Social media has become an important human utility that has been improperly handled by selfish actors. Since the medium became ubiquitous in popular culture over the past decade, dangerous decisions made by a few web designers have had a negative impact on the world in many ways.
The “Big Data” social media companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al) operate under a business model that uses people’s personal data against them to keep them engaged on their platforms longer and target them with advertising.
Their system is based on the use of algorithms to sort a user’s content according to relevance instead of date. These companies build psychological profiles on their users, sell them to advertisers, and manipulate the users to engage more and for longer periods of time. This is never openly acknowledged, but it’s commonly accepted by anyone in the know.
There’s evidence to suggest that social media’s effect has created a climate where truth is ever-doubted, no matter the evidence and the legitimacy of the claim, where radicalism and violent extremism are now a cogent force in our world, and the very foundations of journalism and democracy are regularly called into question.
Social Media Reads As Evil
From the perspective of a writer of fiction, it’s impossible to see the founders of social media platforms as “good guys”. Their business model demands them be painted as the great wizards whose withered corporeal forms hide behind the curtain.
This image is important because it sets the stage. They say don’t be biased in research and journalism, but after researching this subject, there’s only one inevitable conclusion; social media is like a bad scifi horror film. The creators are nerds run amok, who, unlike Peter Parker, don’t understand that with great power comes great responsibility.
The whole idea of being immersed in a device or machine, having your attention manipulated, or even stolen, sounds far-fetched, like something Philip K Dick would write. It’s literally the plot of an episode of Star Trek: TNG, one of the episodes where Wil Wheaton is the protagonist, guest starring a young Naomi Judd.
In the episode, people are literally being hypnotized by gaming machines, like being plugged into the matrix in slow motion. It’s a headset with a 3D 32 bit computer graphic interface, but it’s actually a mind control device (remember, it’s TNG). That premise is so surreal that it’s hardly believable, and yet Twitter achieves a similar agenda with just 240 characters per tweet.
In any horror movie, the protagonist never takes the problem seriously enough. The emotional hook of the film is that they know there’s a huge issue at hand that needs to be dealt with, but they’ve done nothing for so long that doing something feels more wrong than being complacent. So they – we – go on letting ourselves be manipulated.
The Creep Factor
No one in their right mind can excuse away the creep factor that these platform designers are responsible for engineering. The writers of these algorithms are literally imagining the most heinous and invasive ways to get users to pay more attention. Facebook openly admitted to experimenting on their own users WITHOUT CONSENT. That’s gross.
To have an algorithm that sorts according to simple relevance isn’t unethical, because that action is transparent, understandable, and not coercive. The experience becomes creepy when overt psychological manipulation begins. When the algorithms are so intricate and dense that they can be seen as having actual opinions, it’s not unrealistic to think that they could also be seen as literal, artificial intelligence dedicated to getting you to stay engaged on your Facebook feed.
For example, if you’re on Facebook and your activity is starting to weaken or you’re showing signs of slowing down or tiring, they push a button that shows you something akin to what your stupid uncle might say on Thanksgiving. How do you NOT respond to that guy? All of sudden you’re re-engaged, reinvigorated, and really to scroll more.
It’s Pavlov’s Facebook profile, where you ring a bell and then comment on intersectional issues. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical your brain is flooded with when you interact on social media, becomes a rewarding motivator. Over time, the sensation conditions you to feel as if Facebook and Twitter, like heroin, are now a necessity.
People have impulses, like buttons, that can be easily pushed. Just ask my father. He’ll use your natural instincts against you. He’ll say something that he knows will piss you off just to get a rise out of you. Every person can be manipulated in this way, or at least most people can be. The numbers don’t lie.
Lies, Lies, Lies
Social media also crosses a specific line, aside from privacy invasion, because while these companies admitted accountability in actually gaming their systems and invading users’ privacy, they also repeatedly lied and still lie about it.
And again: FACEBOOK EXPERIMENTED ON ITS USERS WITHOUT CONSENT!
A Facebook executive recently stated to a congressional hearing that when they were building their business, they were trying to copy the tobacco companies in making their users addicted to their product. If you follow that reasoning, and use tobacco companies as an extended metaphor, then it’s frightening to consider their direct access to everyone and their information, especially considering how long tobacco insisted cigarettes and similar products weren’t harmful, when they’re one of the leading causes of death.
