By now, we’re all familiar with the problems of an open communication network which allows global reach. It’s easy to game our reptile brains to spread misinformation, hate speech and propaganda. It allows countries to interfere in the democratic communication processes in other countries. At best it serves as a kind of opiate for the masses, providing distractions that take people out of their communities. It’s a tool for capitalistic expansion and the control of knowledge and information flows. And to top it all off, the ads it serves are terrible.
Pop quiz: What do climate change and social media privacy have in common?
If you said, “a distracting and inaccurate focus on individual actions” you’re correct! Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a congratulatory beer, glass of wine, coffee, or soda.
Note: This post is for Laura, by request – hi Laura!
Note 2: This post is far more philosophical than I normally go, but I thought, what the heck, why not have fun with it?
Your online Shadow.
Everyone has one. Even if you take care to not use platforms like Facebook, it’s highly likely that you have a shadow profile following you around the internet.
Platforms like Facebook and Google do it best. They collect all the data you and your friends or colleagues give them when you use their free services (But Google maps is SO CONVENIENT!) and they combine that with collected data about the other sites you visit (even after you log out) or where you’re logging in from, or whether you’re on a mobile device or a computer. They combine all of this data, and start to make predictions about you, which are either confirmed or adjusted depending on your online habits, and the habits of those you are connected to. This is precisely why so many people think their phones are secretly listening to them – and then delivering ads based on something they said. Your phone is not listening to you. It’s more troubling than that. Your shadow profile has revealed your secrets (she’s not very discrete!).
In developers’ conferences and earnings calls, the biggest of the big tech companies are trying to develop unique value propositions that paint them as friendly, responsive, and attuned to the needs of their customers. Then the mainstream technology media (often overworked, understaffed and reliant on the good graces of big tech for continued access to stories), generally reports these messages at face value. News in the last week focused on Facebook’s pivot toward community groups, Google’s exciting universal translator or Amazon’s claim that small and medium sized business partners made on average 90K last year through their platform.
In early 2018, Facebook users were stunned to learn that Cambridge Analytica had used a loophole in Facebook’s API to harvest data from millions of users who had not given free and informed consent for the use of their data. Prior to this reveal, people around the world were already growing concerned about the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media and how this information may influence elections. This event sent apprehensions into overdrive and even sparked a #DeleteFacebook online movement, of sorts.
These companies make money by ensuring we spend as much time on their platforms as possible so they use various tricks like creating an illusion of choice, hijacking our natural tendencies as social animals, and producing the compelling draw of variable rewards to capture and hold our attention. In his article, Harris makes suggestions for why each of these tactics is problematic for people, community, and society, and he also suggests different ways we could design and approach technology in our lives. I’d like to build on his ideas specifically with respect to weaponized misinformation and propaganda. Harris doesn’t really get into this in his article, but I’d like to suggest why I think the hacking of the human mind has left us far more vulnerable to this type of message manipulation.
When social media platforms hack our brains for attention, they have also super charged the propaganda, misinformation and black ops tactics that were already being deployed at a slower grassroots scale. Just as we are wired to seek variable rewards from social media notifications, we are wired to respond to emotionally charged (particularly negative) posts. The human mind, evolutionary speaking, is optimized to ignore the mundane but attend to threats to ourselves or our tribes. Thus when we see a viral video showing a confrontation between two groups, one of whom we identify with, we will be likely to pay attention to the video and then share it with our tribe without thinking critically about what is not shown on the video.
This type of uncritical engagement with media is not particularly new either. As anyone who has taken a media studies class can tell you, we tend to trust what we see with our own eyes, which is why video is so successful a medium for building and reinforcing cultural norms. But as social media platforms use popularity and auto play to hold our attention, they also facilitate the spread of video, increasing the global scale at which they can effectively influence people’s views.
So as Harris points out, we are all being hacked for our attention. And as the companies hack our brains, they pave the way for propagandists to do so as well. This adds additional weight to Harris’ call for a social media bill of rights, and I would add, suggests that we need to carefully think through the question of regulation for platforms and whether we need to develop an international and enforceable standard of practice.
Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).
So, in the news last week, it turns out Facebook behaved like many other large and not particularly ethical companies. Sheryl Sandberg is implicated in the hiring of a right-wing PR firm known for it’s “black ops” style engagement. This firm created messages suggesting that anti-Facebook activists had ties to George Soros (a known Republic dog whistle tactic). It has also been suggested that Sandberg wanted to suppress information about Russian election meddling (even the information which originated from Facebook’s own security people. All this and more is detailed in a recent New York Times article that commentators are saying shocked, and I mean, SHOCKED!the world.
Yes, it’s true, Facebook has been implicated in some incredible abuses of power. From Cambridge Analytica to Facebook’s role in the uprisings in Myanmar, to censorship in China and beyond, Facebook has some ‘splaining to do. And consumers (FB users) should just “vote with their feet” and leave the platform once and for all or Facebook will never be held accountable.
I agree with most of the #QuitFacebook arguments. And also, I don’t agree that everyone can just stop using Facebook. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.