. Rely on trusted sources as well as your own common sense. The latter is very important. I present two falsehoods I’ve come across, one political, one not.
Political: In an ad funded by America First Action (a Trump super PAC), a video of Joe Biden is presented as “Defund the police?” is splashed on the screen. Joe Biden says, “Yes, absolutely.” If you are not paying attention, you might think Joe Biden said he wants to defund the police, while he actually might have been answering “Yes, absolutely,” to the question, “Would you like your bagel toasted?” In truth, Biden has never supported defunding the police. I remember listening very carefully to him after defunding the police became a popular topic of conversation. He immediately dismissed the idea and has consistently held that he is not in favor of it. If you don’t believe me, check out his website and try to find something about defunding the police.
Nonpolitical: My hairdresser informed me that she’d heard doctors have the cure for cancer, but don’t want to give it to people because they make more money treating cancer patients than they would by curing them. It’s surprising that anyone could believe this, especially since doctors die of cancer, just like non-doctors. The same is true of pharmaceutical executives who some people think are withholding cures to make more money on medications for patients who aren’t cured. There are so many reasons why this makes no sense – a doctor or pharmaceutical company with a cancer cure could charge a whole lot of money (some medications which don’t cure cancer cost over $100,000/year currently). Why would a doctor or pharmaceutical company waste their time finding a cure if they had no intention of using it? Wouldn’t you expect at least one egotistical or humanitarian doctor or person in the pharma industry to break with the others and divulge this information? Using a little common sense, anyone should be able to figure out that this idea is nonsense.
If we as a society continue as we are going, we run the risk of destroying civilization through willful ignorance. We need to take control of the situation before we reach the singularity – the point where we can’t outsmart the computers, and can no longer control our technology. Let’s not go there.
Start with watching The Social Dilemma if you haven’t seen it yet.
And now (I really hate doing this), I’m going to ask you to please visit my Facebook page at https://facebook.com/devengreeneauthor. I’m giving in to pressure to advertise my first novel on Facebook (remember, I said social media can be used for good). On my Facebook page you’ll find useful links to area 51, the alien autopsy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School hoax, and verified sightings the Loch Ness monster (if you think I might be lying, check out the site). If you like the site even a little, please give it a like.