It would be a lie to say that I’m not addicted to my phone, like a lot of people, especially teens. More than 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media and internet addiction, according to Science Direct. And some teens spend more than 7 hrs a day on social media. This sounds concerning, doesn’t it? Previous employees of these social media companies agree. In the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” they interviewed employees who have previously worked with a popular social media or technology company such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc. who seemed extremely concerned for the future of technology.

The problem isn’t just addiction; it’s why we are addicted and what social media companies are getting out of it. Obviously, they’re getting money. They’re getting paid by advertisers, but paid for what? For us- our attention is what’s being sold to advertisers. Many people have the misconception that Google is just a search engine and Snapchat is just a way to chat with and send pictures to friends. But in reality, all these companies like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, their goal is to keep people engaged on the screen, according to Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder. And to get our attention, they are using our data, which they have a ton of. 

These companies know everything about us, down to small details about personalities, if someone is an introvert or extrovert, whether they’re lonely or depressed. They know what you look at, and even for how long you look at something. Jeff Seibert (Twitter former executive, Serial Tech entrepreneur) says, “What I want people to know is that everything they’re doing online is being watched, is being tracked, is being measured.” These apps are competing for our attention by using our data. A common misconception among people is that this data is being sold. But it’s not about giving up data, but what they are doing with that data: they build models that predict our actions, and whoever has the best model wins. (Aza Raskin, Firefox and Mozilla Labs former employee, Center for Humane Tech co-founder). It’s not our devices that are being hacked, it’s us.  

These models (it’s alarming, but think digital puppets of people) are then used to create algorithms that will help figure out what to keep showing someone to keep them engaged. There are all these people in tech learning about persuasive technology; they’re asking, what’s going to keep you using your device, using that platform? One example Seibert gave is getting an email saying that your friend tagged you in a photo- that’s intentional, to sway you into clicking on that email. Tristan explains how there’s an entire field called growth-hacking, how companies have teams of engineers whose job is to hack people’s psychology so they can grow, get more user sign-ups, more engagement, etc. Companies like Google and Facebook use little experiments to see what would keep you attentive by trying to exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology. Basically, we’re being manipulated. Tristan agrees that technology has moved from being tool-based to manipulation-based. Social media is no longer a tool for us to use, but instead, it’s using us. 

Dr. Anna Lemke, Stanford University School of Medicine, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine, says that social media is a drug: “We have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people and that directly affects the release of dopamine in the reward pathway, so no doubt a vehicle like social media is gonna have the potential for addiction.” She’s worried about kids especially. Especially social media digs deep into the brain stem and takes over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity (Tristan Harris). Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook former VP of Growth, seems to agree that people are given a false sense of perfection and popularity from things like likes, but that only leaves them more empty. It’s come to a conclusion that phones are like pacifiers for this new generation, and that’s anything but good.

Similarly, we are also being deceived in another way. Guillaume Chaslot, YouTube former engineer, Intuitive Ai ceo, Algotransparency founder, says that people think that these algorithms are giving them what they really want, but they’re really leading them down powerful rabbit holes that are closest to their interests. They lead people to crazy theories, conspiracies, and fake news. A study found that fake news on Twitter spreads 6 times faster than true news. Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true, no matter what issue we care about. Can you imagine how dangerous fake news was during the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic? Tactics used by these algorithms were enough to convince people that the earth was flat, and elections and political affairs have been swayed too. It’s not that highly motivated propagandists haven’t existed before, it’s that platforms make it possible to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease.  (Ree Diresta, Stanford Internet Observatory Research manager, Data FPR, Democracy former Head of Policy). 

A lot of social media companies’ former employees believe that technology has done so much good in the world. And although it has come with all these difficulties, many are optimistic that we can change what social media looks like and means, and that we can and must change technology for the better. But that all starts with us seeing that the main way this is all designed isn’t a good path; we have to see that our attention and opinions are being mined, and that we are being misled in numerous ways. You know, people talk a lot about technology taking over the world someday- but what they don’t realize is that it already has. 


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