If you have not already seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, it is worth your time. This documentary features interviews with several former and current high-tech executives to talk about some of the negative and, heretofore, unknown effects of social media. In my never-ending quest to add value, here are the keys points of the hour-and-a-half documentary in progressive order and summarized for your benefit.
- Social media is a modern miracle and has enabled some truly positive outcomes. You can find a kidney donor on Facebook or a long, lost relative on Google. It is an amazing tool.
- Social media began as a noble idea—sharing this type of information across ideologies and borders; ideas that could improve the quality of life for everyone globally. But the industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years as information sharing companies have morphed into profit-generating, advertising machines. Think about it. You are not a CLIENT of Instagram as they offer their services for free to users. More likely, you are their PRODUCT as they attempt to sell your time and attention looking at ads paid for by their real clients, the advertisers. The new objective is to capture as much of your time and attention on the Internet as possible. The more time you spend in Snapchat, the more advertisers are willing to pay to place their ads there.
- No big deal, right? Just like television and magazines, Internet advertisers are trying to be clever and creative enough to convince you to buy a Ford versus a Chevrolet. At the end of the day it is your decision. Maybe not. Social media differs from traditional advertising in that they utilize algorithms to track and test our viewing history and preferences individually. That means that they know your personal preference for ad content, color, and style. They also know your viewing and buying habits on the web as they have basically captured all of your past social media keystroke history. That allows them to create customized future ads, aimed specifically at you and people like you. These algorithms continually run what are called A/B Tests to see if you are more or less likely to open an ad with a yellow background (choice A) versus a blue one (choice B) and lots of other criteria. These programs work continuously to hone their effectiveness, repeating successful strategies and discontinuing those that are ineffective. Humans wrote these programs but don’t supervise them. The machines themselves utilize Artificial Intelligence to daily improve their ability to accurately predict your Internet behavior.
- Still not a big deal. If you are silly enough to spend your life on Facebook then you deserve to be influenced by their tactics. But hang on to your hats. This technology and strategies extend beyond advertising. When you post an opinion on Facebook, any opinion, political or otherwise, these algorithms act in the same manner. They register that you are pro-Trump or pro-Biden, that you believe in extra-terrestrials or you do not, that you live in the city v. the suburbs or the country. They then craft the information that you view on the net to fit your profile. Get this. That means that if you conduct a Google search on global warming, for example, you are likely to get different content then I might get when I conduct the exact same search. The algorithms seek to provide you with search results that best match your profile. The machines make absolutely no attempt to present “the truth” as they have no ability to make that determination or know the best solution to any social or political problem. In short, they tell you what you want to hear.
- The results of all this are understandable. If you are using social media to help you form an opinion on Black Lives Matter, the value of the Electoral College, or the qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee, you are very unlikely to receive balanced, informative, unbiased, and truthful information. Instead, you will receive information that has been customized to your liking so that you will be more likely to stay on the page and click-through some of the advertising that appears on the page. The natural result is polarization, further dividing us and decreasing the likelihood that we will actually listen to each other and work collaboratively to solve problems. After all, we are probably only getting one side of the story.
- Tech executives admit that the influence this technology and its associated tactics have small impacts on the behavior of most people but also warn that most are totally unaware that they are being influenced and would probably argue that they are not. Still, the tech industry has scientific, statistical evidence from testing that they are influencing behavior. And think about the scope. If Facebook can convince even one-half of one percent of their users that vaccines are or are not related to Autism, then what impact have they had on the beliefs and actions of those 130,000,000 people? Scary. News flash. The Russians didn’t hack Facebook to influence the 2016 presidential election. They, more likely and per the documentary, became paying Facebook customers using all the tools available to any paying Facebook advertiser to influence the election. Totally legal but hardly ethical.
What do we do? Tech companies claim they can fix this problem, but congress is considering legislation. Until they can come up with a battle plan, I would suggest that you refrain from all social media communication other than exchanging vacation photos or sharing cookie recipes. And yes, I realize that I am posting an opinion about not posting opinions, but I thought the message was so worthwhile that I was willing to embrace the irony. Four other recommendations:
- Make your political points face-to-face with people you know and love. They are probably the only ones listening anyway.
- Every one of the tech execs interviewed in the documentary said that they keep their children 100% away from social media.
- Try talking to someone who views things differently than you do and find out why they believe what they believe. If nothing else, that conversation might give you some new and creative ideas for solving problems.
- Watch the documentary yourself… The Social Dilemma, available on Netflix.
Hope this helps, Roger