Reflecting on a World Where Robots Control Your Thoughts on Social Media

We have found ourselves living in a befuddling time. We are told it is an age of human progress and peace. Yet also a time of Trump, suicide bombings, Russian interference, and increasing division of common citizens on social media. With so much outrage and vitriol being shared daily in the obsession to receive clicks, likes and revenue, researchers in the field are increasingly noticing this.

This article will attempt to summarize why this has happened, how to reign in your own emotional turmoil on social media so you at least are not part of the fight club mentality online, and what exactly you can do about the problem yourself.

It is now uncontroversial to say that social media is able (to a degree) change how you think and behave. I first became aware of this after reading an article by Tristan Harris in 2016 (“How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist”) which is available online, and a podcast he subsequently did in 2017 with Sam Harris. Both are illuminating and discuss how social media manipulates and persuades you to change your behavior in ways that are not always beneficial to you. One of the overriding tropes throughout is how nobody wakes up looking to be outraged, but during the course of the average 150 times a day you check your phone, you will increasingly become outraged. Why does this happen? If our goal is not to wake up and be outraged, then why is this what we do, in general terms? This is our first question to tackle.

The first question

In fact, as it turns out, stories that create outrage are the ones that get the most attention. If I share a post about parenting or gender roles for example on my Facebook, it typically generates a heated discussion and disagreement among my own online friends to the point where some are even blocking others or me in the post. An easy to digest video that summarizes this by YouTuber CGP Grey is worth watching if you want to understand why, but essentially anger and outrage is what people share the most, and invariably end up digging in their heels over the most.

Anyone who has ever shared an opinion on abortion online will know exactly what I mean. People rarely shift their position, yet counter intuitively spend the most time on these kind of topics trying to convince other people they are correct or just blasting their thoughts into cyberspace. And of course companies like Facebook, whose entire investment is dependent on keeping you on the site for as much as possible notice this.

For these companies, it would be illogical not to exploit this so that they can get the most attention from its users. This is what brings us to the rise of machines: the digital robots, “bots,” and algorithms that intelligently target what you see each day. In addition, as these digital tools become ever more sophisticated, it is easy to see how to your own goals and well-being are increasingly being ignored in the never-ending race to steal all your attention through any means possible. Facebook knows that you engage more on the stories that make you angry. The algorithm notices you moan along with your friends and family, and it certainly logs the times you click block on people and what you were doing just prior. The end result is the building of an outrage culture where echo chambers are designed and created specifically for you so you can blindly moan about everything with like-minded friends. It is in effect, a custom-built safe space made entirely from a few lines of code just for you — without any human interaction in the process. This in turn has the effect of turning your very opinions and beliefs into ever more polarized and radical dogma that is never challenged.

The second question

So how do you reign your own behavior in, and why would you want to? Actually here, I must apologize. I do not in fact have a silver bullet answer to this question. The main problem I have in this area is the lack of understanding on how to give someone a value system. Many years ago, before my time, this was very simple. Religion did this for you. Don’t like people sleeping around? Conveniently, we can just have a God decree it to be immoral then. This easily passes on a value system (sex outside of marriage is immoral, could be the value) onto the people we need it pushed onto. These days things get a lot more complex if we want to convince someone of a value.

What argument can I make to someone who believes right-wing politics is worthless, for example, in order to convince them that you should consider positions from both sides and argue with yourself from both a conservative and liberal position on topics? The one side is already rejected out of hand, so establishing such a value is very hard. We see practical examples of this again in our daily lives. For example when abortion is mentioned, increasingly we see statements such as “more people without a womb arguing over what women should be allowed to do with their bodies.” I argue that these kind of statements are indicative of the kind of “outrage viruses” that spread within social media and are never challenged inside of the filter bubbles they occupy. Even the briefest of interactions with a pro-life advocate would tell you the concern revolves around the unborn child, and not with the right to control women. Yet even typing this in an article will undoubtedly motivate someone to want to correct me on this point. Really, the issue is an online version of black and white thinking being fostered.

Therefore, for this difficult question I can only offer some general advice: Treat other people as charitably as you possibly can when you interact with them. And I mean everyone. It doesn’t matter if you think the person is a Nazi, or even literally Hitler. Treat that person as if you would a close friend. Listen, and repeat back what they say to you in a charitable way. Treat disagreement as a pause for reflection, not a call to arms. In other words, do not reactively post a reply to something you disagree with. Be reasonable. Wait half an hour before replying. In my own personal experience, I have found this to be quite therapeutic. I rarely get angry online anymore and since that is my goal when waking up — it suits me just fine. Searching online actually provides many different ways of reducing anger and outrage and you can go look and take your pick with what resonates for you. The point is simply this: social media is gaming the system to manipulate you into being polarized and outraged. Game the system by knowing this and correcting for it. If you don’t want to? Well I can’t stop you from being so angry you want to punch Nazis, but let it be to your detriment.

The third question

So if you made it this far, you are now wondering what we can do about it. Well disturbingly, as individuals I would argue very little can be done. In fact, I believe this will simply get worse if we try to tackle this on our own as individuals. A report from this month found that Governments are increasingly now invested in motivating public opinion through social media. For example, the report found 45% of active twitter accounts in Russia are automated bots being used to promote political agendas. It is no secret Trump used twitter and continues to do so in order to spread his own narrative. Whether it is factual or not, being of secondary importance. Moreover, we know that click farms exist and have been setup in order to spread fake news. This is a problem in light of the fact something like 62% of US adults now get their news from social media which appears to be hijacked to a degree to promote disinformation (note, not misinformation). I would like to point out here that the same study does suggest that fake news did not sway the election. (I include this point so that my own thinking does not run away with itself in hysteria — it is important to note there are two sides to any story including my own I wish to tell.)

At any rate, my own assessment is rather simple. We should reject a system that allowed news outlets to simply become propaganda mouthpieces for the Government, and I suggest the same must be done for online channels whose media we consume. For this reason, I do not believe it unreasonable for common citizens like you and I to expect regulation with regards to how companies such as Facebook manipulate our behavior and emotional well-being with algorithms. It is essentially a form of exploitation, and unethical. I say it should be monitored as such. While at first this might seem like a radical suggestion, I believe that if one pauses and reflects on it that the conclusion is inescapable. We are already passing on a world that is physically being damaged by human activity. Let us work together and demand social media companies do the right thing so that we do not pass on a virtual mess too. Freedoms of ordinary citizens need to be protected. Not of shady governments and businesses who might exploit us — and our children.

Peter Allebone

Peter Allebone works as a consultant in the IT cloud industry. He has lived in three countries, South Africa, the United Kingdom and currently resides in Canada. At first he thought this was because he was a nomad, with no true home. Now he realizes this is because everywhere is home. Some people say he has to keep moving because he argues with everyone.
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Peter Allebone

Peter Allebone works as a consultant in the IT cloud industry. He has lived in three countries, South Africa, the United Kingdom and currently resides in Canada. At first he thought this was because he was a nomad, with no true home. Now he realizes this is because everywhere is home. Some people say he has to keep moving because he argues with everyone.