Writer’s Note: In writing this blog, I do not contend that I am portraying a balanced picture of the impact of social media on our lives. Oftentimes, social media is changing us in ways we do not see. After all, the eye of the storm is calm. My focus is on the negative because the social fabric of our society is getting weaker as a result of social media being misused. As our society becomes increasingly polarized, it is, in my opinion, important to understand the role of social media in subconsciously polarizing and radicalizing us.
Social media platforms are products but we, as their users, do not pay for them. So how do they earn money? If we are not paying for these social media sites, someone is. The primary source of revenue for social media sites comes from advertisers. 99% of Facebook’s net income revenue and 80% of Google’s total revenue is generated through advertising. For social media platforms, we are not so much their consumers as we are the product itself. Advertisers are paying for us to see them on social media.
Social media platforms ensure that your advertisements reach the right audiences through algorithms. Algorithms are opinions embedded in code, used to determine what content to deliver to us based on our behavior. We, wittingly or unwittingly, consent to this when we use social media platforms.
Companies are willing to pay huge amounts of money for their products to be marketed on social media. Worldwide spending on digital advertising is expected to exceed $375 billion in 2021. However, companies are not only paying for your information and attention. Rather this investment is justified by social media gradually, slightly, and imperceptibly changes your behavior and perception.
Not Just What We Do But Who We Are
Every functional and design element part of a social media platform we use impacts who we are. Facebook introduced the ‘Like’ button in 2009, and we quickly began to base our self worth on how many likes we have. Scientists have found that the same brain circuits are activated on seeing a large number of likes as are activated when eating chocolate or winning money. The dangers associated with this is best described by Tristan Harris, who worked as a design ethicist at Google ––
“Never before in history have 50 designers, 20-25 year old white guys in California––made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts they did not intend to have because a designer at Google said this is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning”.
Social media platforms track all our online activity. They monitor our browsing history, our physical proximity to things, and even what content we look at and for how long. All this data is used to build models that predict not only our actions but determine who we are.
A/B testing, also known as split testing, is used across all major social media platforms to increase advertisement engagement and conversion rates. However, these platforms are also rolling out small experiments on users constantly to assess the most optimal way to tailor their users’ behaviors. Our real-world behavior and emotions can be changed without triggering our awareness. In 2010, Facebook carried out a massive scale contagion experiment using subliminal cues on Facebook pages to increase turnout in US congressional elections. They found that just through this one campaign directly increased voter turnout by about 60,000 voters, and indirectly about 238,000.
Bubbles and Rabbit-Holes
The information we consume shapes how we see the world. We are consuming more and more information through social media, and we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. Social media platforms push us towards content that we already lean towards, and it becomes more difficult for us to interact with information that contradicts our worldview. This gives us a false sense that everyone agrees with us because our beliefs are reinforced by the bubble we start living in, and have inadvertently helped create.
Social media platforms have harbored a shift from a tools-based technology environment to a manipulation-based technology environment. The algorithms draw people towards rabbit holes. If they show interest in a conspiracy theory, they will be led to others.
Guillaume Charlot, reveals in an interview that he was deeply concerned about the algorithms he was working on at Youtube for their recommendations. He says, “People think the algorithms are designed to give them what they really want, only it's not. The algorithm is trying to find a few rabbit holes that are very powerful, trying to find which rabbit hole is the closest to your interest. And then if you start watching one of those videos, then it will recommend it over and over again.”
These rabbit holes are a force to be reckoned with. First, it was pizzagate. Pizzagate groups popped up on Facebook in 2016, and people who were interacting with posts about conspiracy theories were recommended the #pizzagate groups. Millions of people picked up on this conspiracy that politicians from the Democratic party are running a paedophile ring from a pizza shop in Washington. Taken in by this conspiracy, a man ended up shooting people in a pizza restaurant in Washington. From the pizzagate conspiracy, grew QAnon –– a conspiracy theory propagating even more ridiculous claims than that of pizzagate. In May 2020, Facebook purged a few pages and groups that were propagating the conspiracy. However, within 30 days, more than 10,000 people had already joined new groups emerging. Investigations show that upwards of 3 million people are following the conspiracy on Facebook. Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that 64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.
64.5% of people claim that they receive breaking news from social media. However, a lot of what we consume as “news” online, is quickly becoming fake news. An MIT study found that fake news on Twitter spreads 6 times faster than true news. This means that 83% of news that is circulated online is false.
Social media has fundamentally changed us. The average attention span of social media users is now only 8 seconds. 8 seconds. That's how long we are willing to spend on obtaining information. An average visitor will only read an article for 15 seconds or less and the average video watch time online is 10 seconds. We spend 8 seconds on an article, assuming it is true because it is on our feed, without realizing that it is 83% likely to be false.
Disinformation for profit has become a business model, and social media platforms themselves have little incentive to regulate the messages that spread quickly.
After Covid-19 started spreading across the world, social media was filled with misinformation about the virus. Warm water will cure it. Chinese food is causing it. It is a hoax started by the government to hide something nefarious. No one on social media is immune to this misinformation.
Is Social Media Bad?
Absolutely not. Social media platforms do immense good in this world. They connect us, inspire us, and change us for the better. They are a reflection of human inclinations, society and nature. It is not that the platforms, or their founders, sought to polarize and radicalize society––it is that they have provided the tools that can be leveraged by malicious actors to do these things. The military in Myanmar capitalized on Facebook to incite violence against Rohingya Muslims. The Chinese used Twitter accounts to sow political discord in Hong Kong. And the stories go on..
The solution to this is not abandoning social media platforms or boycotting people who have gone down dangerous rabbit holes. We can push for social media platforms to invest more money in monitoring hate-speech and have a real conversation with people who do not agree with us. If we can make a conscious effort to monitor our own behavior, we would be able to escape the darkest corners of the virtual world. Maybe take more time reading a flashy news article and look to other news sources to see if something that we see online is true.
Locobuzz is a SaaS platform that converges with technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data and Analytics to provide brands with a 360-degree customer experience management suite. Locobuzz’s powerful analytics algorithms have helped seasoned brands establish a strong foothold in the digital hemisphere and transformed their customer experience journeys. Visit our website www.locobuzz.com for more information on our Customer Experience management services that are catered toward businesses like yours!