written by
Flavian DeLima

How does information spread to mess you up online?

social media 4 min read , September 25, 2020
Thanks Photo by Code Ninja

I had mixed feelings after watching the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski. On the one hand, a Netflix release during a global pandemic means more people see it. On the other hand, when interest dies down, will things go back to normal if lawmakers do nothing and tech giants blanket us with marketing campaigns? I’m encouraged because #StopHateForProfit is trending and companies and celebrities are freezing their Facebook and Instagram accounts at least for a day.

Photo by StopHateForProfit

Two people interviewed in the film were particularly pessimistic about the future. Tim Kendall, former director of monetization (meaning how the company generates revenue) at Facebook and current president of Pinterest, described the future in two words:

“Civil War”

Janier Lanier's prediction is direr. He's a Microsoft researcher, computer scientist, and author of "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now". Besides Jaron’s many accomplishments, he’s also a father. It sounds like he’s truly worried about the world his son will grow up in.

On social media platforms, Jaron says,

"We probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance, we probably fail to meet the challenge of climate change. ... We probably degrade the world’s democracies, so that they fall into some sort of bizarre autocratic dysfunction. We probably ruin the global economy, we probably don’t survive. You know, I really do view it as existential.”

Both recommend you quit using social platforms because the profit motive ensures people's behavior will continue to be manipulated by advertisers. Clear evidence exists that free social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc, divide and make people depressed because they ultimately serve advertisers, not us. They also have positives - the reason they got popular in the first place.

The Social Media Algorithms

Algorithms are designed for one purpose. To keep your attention and prevent it from wandering elsewhere on the Internet or offline. The more time you spend on them, the smarter the algorithms get in predicting and showing you more of what you think you want.

Social Media in Colorful Alphabets
Photographer: Merakist | Source: Unsplash

It's strange to think that thousands of engineers run experiments on your behavior to get you to use apps longer and then manipulate you. The more you use them, the more they’re able to collect attributes about you and to influence your behavior.

How micro-targeting ads work

Each time you use free services like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google Search, Facebook, they learn more about you. Their business model is to sell commercial and political advertisers the ability to send you micro-targeted ads and messaging based on your specific interests. Political campaigns rely on micro-targeting. It is defined as the process of slicing up the voters into many distinct niches, appealing and trying to influence their behavior with highly customized digital messages.

In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins gives the example of an ad that calls for de-funding Planned Parenthood. On Facebook, such an ad can be targeted and would likely get the desired reaction from 800 Roman Catholic women in a swing state like Dubuque, Iowa. An ad the Trump campaign used successfully to suppress the black vote in Florida in 2016 was a South-Park-style cartoon animation that read,

"Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators."

According to the Trump campaign:

"The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—non public posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that only the people we want to see it, see it. We know because we’ve modeled this. It will dramatically affect her [Hillary Clinton’s] ability to turn these people out.”

The best digital ad campaign ever

In a leaked internal memo written by a longtime Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, in 2016 wrote about Trump's win:

“He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”

In the six months prior to the 2016 US election,"Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000."

As sweet as sugar

Related to the health effects of Facebook, Bosworth compared Facebook to sugar and believed that users should know better and be responsible for their own intake and moderation. Incidentally, it’s helpful to be mindful that besides the computer industry, the only other industry that calls customers users is the drug industry.

“If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position...My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.”

On growing Facebook, Bosworth wrote an internal memo titled, The Ugly, that was reprinted in BuzzFeed News. The following is a short excerpt.

We connect people.That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide.So we connect more peopleThat can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.

I’m not sure which side of history Facebook will end up. I do know from talking to a few employees that it’s a lot more stressful to work there today than it was a decade ago.

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