Covid-19 (CV) dominates the concerns of people globally, and so too the media. Another “disease”, equally or perhaps more threatening in some ways, is running rampant through societies around the world, but is receiving little day to day attention, shut out by daily data and commentary on CV, and itself feeding the panic around the pandemic. That disease lives in social media and its influence, let’s call it SMI. Social media, used in the right way, can enhance life and provide great benefits. Perhaps however, it is also posing an existential threat, more like climate change than CV which is certainly not existentially threatening. To get a feel for SMI, watching “The Social Dilemma” is a good start.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA
This is a film, available on Netflix, developed by the Center for Humane Technology as part of its programme to raise public awareness around social media dangers and how to mitigate those dangers. Its subject matter centres on how the public are manipulated and “abused” by a small number of Technology Companies providing social media networks such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Tik Tok and others (Techcos). The “actors” in the film are co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology, advisers and academics, many of whom have held senior positions at the heart of Techcos, and all of whom seem highly knowledgeable about the industry. A telling sentence in the film is “Only two industries refer to customers as “users”, illegal drugs and the software industries”.
A prime danger highlighted by the film is that the users of social media – the general populace and especially the younger generations– are becoming addicts for their hits every hour, every few minutes, almost at any time. SMI is infecting anyone with a device. Every ping on the device attracts attention, diverting the user, another dose of SMI. And it is occurring without the user even being aware of it or, if aware, not being concerned by it. Most frightening of all is that the Techcos, it appears, have it as their purpose to create addicts. These companies compete for the attention, the time and the mind, of the users. Their marketing and techniques are designed to distract the user as much as possible as often as possible. And why are they developing and applying technology to do this? Because they want to maximise advertising and the accompanying revenue. Advertisers want the attention of people and pay for it. It follows that the more attention of users a Techco can attract, the more ads it attracts and profit results. The profit motive, to satisfy investors and others, is driving SMI. A user of course believes they are getting a service with little consideration of the potential implications behind the device usage.
ENGINEERS, ALGORITHMS AND DATA
A Techco employs engineers – “growth hackers” – using teams of them described in the film to hack into the psyche of the user. Growth is the growth in the time a user spends on the device, maximising the potential exposure to advertising. People are sitting ducks as it is innate in humans to socialise with others, to want attention, for others to like them or at least appear to, to be part of groups, to belong and not wanting to miss out. People like to be connected, and social media is all about making connections. It seems that engineers are employed to create algorithms which are applied to feed pleasurable or desired and welcome experiences to the user. The more data a Techco has about a user the more tailored the experience can be made and the more clicks are made, and more data is gathered and so on. Data is the power it seems. It has long been known that Techcos are accumulating vast quantities of data about every individual using devices such as phones or laptops, who is online. Every click, every choice of video or book, every photo and email and WhatsApp message is data to be harvested by a Techco, and improve the effectiveness of the algorithm. And then our choices are turned back to us as “Recommended for you” or “you might like”. The addiction of SMI grows daily, secret and unseen. Does the user control the technology or is it the other way round? And the technology is under the control of the Techcos. Perhaps the most pernicious threat of all is the control and manipulation of information and the influence, information transmitted via the device can have.
IS MISINFORMATION AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT?
Fake news has become an everyday term; in fact, so every day that its usage runs the risk of diminishing its significance and the real-world effects, often highly damaging and corrosive, that fake news has. When people believe strongly things are true, which are not and are known by their spreaders not to be true, that is surely a recipe for disaster. Social media communicates with the click of a button with vast numbers of people, and as messages are received which are passed on, recipients can be multiplied exponentially. And if a malicious slice of fake news is in a category of the “likes” of an individual user as determined by the algorithm, it will be directed to that user, who thus will receive more and more of things which as subjects may appeal to them and which they absorb, but which are lies; and the user does not know they are lies. This way all people are not even receiving the same news, but it is being individualised by the algorithm technology, it is suggested, so that one user receives news that appeals to them, and another user gets different news to their taste. The facts being presented to people on social media are simply not necessarily the same.
