School closures due to COVID-19 restrictions highlighted what we already knew: the addictive nature of online social networks and gaming, as young people without organised school, sport or social contact indulged many hours of the day and night. Screen addiction produces the same chemical response in the brain as cocaine.
What parents know from experience, was confirmed in a study of 5,000 persons reported in The American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017, which found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction. Not hard to believe when youth emerge from the screen cave, glassy eyed, belligerent, uncooperative and physically and socially diminished.
The title of this blog has been borrowed from a 2020 Netflix investigative and narrative docudrama film, The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. I highly recommend viewing the film, particularly in the company of youth affected. The film explores the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society, focusing on its exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, how its design is meant to nurture an addiction for profit (as was cigarette smoking) and its use in politics.
Just how insidious tracking of internet usage can be was demonstrated to me at a simple level when searching online for supportive slip-on shoes for use after my hip operation. Advertisements for similar shoes began appearing uninvited on Facebook and other searches.
What lies beneath
Hidden machinations behind everyone’s favourite social media and search platforms are unveiled in the docudrama, showing that the technology that connects us also distracts us, monetizes, divides, controls, manipulates and polarises us. The promise of connectivity has given rise to a host of unintended consequences that threaten to overwhelm us unless we can address our broken information ecosystem that plagues humanity.
- Mental health dilemma: Persuasive design techniques like push notifications and endless scroll of your newsfeed have created a feedback loop that keeps us glued to our devices. Just how people are preyed upon, cleverly and unwittingly is shown in the film.
- Democracy dilemma: The New York Times reports that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns doubled in the past two years. Were the personal impact of social media platforms on individuals concerning enough, we are only just becoming aware of the extreme danger that control of these platforms in biased hands has on the exercise of democracy.
Partisan use of social media platforms is known to influence the election process and outcomes. During the 2020 USA election campaign, operators of the various platforms (Google, Twitter, Facebook) worked together to design algorithms that favoured the Democrat non-campaign of Joe Biden from his basement, while disadvantaging the Trump campaign. Messages supporting Trump and Republicans were cancelled and cautioned. A well-known fact is that near 100% of employees of these platforms in the Silicon Valley bubble contribute to the Democrats, implying entrenched political bias. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook contributed $400m to facilitate Democrat vote harvesting.
Social media advertising gives anyone the opportunity to reach huge numbers of people with phenomenal ease, giving bad actors the tools to sow unrest and fuel political divisions.
- Discrimination dilemma: A 2018 internal Facebook report advises that algorithms can be designed to promote content that sparks outrage, hate and amplifies biases within the data we feed them. Small wonder that 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there. Just as I discovered when googling for something as simple as slip on shoes.
China malevolently used on Twitter a fabricated image of an Australian soldier threatening to slit the throat of an Afghan child to denigrate Australia’s image. The Australian (5 December 2020) reports Indonesia using a cyber generated ‘bot’ of an Australian journalist in its battle against West Papuan Independence. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s notorious Internet Research Agency’s troll factory in St Petersburg aims to sow doubt and confusion.
Publishing dilemma: Many people now take their news from online sources, including Google and other social media platforms, which draw content from traditional media sources without paying for it. As a result, on line platforms now attract a greater part of the advertising dollar, leaving funds for traditional journalism like newspapers and TV scrambling for survival. Many journalists have lost their jobs, thereby limiting the scope of an inquisitive media to interrogate issues as would normally occur in a thriving democracy.
Social media oligarchs claim they operate merely as a platform for communication by others, so bear no responsibility for what is published. While claiming they are not a publisher like newspapers, which must have responsibility and oversight for what they publish, social media have shown an amazing capacity to censor and cancel comments and contributors, especially those more conservatively inclined. Whether or not they are publishers, their political bias has become more shameless and actions bolder. Democracy is at stake as we unwittingly submit to rule by the new wealth aristocracy.
What can be done?
What has become evident is that social platforms affect our lives both at a personal, family level, sometimes in a beneficial way, but increasingly in a way that damages individuals and the broader community of interest.
Families need to rein in practices that are too addictive and damaging to developing children, firmly and decisively limiting children’s exposure, and, conversely, by dampening parents’ own addiction. An understanding of the coordinated manipulation of minds occurring behind these platforms would enable children to see how easy it is to lose control of their lives at the very time when they are being challenged to step up and grow into maturity, physically and mentally. I have witnessed first-hand a young man with an IQ of 152 who became addicted to gaming all night, couldn’t get up before the crack of noon and showed the ravaging evidence of physical under development and mental decline, unable to complete studies or get or hold a job.
The Australian government is introducing legislation deeming the social platforms to be publishers, requiring them to pay a fair price for news they take from various sources.
In the meantime, we the people are voting with our fingers. Many have already abandoned Facebook and Twitter altogether, or opted for platforms like Rumble and Parler which allow freedom of speech and hold greater respect for democracy.
What’s your plan?
Our Brains Are No Match for Our Technology, Tristan Harris, New York Times
The Dark Psychology of Social Networks, Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic