How Social Media Platforms Exploit Us and Endanger Democracy

Steven Gambardella

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(Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash)

In the 2000s we connected to the idea that we — all of us — could be publishers. With the advent of “platforms” like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter in the latter half of that decade, it was possible for media to be social - by us and for us.

Not only did social media furnish our lives with sweet memories and 24-hour connectivity to the people we cherish most, we thought, it would also help us become more engaged as citizens. It was to be a radical new dimension of democracy in which everyone would get a voice, and we’d share opinions and ideas on politically neutral platforms. Social media was going to transform politics.

Unfortunately, it did. Everyone got a voice, no matter what they have to say.

The first mistake we made was assuming that social media is “neutral”. By neutral, I mean like a “global village” — that description for the internet used so often in the 1990s that assumed it would bring us closer together.

The idea is naive, but the naivety persists, even in 2021 among the 3.5 billion people that use social media globally. People still think social media companies are “neutral” platforms for sharing experiences and make money “through advertising”.

As a marketer, I know the truth. Social media actually makes money through learning facts about you and selling those facts to companies and organisations. It doesn’t care what people share with each other. If you’re sharing baby photos, Facebook is sharing the fact that you have a baby with the likes of Johnson and Johnson and Unilever. Those companies can then target you with ads for baby products.

Those facts are acquired indirectly through your connections and your observed behaviour, as much as directly through the information you actively share. As the old saying goes: when a service is “free”, you are the product for sale.

The more people scroll and share, the more money social media companies make. And so the social media companies make us scroll and share more. Studies have shown social media to be addictive. People use social media compulsively, reaching for their smartphones like a smoker reaching for their pack of cigarettes.

Now, imagine if those cigarette packets used flashing lights to remind us to smoke. On social media, we’re given recommendations to connect with people we barely know or to view posts by complete strangers we otherwise wouldn’t have sought out. Notifications ping to constantly pull you back to scrolling, and the whole frictionless experience is designed by “user experience” experts to capture and keep you like an oxygen-filled casino serving you free drinks.

Like any addictive substance, social media is damaging to mental health. The rise in social media use has correlated with increased mental health problems around the world. In the United States, the youth suicide rate has increased by 56% between 2009 and 2019 according to the CDC. Between 2011 and 2014, reports of self-harm among girls in Britain aged 13 to 16 rose by 68%. Teenagers who get 5 hours of screen time a day are twice as likely to be depressed than those who are on-screen for less than an hour.

When we derive a sense of self-worth from how well our lives compare to other people, we place it out of our control. No amount of popularity or success can make you immune from social media-induced envy. A fashion model with 107,000 followers on Instagram told the Independent newspaper that she feels “lonely and anxious” when she checks social media.

These hyper-optimized environments stoke our reflexive instincts, they stoke our envy, our fears, our insecurities and our desire to be loved and admired. They take away barriers to participation, smooth the edges of casual use. Now imagine how an environment such as this intersects with politics.

Democracy and Hate

Joanna Hoffman, a well-respected technology marketer, described social media as being like opioids, peddling “an addictive drug called anger” and undermining the fabric of democracy. Newsrooms used to have the slogan “if it bleeds, it leads.” But now it’s “rage to engage.”

But it’s not just newsrooms that deliver mass information in the age of social media. It’s the bedrooms of conspiracy theorists or giant “troll farms” in developing countries allegedly set up by national intelligence agencies. It’s the offices of political parties, lobbying groups, propagandists, and partisan organisations.

The organisations that win in the influence war are often the ones that stoop the lowest. “Low” can be “good” to the machines in Facebook’s data centres that control the flow of information. Posts that target our vulnerabilities can get more engagement. In 2016 Hilary Clinton said, “when they go low, we go high” and promptly lost an election.

Conspiracy theories, hate speech, distorted political facts, voter suppression and even incitements to violence have been unchecked on social media. Misleading and fake information proliferates on social media platforms like wildfire in a parched forest because it stokes people’s basest instincts like anger and envy. The algorithms pick up on engagement and allow the posts to spread further.

The 2016 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar was not caused by Facebook, but according to a New York Times investigation, it’s unlikely it could have been achieved in the short time and enormous scale it was without Facebook.

The social media platform enabled the military to systematically victimise the Rohingya minority group with socially-amplified hate speech. Posing as fans of pop stars and national heroes, soldiers spread fake stories of a Rohingya threat to the majority Buddhist way of life. According to the report,

“hundreds of military personnel […] created troll accounts and news and celebrity pages on Facebook and then flooded them with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership.”

The result was the forced migration of more than 700,000 people, most to squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and the estimated deaths of some 24,000 people as roaming gangs burned villages, looted homes and raped women and children.

In July 2020 companies like Verizon and Coca-Cola joined a campaign to boycott Facebook advertising organized by Stop Hate for Profit. A coalition of organisations pitted against bigotry are behind the campaign, including the ADL (Anti-defamation League), Colour of Change, Commonsense Media and NCAAP. This campaign is happening because Facebook not only enables hatred and division, it profits from hatred and division.

Social media companies have hidden behind a fake neutrality and a bogus idea of freedom of speech. Facebook and Instagram work hard to keep women’s bare breasts from your feed, but allow hate media to proliferate on the feeds of people who are susceptible to believing lies and getting angry. There are, of course, takedowns and bans, but these usually occur after hate speech has been posted.

You may think “it’s not happening on my feed”, but it’s still happening. And you using social media allows it to happen. Your scrolling and posting is the oxygen of companies that put a price on your participation, and your data is weaponized by people that want to sow social and racial division.

Twitter is also a platform mired by hate speech. Try nuance or reason on Twitter and see how far you get. The platform’s throttled word count necessitates over-simplification and the debasement of reasoned argumentation. Young people are learning to debate on Twitter and, quite frankly, learning to debate on Twitter is like learning to have sex by watching hardcore pornography.

Both Facebook and Twitter are moving in the right direction, albeit with long-overdue baby steps. At the time of writing, Facebook is seemingly unrepentant about its role in hosing the petroleum of attention on the fires of hate. The company's war of words with Apple reveal a lot about its attitude to privacy.

We are all ultimately the victims of the harmful effects of social media, but some suffer more than others — the most vulnerable to bigotry are being targeted. Social media is here to stay, but we can have a say on how social platforms do business. We are, after all, the product they are selling.

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