That was the catalyst that led me to write this; a simple thought experiment; if they can create the platforms they did and successfully execute the idea, then they knew all the potential damage this would do ahead of time. That makes them partially culpable for the damage done.
What damage are we talking about? It’s an important question that seems to expand as you think of it.
If Google’s motto is really “Do no evil”, then why do they clamor so hard to have a coveted spot in China’s nearly private economy? Doing business with a flagrant human rights violator like China and, furthermore helping to suppress information to their citizens, is evil.
Google has become so intertwined with people’s lives that it’s fair to say the search engine’s end goal is to literally make every person app-dependent on them. I don’t think a lot of people could imagine what life without Google would be like.
In an age where we have more access to reliable, affordable renewable technology and an endless font of information, it seems like the opposite would be true. With so many more tools at our disposal, why are we so pathetically dependent on social media and a search engine?
The ability to collect that much data about a person, their phone calls, their browser history, everything they buy, all the places they go, coupled with the ability to change a person’s behavior. How powerful has your little website gotten if you can come to own such a massive place in people’s lives that when I tell people I meet I’m not on Facebook, they look at me blankly for a moment, perplexed?
Google, Apple, and Facebook have expanded their grasps to multiple devices and utilities that are necessary for people, like IM, phone, pictures, business email, and documents. They’ve gone so far as to embed themselves in actual appliances – the “home”, the calendar, the coffee maker, the fridge, the TV, the radio – they’ve all been co-opted into a scheme to collect, manipulate, and sell our private data.
Fertile Soil for Bad Seed
In the case of social media and most news outlets, the easily game-able nature of their news cycles and algorithmic systems have made us all vulnerable to a great deal of corrupt activity. When the news cycle is distracting you, someone’s in your pockets robbing you blind.
There is an alleged criminal holding the position of POTUS. The algorithms employed at Facebook and on Google have made the media an easy mark for a grifter like Trump, who can recognize a sucker when he sees one.
Right now, every news outlet is busy covering the President’s recovery from COVID-19, instead of simply using those images of the now infamous drive-by outside Walter Reed as a backdrop for the real news, that Donald Trump is guilty of tax evasion and has more debt than any one person in human history. He’s destined for the courthouse the minute his Presidency is over, but no one’s covering that because the news cycle is a slave to the latest controversy as a society of the spectacle.
The news cycle is fickle, and Trump is playing it like a violin. This incessant grabbing at any attention-getting antics by this man is the ultimate in instant gratification for both sides of the line. They can play kabuki theatre to their heart’s content as he dances like a fool for them. It’s like people can’t see that they’re currently in the throes of an internet addiction, reflexively repeating the same actions and order of operations like a bad acid trip.
Because of this, American democracy is now officially in question under the rule of a fascist named Donald Trump. The propagation of lone wolf attacks and attacks from violent extremist groups (neo-nazi militias that are now on the rise) is ongoing and rising. All of this is occurring under the watch of these ne’er do well Watchmen who do nothing while it’s all being organized on their platforms.
To say that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, et al are in bed with Stormfront, the Proud Boys, and fascist organizations if they choose not to remove them from their platforms with great prejudice, is not a bold statement. We’ve ample evidence of what fascism on a small scale can turn into, let alone on a nationalistic scale, and all signs culturally are pointing to yes on this subject, that we have a problem with racist, fascist white supremacists in America.
Social media isn’t just complicit, dragging their feet on taking meaningful action the entire time while hiding behind objectivity and supposed ethics of “fair and balanced” propaganda, they’re fanning the flames of controversy and raking in the rewards.
Mark Zuckerberg went as far as to make sure to reassure Trump that he would get fair, unbiased treatment from Facebook by visiting him at the White House. The conservatives and the younger alt-right make up a bulk of activity for Facebook, who probably see this feeding frenzy as great business.
It’s possible social media is fanning the flames of discontent with their algorithms. People are locked into negative feedback loops in their pages, memes flowing, and Facebook is drinking up all their data and time. To say they’re complicit is an understatement, they seem to be encouraging and fostering growth in these sectors in specifically because it’s aligns with their business model.
There are real world, physical reactions that differ with each user when they use social media. For instance, a Harvard study found that users who moderate usage and view social media as a utility to communicate have a positive experience, while users who report a negative experience tend to be more obsessive, their experience more similar to an addiction.