People who want to disrupt, to cause confusion and mess, and malevolent nation states who are hostile, for example to democracies, and who are not even necessarily powerful themselves, can throw out, via social media, as much untrue information as they wish, using fake accounts or bots, to spread unrest, hostility between people, and create chaos. This may then be directed by technology to the appropriate recipients who might like it. Tristan Harris, a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, in the film asks the question “Is technology an existential threat?”. His answer is that technology has the ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society is the existential threat. An interesting observation.
How many good causes are being infiltrated with the spreading of false information in order to either promote or damage the cause or simply sew confusion; and set opinion of one person against the opinion of another and stir emotion so that rational debate is frustrated? As a result, disagreement is not settled by discussion and listening but instead becomes incapable of a compromise or respectful acceptance.
In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election it is commonly accepted as true that Russia interfered through social media. In that election there was the notorious PIZZAGATE – the spreading of the conspiracy theory though social media that Democratic Party representatives were part of a paedophile ring, the centre of which was at the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington D.C. It was all false, but surveys showed that nevertheless a considerable proportion of voters took it in as fact. One individual shot a rifle in the pizzeria and its owners received multiple death and other threats, it is reported. Other elections have been interfered with. The abuse of fake news about one political faction can set another against it with a hatred and a passion, polarising populations into extreme divisions.
Donald Trump is perhaps the most famous tweeter of all whose version of the truth is what he wants it to be, not the actual truth. His continued campaign through social media that the election was stolen from him through Democrats’ corrupt abuse of postal voting has garnered considerable support among his followers, even though no material evidence has been produced and numerous judges and election officials have confirmed no evidence has been presented. This is a frightening example of the truth being corrupted by fake news. If people of opposite opinions cannot even agree on a set of facts, where there are deliberate fictitious distortions of the truth being manufactured and circulated across the media, and people are working off different versions of facts, what chance is there of disagreements being compromised and settled?
The CV pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to those who wish chaos on society. The publication on social media of stories of the source of CV, 5G towers, the lies about vaccines, questions about the very existence of the virus are creating havoc in the efforts to combat the pandemic. Somehow a way has to be found to stop fake news and its proliferation through social media.
PRESERRVING FREE SPEECH BUT CONTOLLING FAKE NEWS
The Economist in October published material on social media and free speech. A debate is taking place as to who should be identifying false information on the networks, marking it as such or deleting it. The Techcos themselves say they can moderate. Apparently, Facebook disables some 17 million fake accounts every day, and YouTube removed over 11 million videos in the last quarter as well as over 2 billion users’ comments. Some material can be identified by artificial intelligence and taken down easily, such as visual pornography. However, fake news requires judgement calls. Restricting publication of any material is an affront to freedom of speech. However, where the aim of false material is to sew social chaos and set people against each other in some form, how to draw the line is a monster of a question: censorship perhaps cannot be avoided and so a key issue is how to apply it responsibly and in the interests’ of overall freedom.
Can a Techco be the judge of what is true? Unlikely, as they themselves have agendas, including the business model that drives them. The answer may lie somewhere in an international cooperative regulatory framework, as these social media problems are global. Or might it even be in breaking up Techcos? It has to be hoped that the leaders of the world will take this on. The EU, the UK and the United States leaders have this on the agenda. It is of course urgent. As every day goes by, addicts to SMI get more hooked, and fake news spreads and factions face up to factions. When asked what his biggest fear was, one expert in the film replied, “civil war”. Education about the realities and the risks will be vital, and it looks like a long haul. As ever too, every individual in free societies has a role to play in reducing the power of the fake news promoters. Are “users”, particular the younger generations, being brainwashed? If so, “champions” from those generations are needed to promote changes to stop the brainwashing.
Note: The Center for Humane Technology was founded in 2018, an independent not for profit organisation. According to its website: “We need radically reimagined technology infrastructure and business models that actually align with humanity’s interests”. The Center is about educating the public “awakening millions to the individual and societal harms of social media platforms…” – The film, The Social Media, is an example. It briefs policymakers “…to support the creation of the policy architecture that protects society and rewards humane technologies”. And it works “…to inspire technologists and change the culture inside tech companies…”.