Ghost in the Machine

I used to be an avid follower of “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart was the host. Stewart’s sense of humour and intelligence really made the show worth watching in my estimation. In 2015, after 16 years at the helm, Stewart decided to step down. He said he was leaving because he was tired and needed a change, but recently Trevor Noah, Stewart’s replacement, told a different story. He claims that Stewart confessed to him at the time, 

“I’m leaving because I’m tired. I’m tired of being angry. I’m angry all the time. I don’t find any of this funny. I do not know how to make it funny right now, and I don’t think the show deserves a host who does not feel that it is funny. Relish the fact that you can make jokes about these things, because there will come a day when you are too angry to laugh.”

I had sensed that Stewart had become disillusioned, and there were shows where he could barely mask his fury at the way America was going. Bill Maher, another political comedian I used to watch, went down a very similar path. Maher’s main frustration came from the growing perception of his guests, Republicans in particular, that opinions and facts are interchangeable. I remember one show where Maher, after trying to get one of his more intransigent panelists to admit that there is a difference between the two, literally banged his head against the desk out of sheer frustration. I used to think this conflation of subjective views and reality was due to biased reporting, but after watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix earlier this week, I have revised my opinion.

“The Social Dilemma” explores the many ways in which individuals, as well as societies at large, have suffered due to the proliferation and practices of social media platforms. Tristan Harris is chief amongst the many former Silicon Valley programmers and engineers featured in the program. Harris worked as a Google Design Ethicist from 2013 to 2016. His job was to help develop a framework to ensure technology would ethically steer the billions of people consuming it on a daily basis. In early 2016 he created an inter-office memo outlining deep fears that Google, and other social media companies, had fallen off the ethic’s track in their pursuit of profits. Harris’s paper created a stir for a while, and many colleagues told him they had similar concerns, but then it simply disappeared. No one at the top wanted to acknowledge that creating technology which honours the autonomy of its users is impossible without limiting the power and reach of advertisers. Executives buried the memo, prioritizing their bottom line over the dire costs Harris predicted for individuals and society were their technology allowed to grow without proper oversight. Harris left Google in 2016 as a result and created the Centre for Humane Technology later that year. He has now become one of the most outspoken and famous critics of the reckless nature of social media companies. 

FaceBook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, Reddit, Twitter, and a host of other social media platforms like to portray themselves as benign conduits to human connection. Harris and the other engineers featured in “The Social Dilemma” paint a very different picture of these companies, claiming that they actually have three main purposes which have nothing to do with bringing people together. Firstly, they want to engage viewers for as long as possible. Secondly, they strive for growth – to have people use their platform more and more, and to get them to bring others on board. Finally, they want to increase the advertising users see because their profits go up with every item purchased from a social media view. These companies use very direct strategies to achieve these goals. They employ software which records every click you make, including what you see, when you see it, and how long you look. Algorithms then use this information about your interests, habits, and even emotions, to determine what will appear on your screen next. Advertisements, videos and recommendations that pop up on your feed are all driven by these algorithms.

What’s more, the algorithms are capable of (for want of a better term) learning. For example, if you are engaged less by one video than another, the algorithm will notice this and change what you see accordingly. This feedback loop is constant and exists solely to ensure you are watching for an optimal number of hours a day. Programmers on social media platforms pointedly use techniques taught at the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab to grab and keep people’s attention. They study the research of B.F. Skinner, a 20th century American psychologist and behaviourist, whose experiments demonstrated that human reactions are largely in response to conditioning. In other words, subconscious cues and habits are more responsible for human behaviour than free will. The most entrenched behaviours are created by something Skinner called “positive intermittent reinforcement”, wherein an individual receives unpredictable, random rewards in response to repeated behaviour. Perhaps the most famous example of this theory in action is the slot machine. People will play slots for hours and hours, often losing far more money than they can possibly hope to recoup, on the off chance that at some point they will be rewarded. I have heard many psychologists compare the cell phone to a slot machine; there is nothing on offer most of the time it buzzes, but every so often something good appears, and that is enough to keep a person enthralled.

