In a recent conversation with my daughter, she was telling me about a documentary on Netflix entitled “Social Dilemma” which had obviously moved her very much – and, I might add, with good reason. It is a documentary about the manipulation of human behavior by social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and all the others. It reminded me a little of the movie “Matrix”, a science fiction movie, that included a very profound message. The message was that reality is only what we perceive in the nerve center of our brains which is assembled from the signals received from the various sensors located throughout our bodies (eyes, ears, touch, smell and taste). By controlling what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste, our perceptions of reality can be manipulated to form any desired image or experience1.
The point of the documentary was that social media platforms are managing to do just that, namely, manipulate our perception of reality; and by so doing, manipulate our behavior2. It also pointed out that the original motive for doing this was simply to maximize profits for the corporations, but another more recent motive is to manipulate our political behavior, e.g., voting, public protesting, etc.
The method employed is to monitor and analyze the actions of social media platform users to assess their likes and dislikes, what captures their attention, what causes them to respond and how they respond to various stimuli. Then they present ads or other matter specifically engineered to appeal to each user’s particular interests, capture, and hold their attention for as long as possible3. (The more time a user spends on a social media platform, the more ads they see and the more hits the ads get and the more revenue the platform receives from the advertisers (and ultimately, the more products/services are sold by the advertiser). It is not just the time spent on the platform that is assessed, but the hits on ads and the use of likes (thumbs up), dislikes (thumbs down) and emoticons are extremely useful in analyzing user preferences along with any purchases made. All of this can be done with incredible speed and efficiency with modern computers and artificial intelligence technology which has been enabled by spectacular increases in computing power and memory capacity4.
I have often said, it is unfortunate that there is not a single invention, intended for the benefit of mankind, that has not been used for evil purposes. Social media is a case in point. Social media is a wonderful invention with vast potential for doing good. But it is no more than a tool. Like a hammer, it is a tool to be used by humans, and like a hammer, it can be used for good or evil. While most people use social media for good or innocent purposes, there are many who use it to addict users and manipulate their behavior5. Given the ubiquitousness of the internet and social media, the ability to manipulate the behavior of billions of people presents a clear and present danger to society. We know that it has been successful, we just don’t know how successful. We know that it is used successfully to sell products. We know that it has been used to provoke anger, hatred and violence. And there is good reason to suspect that it may have succeeded in electing Donald Trump as president in 20166.
The real danger of social media lies in the subtleness of its addiction. What percentage of users are even aware of their addiction? People who are unaware of the influences around them are much more susceptible to those influences, and being unaware of their addiction to social media makes them much more susceptible to manipulation. The challenge we face as a society is waking the addicts, alerting them to the dangers of addiction and weaning them off it7. How do we do that? A key to the solution lies in getting people to think for themselves, and to think critically, to be skeptical and to challenge that which others say. But then, how do you do that? It’s akin to leading the horse to water and not being able to force it to drink. If people don’t want to drop their addictions (which by definition is addiction), how do you persuade them to do so?
I don’t have the answer to that question. All I can do is sound the alarm and pray that people wake up, sense the danger, and stop drinking the kool-aid8. If this blog accomplishes that with just one person, it will be worth all the profit of all the social media moguls put together.
PS I heartily recommend watching the documentary “Social Dilemma” on Netflix. It’s a good wake-up call.
PPS Yesterday was an absolutely magnificent day, clear azure blue skies, not a single cloud in sight, 64º F. with a slight breeze. I was taking a walk around the neighborhood and in the course of about 3 miles I encountered about about 20 other walkers (and a few bikers). About ¾ of the walkers were busy thumbing their cell phones, totally oblivious to the world around them. Few of them acknowledged my presence even when I greeted them. So I ask you, how connected to reality is that?
1 Artificial reality devices, readily available at a reasonable price for most consumers, are textbook examples of how our perceptions of reality can be manipulated so easily.
2 A person’s behavior is totally dependent on his/her perception of reality. If you perceive there is danger, you will react totally differently than if you perceive there is no danger whether or not there is any real danger.
3 It is interesting that the only industries that refer to customers as users are illegal drugs and social media. Also, it is more than just coincidental that both are addictive.
4 Computing power is more than a trillion times greater than 30 years ago and memory capacity has increased over trillion times. (In 1988, purchased a 1 gigabyte hard drive for a research program I worked on. It came in an 18” by 18” by 12” standard rack mount chassis, weighed over 100 pounds and cost over $40,000. Today, you can purchase a 4 terabyte hard drive in a 3” by 4” by ½’ package weighing less than 1 pound for under $100. I’ll leave the reader to do the math.)
5 An example is trolling. Trolling is posting inflammatory or digressive messages in an online community with the intent of provoking an emotional response either for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain.
6 There is no proof that social media determined the outcome of the 2016 election, but the margin of victory was so small, that the possibility cannot be ruled out.
7 Its the same problem society faces with drug addiction – in a different form, but the same problem.
8 For those of you too young to know about the kool-aid, the expression comes from events in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 in which Jim Jones, the leader of a cult called the Peoples’ Temple, persuaded his 900+ followers to drink lethally poisoned kool-aid after the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and others in nearby Port Kaituma. It exemplifies the behavior of blindly following a leader without giving serious thought to, or challenging, his instructions.