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Is Social Media Controlling Our Minds?

(Based on a talk given to the Senior Citizens’ Forum, Kottayam)

Internet open to the public was born in 1983. There is an interesting paper written about it in 1998: “From Utopia to Dystopia” The Twin Faces of the Internet” by Debra Howcroft and Brian Fitzgerald. In the positive, Utopian Vision of the Internet, it was hoped that the convergence of computing and telecommunications would herald a new ‘information age’. Work and organizations would be transformed, education uplifted, democracies strengthened, and community life re-vitalised.

In contrast to this, there is a negative, Dystopian Vision of the Internet which believes that certain technologies “facilitate a social order that is harsh, destructive and miserable”. Online relationships are considered shallow, impersonal, and often hostile [Parks & Floyd 1996]. They argue that only an illusion of community can be created in cyberspace. Facebook illustrates this quite well.

“Knowing yourself” is considered a virtuous thing. Unfortunately, we are not very good at this. By contrast, others know us better. Our political orientation, the books we like, our food preferences and much more, can be computed from our exposure on social networks.

Using data from our footprints on the web, computers can reconstruct our personality. With this information, Facebook categorizes you according to a database of about 52,000 attributes [Poste 2018]. The data is used to select the ads directed at you.

How does FB generate this information? This is done by an advanced system of personalisation algorithms. An algorithm is a set of rules to be followed in a calculation, like recipes. What happens when you open the FB page? Facebook Algorithm looks at all the content that could show up on your page. These are likely to be the posts created by people know to you, advertisements, and posts from the pages you follow. Each content gets a score based on the information. Content with higher scores comes at the top of your page. Thus it chooses what you see on your homepage. It is only partly controlled by the user privacy settings. Based on your response, the Algorith figures out what you like. It is continuously learning your behaviour and looking for indications whether your preferences have changed.

Facebook’s algorithms have transformed themselves with time. FB has a team of people constantly improving the algorithms to read you better since it appeared in 2006. The Like button appeared in 2007. In 2009, the posts with the most Likes get boosted to the top of the feed. In 2016, a post’s value becomes dependent on the time users spend on it. In particular, the algorithm began to give higher score to posts that created volatile response.

Not surprisingly, the posts that elicited more response tended to be those that angered people. Facebook became an angrier, polarising place. In 2017, Facebook starts prioritising emoji-based reactions over Likes.

In 2019: Facebook starts promoting posts from those people with whom there is strong interaction. How does Facebook retain your loyalty? For you to be loyal to FB, you have to be rewarded occasionally. The reward is someone liking you or a compliment on a photo or a post. This stimulates you to contribute more. Facebook is exploiting a human vulnerability. We have a basic need to be part of something and for social status.

Information about ourselves is treated by our brain like a reward. Our brain’s “valuation system” activates when our behaviour is rewarded with compliments, presents or financial rewards. Similar thing happens when we come across self-relevant information. That is information about yourself. This is the reason why you respond when someone calls your name even in a noisy room. Information relevant to our reputation and social hierarchy is specially important. We are sensitive to this.

Are Social media addictive? A psychologist named B F Skinner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, discovered a strange fact about addiction in the 1950s. His theory was ‘radical behaviourism’ and suggested that all human action happened because of conditioning. He was experimenting with pigeons. If pigeons peck a button, they would get food. Skinner found that when they were given food randomly on pecking a button, they would peck in a frantic, compulsive manner.

Social network sites reward you by providing self-relevant information, getting billions of people to come back to FB. To find interesting content, you must continue scrolling. Scrolling uses the same psychology as a gambling slot machine because people are motivated to continue searching for the next reward [Poste 2018]. Continued scrolling means you’ll stay on the platform longer and see more advertisements.

There is a concept called Social Proof. Social Proof is the behaviour when people tend to emulate what others do to do the right thing in a situation. For example, people tend to sign a petition when they realize that many others have already done it. You select a restaurant that has a higher customer likes.

To encourage you to stay active on their sites, social media platforms will continuously remind you of your friends’ activities [Poste 2018]. There is another concept called Reciprocity. Reciprocity refers to people responding positively to people who have treated them well. You tend to tip more to a waiter who bring complementary chocolates with a bill. Social media sites take advantage of our natural urge to respond to the positivity others show and make us engage with their platforms more often. For example, Facebook lets people know when their messages have been seen, spurring them to reciprocate.

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recently said that the FB was designed to maximise the time you spend on FB. Whistleblower Francis Haugen’s revelations have confirmed how FB does this.

So, the message is clear. The Web is watching you. It’s algorithms compute what you are. So, you must be wary of this and approach the Web intelligently.

Is there hope? Web 3.0, in the making, is the Decentralized Web. DWeb works with peer-to-peer connectivity, where your computer requests and provides information. Distributed digital ledgers technology, enables you to own your data. 3D graphics will create virtual reality.

Anticipating Web 3.0, Facebook has transformed into Meta. In the metaverse, the physical and digital worlds are merged by employing virtual and augmented reality and you will experience this using Virtual Reality headsets. So, you will not only be chatting with your FB friends, you may meet them in virtual reality.

There is a movie called “Social Network” on the times of the birth of Facebook. It focuses on Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and the conflicts surrounding its creation. The movie closes with a scene where Zuckerberg sits alone after a day spent with lawyers and conflicts. He finds his former girlfriend’s Facebook profile and sends her a friend request, refreshing the page repeatedly. The site that he had so cleverly brought out for connecting people fails him and leaves him lonely and disconnected from his girlfriend and everyone else. The message of the movie seems to be that applications like Facebook, merely create a sense of faux community. This is a world that is neither based on close personal affections nor possessing deep roots of humanity and hence a lie.

You should watch a documentary “The Social Dilemma” which raises concerns about the impact of social media on our privacy and our morale and even our democracy [Gopalakrishnan 2020]. It is made up of interviews of top executives from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook. The experts assure us their intentions were good but that these applications got out of control. Finally there are many proposals on how to engineer FB to make it a tool for creating a cohesive, friendly society. But this will make FB less profitable.

Debra Howcroft, Brian Fitzgerald, From Utopia to Dystopia: the twin faces of the Internet, 1998/01/01,

Parks, M., & Floyd, K. (1996). Making Friends in Cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 1–22.

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