Undoing social media’s spell

December 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Undoing social media’s spell
The documentary A Social Dilemma paints a dystopian view of our online world

By Susanne Janssen

Hate speech on Facebook, thousands of people bashing a professor for a comment on Twitter, posts that are beyond any decency held standard years ago.

What is behind all this? Have you ever thought that humanity has fallen under some kind of spell?

Tristan Harris, former “design ethicist” at Google and now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, wants people to know the cause: all these polarizing, controversial posts are designed to make the company owners rich, because by creating controversy and excitement, people spend more time and money on the internet.

Only if we understand this process can we counteract this mechanism and regain control of our relationship and opinion-building process.

He and other tech experts, who formerly worked for big players like Google, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, uncover hidden processes in a documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski, A Social Dilemma, released on Netflix in September.

The documentary explains why these networks underwent such a change. In the beginning, it was all about service, such as to provide free access to a convenient and flexible email and research system.

Tim Kendall, former executive at Facebook and Pinterest, remembered how at first everyone “just had total admiration for Google … which was this incredibly useful service that, far as we could tell, did lots of goodness for the world … [Yet] they built parallel to that a money-making machine.”

Kendall was hired by Facebook to figure out how to monetize this medium, which at first was just fun to be on — to connect with old friends and share pictures and videos.

What they — and most of us who have social media accounts — didn’t realize is that it’s all financed by advertisements.

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” is one of Harris’ most pointed quotes in the documentary.

Who’s got control? It begs the question: how much are we in charge? I guess many people, just like me, think that it depends on how you use social media. We try to be careful not to release too much personal information and to stay away from controversial posts that create more rift than building bridges.

Yet the influence is much more subtle than what we can control.

The filmmakers do an excellent job of explaining how algorithms work to place certain posts on our “walls” or news feeds. Rather than simply feeding users with ads that want to sell products, it feeds the readers with opinions, ideas, ideologies. Everything is personalized and dosed in such a way that we don’t lose interest.

Besides spending much more time online than planned, it can make us easily believe a series of distortions — even perhaps that many decent people share these ideas. Or that certain politicians are totally corrupt.

Ideologies slowly enter, creating fear about potential unrest, inventing evidence that there’s a hidden network of people kidnapping and murdering children. Once a theory is repeated in various formats and media, people become inclined to believe it.

When the pandemic began in the spring, experts for infectious diseases were baffled to see how people distrusted the very scientists who were trying their best to discover how this new virus spread. Instead, people relied on some self-pronounced experts who suggested cures such as drinking water every 15 minutes or even using Lysol as a cure against the virus.

The commercialization of ideas

How is it possible that a country lose common ground, living only in distinct reality bubbles? If this process continues, this endangers our democracy because people cannot agree on fundamental ideas anymore.

The essential answer is: because that is exactly what is intended. A confusion of ideas is profitable for the business model of social media.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, puts a finer point on it: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is product,” he said. “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.”

For this bottom line, social media companies carefully monitor what we users look at and for how long, so as to make predictions regarding our actions and perceptions. By collecting this massive amount of data, the companies know when we’re lonely, what we’re upset about, etc. In knowing that, the next step toward human manipulation is a small one.

In fact, many successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley participated in classes to “learn how to make technology more persuasive,” said Sandy Parakilas, former manager at Facebook and Uber.

The ultimate proof: your phone is buzzing, “and 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?” Harris explains.

Undoing the manipulation

After watching this impressive, frightening documentary, I carefully monitored my actions. And I realized: in the morning my first reach is to look at the phone — who knows what happened during the night? I’m praying and the phone is buzzing — three times — three messages arrived … it doesn’t help me to focus and to live in the present moment.

All of us in our household consciously tried to take breaks from our phones, and to tell ourselves, “See how addictive it is!”

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? Can we give back to social media the innocent excitement that it’s all for social development, that it is about connecting and not about putting others down in order to get more likes and views? Can we use it, as Pope Francis emphasized in 2019, as “an opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering ... in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us?”

Tristan Harris summarizes the current state bluntly, “Imagine a world where no one believes anything that’s true. Everyone believes the government’s lying to them. Everything is a conspiracy theory, ‘I shouldn’t trust anyone, I hate the other side’ — that’s where all this is heading.” Creating confusion to the point of destabilizing countries eventually only serves to maximize the profit of the big tech companies.

Yet the experts interviewed in the documentary still find hope, and optimism: “It is not too late.” But under one fundamental condition: “We need regulations.”

Just a small example: in the 1980s, television programs for children had all kinds of restrictions on how many ads could be streamed and what they would be about. Now, with YouTube for kids, all these regulations are gone. The online world needs guidelines, and mechanisms that can implement them.

In the end, it’s not the fault of technology if it brings out the worst of society. It simply means that all these inclinations such as hate, populism, loneliness, incivility and lack of trust were already there.

“It needs a miracle,” says Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of the software company Asana, “and this miracle is collective will.” Indeed, all experts agree that something can be done, but it needs awareness and regulations.

On a personal level, each one of us can already do a lot: fact-check before sharing a post, or turn off notifications to escape the trap of constantly looking at the screen. And, consciously putting away the phone to be fully present in non-virtual relationships.

And there’s one important step to be a peace builder: I am friends or follow people who think very differently than me. It keeps me exposed to different views and opens a window to understand different positions.

It even confuses the algorithm… so that it really doesn’t know what to feed me with! In this way, we can move from diagnosis to treatment, Pope Francis recommended on occasion of the World Media Day in 2019: “opening the way for dialogue, for encounter, for ‘smiles’ and expressions of tenderness... This is the network we want.”

A Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is available on Netflix.

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