2020 has been a year of exacerbating political polarization and widespread misinformation, including inaccurate reports regarding the coronavirus. Social media’s unregulated platforms and unfettered activities lie at the heart of these issues, posing a threat to American society and democracy as we know it. Ultimately, social media and the internet has evolved from a useful tool to an inescapable aspect of our lives that manipulates and exploits users by insidiously influencing users’ behavior, creating consequences that threaten society. Social media’s prevalence and use in modern society is undeniable, but we must take care to recognize and manage the potential dangers associated with it.
The Social Dilemma, an American documentary-drama hybrid film directed by Jeff Orlowski explores the rise of social media and its damaging effects on society. In particular, the film addresses social media’s role in political misinformation, as well as its effect on user’s mental health. The film interviews various tech experts, who reveal the inherently flawed designs of search engines and social media platforms.
Former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, claims that social media problems originate from tech companies’ business practices, which prioritize profit over user’s health. Harris explains that tech platforms develop algorithms that aim to stimulate addiction and manipulate users’ behavior for surveillance capitalism, the profit-driven economic system based on the commodification of personal data. These algorithms track users’ behavior online and recommend individualized content to appeal to the user. Ironically, the aspect of social media that appeals to customers is the very aspect that precipitates the exploitation of users. While companies market their algorithms to create a more seamless web experience, they actually exploit users’ habits by stimulating addiction to boost marketing and profit. As Harris so evidently put it, “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.”
One of the other major problems with the application of algorithms is that social media constantly recommends news and information sources, whether reliable not, that reinforce users’ current beliefs. This system inadvertently pushes people with already differing opinions and beliefs into further political polarization. According to an internal Facebook report in 2018, 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because algorithms directed them to extremist content, not because they searched for it intentionally.
Since algorithm’s recommendations do not take into account the credibility of sources, but rather their popularity, misinformation in the form of fake news and conspiracy theories spreads rapidly and ubiquitously. For instance, a subscriber to flat earth content is likely to receive recommendations for fake news and other conspiracy theories such as the anti-vaccine movement or chemtrails. One of the most infamous incidents caused by misinformation online was the viral circulation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory in 2016, which falsely claimed that several Democratic officials, including Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta, were involved in a human trafficking and child sex ring at D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. In response, an armed man entered Comet Ping Pong to investigate the false allegations and fired a rifle inside the pizzeria. Many conservative, alt-right journalists continued to spread and promote the conspiracy theory on Twitter and other social media outlets.
Overall, the widespread circulation of misinformation online has twisted society’s collective understanding of truth and immersed individuals into completely different perceptions of reality. As Roger McNamee, an early investor venture capitalist in Facebook, puts it, social media is like “2.5 billion Truman Shows, [where] each person has their own reality with their own facts. Over time you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you because everyone in your news feed sounds just like you. Once you’re in that state, it turns out you’re easily manipulated.”
According to Harris,“the fabric of a healthy society depends on us getting off this corrosive business model,” which depends on keeping users addicted to their screens and profiting off ad revenue. However, the responsibility shouldn’t solely rest on the tech companies, as their commercial business plan is necessary for their survival against competitor companies. Governments must drive the solution and begin by setting much stricter regulations on companies tracking and using personal data to protect the exploitation of users and creation of social problems.