A perfect example of positive intermittent reinforcement on social media is the “like” button. One of the engineers who designed this button was included in the documentary. He insists that they really just wanted to make a nice, easy way for people to support each other, and he is horrified at how powerful and addictive this button has become. The like button on FB simply says “like”, and on Instagram it is a heart symbol. Everyone can see the number of “likes” a post gets, and this has become a very sore point for many users, particularly pre-teen and teenage girls. Not getting enough likes, along with countless negative comments on selfies, have fostered increased levels of anxiety and depression in girls. This in turn has lead to drastic increases in both self-harming and suicides rates in their demographic. According to the CDC, hospital admissions due to self-harm for girls aged 15-19 have gone up 62% since 2009, and a whopping 189% for girls aged 10-14. Suicide rates for girls aged 15-19 have gone up 70% over the same period, and 151% for girls aged 10-15. I had coffee this morning with a friend who knew a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide just last week. These tragedies are playing out everywhere.

Social media programmers use many cues to entice viewers, one of which is photo tagging. Individuals receive a notification when someone tags them in a photo, which is to say puts their name over their likeness in a picture. The image is purposely not included in the notification, prompting the recipient to log onto the platform to look for it. The algorithm then begins working to draw them even further in once they are re-engaged. Harris suggests that the constant distraction of these platforms acts as “…an electronic pacifier which is atrophying our own ability to sooth ourselves.” Boredom, fear, anxiety, and any other negative emotion can be sidestepped by simply diving back into your cellphone or tablet, meaning skills like resilience and fortitude are never learned. This is the reality particularly for young people in Gen Z (people born after 1996). Their entire generation is statistically more anxious, fragile, and depressed than any previous cohort. They are risk aversive and consequently much less likely to get their driver’s licence. Many have never dated. The only time most kids in previous generations watched TV unsupervised was Saturday morning, and there were strict standards in place concerning which programs and commercials could air at that time. YouTube has no such restrictions, and children are seeing very mature and often disturbing content from a young age. Unregulated social media platforms are stealing their childhoods and leaving them ill-equipped for adult life.

In addition to the suffering of individuals caused by unregulated social technology, entire societies are also beginning to experience negative effects. Take, for example “Pizzagate”, the bizarre fake news story which gained traction before the 2016 U.S. election. This conspiracy theory started when Wikileaks published the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta in November of 2016. Conspiracy theorists falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages that connected several high-ranking Democratic Party officials and U.S. restaurants with an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring. One of the establishments named was a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., which was reported to be harbouring child sex slaves in their basement.

The theory immediately gained traction on many right-leaning sites as well as from many Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook users. Before long, workers at Comet were being regularly harassed on social media and the restaurant’s owner began to receive death threats. Musicians who had played at Comet and an artist who created a mural on the back wall were attacked on social media, as were the owners of businesses on the same block as the pizzeria. The situation came to a head on Dec. 4, 2016 when Edgar Welch, a 38-year-old from North Carolina, arrived at Comet and fired three shots in the restaurant from an AR-15 rifle. Welch gave himself up without a fight after he’d discovered the pizzeria had no basement – a fact he could easily have ascertained online if he had only looked. Luckily no one was hurt in the exchange, and while Welch apologized for his actions he still maintains that the reported Democratic sex ring is real. 

The Pizzagate debacle formed the basis for an even further-reaching conspiracy theory called QAnon. “Q”, a person or persons claiming to have access to classified government information, initially posted on an anonymous image board in October of 2017. The heart of the theory is that there is a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles (Democrats all) running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Trump. QAnon claims that Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Clintons are all involved. It has also helped to revitalize the anti-semitic lie of the “Elders of Zion”. The theory claims Trump is bravely battling against these horrible people and will eventually bring about a “day of reckoning” when there will be mass arrests of the guilty parties. Everything QAnon claims has been completely debunked, and yet its popularity continues to grow. Believers in the theory tag their social media posts #WWG1WGA, signifying the motto “Where We Go One, We Go All”, a rather chilling indication of their adherence to this dangerous clap-trap and to one another. In August of last year the FBI published a report that QAnon could be a potential source of domestic terrorism, the first time the agency has so rated a fringe conspiracy theory. Donald Trump has invited several outspoken proponents of the theory to the White House, and according to Politico, he has to date amplified QAnon messaging at least 216 times by retweeting or mentioning 129 QAnon-affiliated Twitter accounts, sometimes several times a day.