For an obsessive user the type of manipulation practiced by deceptive algorithms can be dangerous, especially since the victim doesn’t realize it’s occurred. The Independent did a report that shows that social media has a negative effect on self-esteem, human connection, memory, sleep, and attention span. I think anyone who found themselves spending too much time on a social media platform can relate to those symptoms, even if just anecdotally.
In a pandemic, when there are increased reports of emotional disturbances, people are especially vulnerable. A good example of that is how the recovery community, those who attend NA and AA for addiction-related issues, haven’t been able to go to their regular meetings as much. The same goes for any public group that meets together to discuss and learn how to deal with difficult issues, like cancer survivors, anger management, NAMI, public clinics, and grief support groups. Since the pandemic, reports of people experiencing mental distress have risen significantly.
This climate will persist until either a vaccine is developed and fairly distributed (doubtful) or some other deus ex machina magically freaking appears. People have come to depend on their virtual identities more than ever, while at the same time feeling trapped and isolated.
How responsible are founders of social media for the damage done? To say that these companies are straight up super villain evil is a big deal. Some might say such a thing without thinking twice, but I’m a skeptic and an empiricist. Without proof, it would be meaningless to me say it. I would be no different than Alex Jones or David Icke.
If you make a decision to boldly cross an ethical line in exchange for potential power, then how culpable are you for the results? What if you knew ahead of time what could happen and you did it anyway because you figured the juice is worth the squeeze?
Complicit in Extremism
Could their own predictive models be capable of sussing out lone wolf attacks, radical and violent extremism, and even propaganda and misinformation campaigns from foreign and domestic agencies? In a client base of billions, there would be millions of potential incidents that could affect lives. How responsible for these incidents are Facebook and Google?
They had to have known how bad the online culture on the Right was becoming. They had to have known that white nationalist sentiment was a possible result of their shenanigans. How can I say such a statement with confidence without providing proof? Building artificial intelligence is not a Fisher Price toy, it’s the ability to create living things that can manipulate people.
There’s data that shows that, unlike foreign terrorism, which develops through more organized radical groups over a period of a few years at the very least, a lot of violent extremists in the US, aka domestic terrorists, can be radicalized towards violent, extremist behavior in just a few months, within the right climate.
It’s difficult to believe Big data has not considered those types of potential outcomes, with all their intellectual ability. If they can build the algorithms, they can easily interpret that information according to different models that extract data about people and behavior. If they’re so smart, they should rightfully share the blame.
It’s a pretty awful and accusatory stance to take against Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, and Google as well. But look at the current social climate that has precipitated in the United States while people engage using predominantly tech platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, et al. Their apps, emails, their search engines, browsers, their social media, IM clients, and their operating systems. While in their care, American white supremacy rose up to what can now be seen as a great and ever-lumbering threat to freedom.
In the End
The founders of Google and Facebook have repeatedly used the canons of journalism as a fulcrum in the financial leveraging of people’s personal data for insidious gains. They try to suggest they have a mission to uphold public good and be fair, unbiased. They do some charitable acts to make sure that’s clear, but ultimately still march on in their respective under-handed schemes.
Brings to mind my favorite quote,”On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is paraphrased from the book Fight Club, which states that companies will weigh how much risk they have in the fallout from a disaster with how much they stand to gain if they do nothing, even though they know the outcome would be fatal for their consumers.
Here’s an excerpt from Fight Club:
“A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”
If social media’s so powerful, modeled after tobacco companies (which we know made a ton of money and lied to people about the harmfulness of their products for decades), then is it really a stretch of the imagination that these businesses have the ability to anticipate horrific scenarios and ignore them for their own gain?
If their system really is so sophisticated, then it would be folly to think they don’t know way more than we could ever imagine. That’s the thing I’m curious about. They have secrets they’re not telling us that could have a profound effect on people’s future, how they wield that power, and why it’s not brought into question more.
A group of tech billionaires asked Douglas Rushkoff one time how they can keep their security forces in line after society collapses. They wanted access to Rushkoff so they could spitball on how to keep their troops in line during the apocalypse?!? That means they’ve abandoned all hope and have probably already completed the finishing touches on their bunkers. They wreak havoc on our culture, then they retreat to their fortified basements like cave trolls where they’re safe from any consequences.
All the while they helped create the divisions that led to our collapse.
Social media is an evil force.