Social media platforms are banning and shutting down QAnon sites, but Facebook only began doing so in May of this year and Twitter started just two months ago. I would argue that this is a clear case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. This theory of Trump as a modern day saviour and the Democrats as satanic pedophiles has already gained enough traction that several Republican candidates in the upcoming election are touting the truth of it and calling “Q” an American hero. There have also been many illegal acts committed in the name of “Q” over the past few years, including kidnappings, the occupation of public and private buildings, and various forms of harassment. The FBI suspects that two people may have been murdered because of QAnon accusations.  

Unchecked social media has led to the rise of this deeply troubling theory, but I would argue its most pernicious side effect is that it has polarized society by feeding people divergent “facts” on their news feeds. Jaron Lanier, one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, poses the following hypothetical to explain how social media news feeds work. Imagine you look something up on Wikipedia, secure in the knowledge that everyone who uses the site will see the same verified facts. Now imagine if Wikipedia had algorithms that altered the page for each individual user based on information they had garnered through tracking every virtual move that person had made, and further that the changes made to the page were intended to steer that user towards buying a particular service or product. That is how news feeds work. The algorithms are serving up a reality that falls in line with your previous search history, while simultaneously nudging you towards satisfying the monetary goals of both advertisers and the platform you are using. 

What’s more, many of the things recommended on social media sites are only tangentially related to something you previously searched, but they heedlessly invite you down that rabbit hole to further their financial interests. “Rabbit hole” is the actual term the tech industry uses in relation to items on social media which draw users in and push them towards spending money. Many people who came to believe the truth of Pizzagate, for example, had never even heard of it until their social media platform suggested they might be interested. A recent Pew Research study found that 62% of American adults get their news from social media, and I suspect this goes a long way to explain the extreme political polarization in their country. If everyone using Facebook for news were seeing the same subject matter then there would be no problem, but having every individual’s feed skewed towards their interests and opinions means that there is no balance, and often questionable veracity, in the information being presented. Everything a news feed gives a user further justifies and entrenches previously held biases and beliefs, producing individuals who are absolutely sure of their facts and making civil discourse virtually impossible. It’s also why passionate articles exposing how the U.S. Democrats are hellbent on ruining their country appear on the same Google page as equally convincing descriptions of how it’s the Republicans that are passionately committed to ruining America. They are a country divided, and the subtle manipulations and misinformation for profit peddled by social media platforms have gone a long way in pushing them apart.

“The Social Dilemma” ended with several suggestions on how to best protect yourself against getting sucked in and manipulated by social media in particular, and technology in general. If you can’t see getting off social media completely, then at least provide as little personal information as possible on your sites, do not post a lot of images, and never click on recommendations. These are called “click bait” by tech insiders, and their only purpose is to hold your attention as long as possible and help algorithms subtly nudge you towards advertisements. Also, if you are someone who is constantly checking your phone or social media feeds, start shutting down all devices at least one hour prior to bed and make it a rule that no screens are allowed in your bedroom. Try taking a walk or running some errands without your phone. Many people have become absolutely dependent on their technology, and the only way to break that hold is to employ established anti-addiction techniques. Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, said, “There are only two industries that call their customers users; illegal drugs and software.” Kick the habit if you can, limit its hold on you if you can’t, and take everything you read on social media with an enormous grain of salt. Better yet, never use social media platforms for news at all. Instead, look for reliable sources elsewhere, read more than one article on any given topic, and then make up your own mind. I find the truth usually lies somewhere in the grey area between two opposing sides.

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