Last night (as of writing this) I took some time to watch the Netflix Documentary Our Social Dilemma, which provides a relatively deep dive into the frightening way that social media algorithms have come to dictate almost every facet of our existence. Watching the very people who helped design these systems emphatically convey the dangerous consequences of their creations gave me chills, especially since I was busy scrolling through my Facebook feed as the documentary started. It is very rare that I would genuinely entertain the idea that my own autonomous decision-making might have been compromised to the point where I feel momentarily stripped of my authenticity, but I have to admit, these guys made a compelling case for reconsidering how much time we should spend staring at screens.
First things first. The documentary provides us with the usual stuff that we already know, except this time it is coming from the Silicon Valley professionals who seem to be engaging in their own strange confessional practice. We are reminded of the fact that each platform has its own set of algorithms designed to manipulate and increase the amount of time you spend on it. Next, we are reminded of the fact that our time on the service serves as passive payment to companies who have their ads shoved in between posts on our feeds. After this, the documentary explores how these manipulation tactics act like sledgehammers to our dopaminergic pathways, resulting in a sort of quasi-addiction state that is not that far removed from being a frequent user of Columbian nose-coffee. And in case you still think it’s not that big of a problem, they treat us to some dreadful statistics about the parallel increases in suicide and self-harm among adolescents, and the proliferation of teenaged social media users. At one point, we are even told about “Snapchat dysmorphia”, which is a kind of dysmorphic disorder where people are dissatisfied with their actual appearance, when compared to what they look like through Snapchat filters.
As if all this isn’t already ring-clenchingly scary enough, the documentary ends off with examples of how social media has become a tool for manipulating democratic elections, and political infrastructure around the world. Rupert Murdoch? Russian bots?
But, rather uncharacteristically, I would prefer not to spend too much time on politics this month. If you want some leftist advocacy, then I am sure the articles, right above and below this one, do just that. Rather, I think it might be a worthwhile exercise to explore the question of whether or not we, the bunch of millennial screen jockeys that we are, can still make autonomous and informed decisions in an age like this. For you see, today you don’t have to build your own echo-chambers anymore, because Facebook and Google will do that for you, and you might not even notice. And make no mistake, manipulating you, and monopolising your time at all costs, is the only prerogative of the algorithms that make sure you see whatever post is going to best appeal to your emotions.
The way these algorithms are set up, is designed for them to learn everything about you through observation, and trial and error testing. Basically, by liking posts about Trump or Bernie, you are assured that you will find more of the same on your timeline. Why? Because that’s how they keep you scrolling. However, the one thing that these algorithms are incapable of doing, is distinguishing between real news, fake news, facts, and conspiracies. A few years ago, a man showing up at a pizza joint to free captive children from a non-existent basement, was the most outrageous example of people acting on fake news that we have ever seen. However, the corporate-mandated proliferation of the use of social media has made this incident look like a flash in the pan. As soon as there were reports of a pandemic, there were quack-articles about cures, causes, and conspiracies. Instead of one dude at a pizza place, we had many people around the world burning 5G towers, because they read articles that convinced them that these towers were the cause of the virus. In my home country of South Africa, there were people who believed that we somehow got the virus from a television program, and in other countries there were people making and disseminating hair-brained videos about government conspiracies and the Illuminati. Damn Illuminati, why can’t they ever just do something nice, like give us ice-cream?
How did all this stupidity spread like wildfire? Well, it’s a chicken or the egg kind of situation. You see, a stupid article, or a crackpot video in a vacuum does very little damage, but if it is spread to enough people, then it becomes harmful. The algorithm just picks up on what is popular, and shares it with more people who might like it. “Okay, Geoff and Steve like this video, and we have 10,000 people in their area whose online behaviour matches theirs. Better send it to them too. Oh look, all of them opened it up, that must mean it’s very good. Might as well show it to another 100,000 likeminded people.” You get the drift. We make stupid stuff, and because the Facebook “AI” doesn’t understand the concepts of true and false, it just sends it around, because it is popular. And if something harmful and stupid finds its way to a hundred people, who like and share it, then the spread becomes almost exponential. On top of that, because people who buy into conspiracy theories, and people who do not, are separated by the algorithm, it is possible for no logical or informed person to see the bullshit post, before it has already gone viral. Yup, your own behaviour, politics, and tastes act as exclusionary and inclusionary criteria for whether or not you get to find out that your blender will give you the Corona virus.
This is how lies about the virus managed to spread faster than the virus itself. Billions of people have constructed online personas that allowed for an algorithm to realise that they will spend time reading quackery like this. And once again, the algorithm doesn’t care if you believe it or not, it doesn’t possess the faculties necessary to judge its truth value, and it does not attempt to predict any potentially harmful consequences. We are supposed to do these things, but we have relegated that responsibility to a room full of clever computers, and taken up the role of passive recipients who fail to scrutinise anything that shows up on our timeline, because that would be too much effort. We live in a world where “sceptic” is a definable fringe characteristic, a profession, or even an ideology, instead of a necessary trait which every human being on the planet should embody to a degree that allows us to think before we make long anti-mask rants on social media.
And it doesn’t stop there. It is one thing to spread inaccurate conspiracies, but the algorithm has also aided the spread of dangerous ideologies. Think about all the fanatics and extremists who managed to be indoctrinated into radical religious, political or ideological sects. Think about all the religious terrorism, the incel shootings, the political hate crimes, and all the other atrocities that have resulted from the fact that people find themselves in fringe online echo-chambers where they indoctrinated into personality cults from which they rarely escape without tragedy. Online echo-chambers, indoctrination, misinformation, and manipulation have real-world consequences that often claim the lives of innocent people.
All you have to do is accidentally click on that one far-right video, and before you now it, your way down the neo-Nazi rabbit hole, on all your platforms. We all love a good rabbit hole every now and then. I have lost hours of my life looking at videos about aliens and Bigfoot. But there is a difference between watching sketchy science fiction videos for fun, and diving into a dangerous ideological sect. The problem is, as history shows, that not everyone can escape from these rabbit holes before they fundamentally distort your view of the world in a dangerous way. Once something about one of these enclaves scratches an itch inside the mind of someone who feels disenfranchised, the sect has found a new ‘recruit’. And of course, they have target audiences (read victims) who are vulnerable to their hateful garbage, and the algorithm functions as the perfect tool to connect ‘like-minded’’ lost souls to problematic organisations that will reinforce whatever it is that they have been feeling. “Feel like the country is catering only to minorities? Well, here are the Aryans, I’m sure you guys will get along like a house on fire. Until you actually set one on fire, that is.”
I’m not trying to be dramatic; this is literally what happens. Hell, even less disgusting political and ideological groups have been extolling the internet’s capacity to “red pill” people. These kinds of groups don’t conceptualise this as indoctrination, but present it under the guise of illuminating something that someone was hitherto unable to see. However, regardless of how you frame it, groups of various levels of political and ideological extremity, both on the left and right, prey on the disillusionment of individuals who feel wronged by the world they live in, and the internet has transformed into an ala carte recruitment centre for consensual indoctrination. I am going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that any group who claims to want to present you with the enigmatic “truth” has your best interest at heart. None of these spaces exist to remove the shells from your eyes, but are just offering you shells that you might find more appealing than the ones you might have been blinded by before. Whether they are revealing the hidden truth about the flatness of the Earth, the inevitability of vaccine-induced autism, or the liberal agenda to turn your children trans, the only thing these spaces have in common is their gleeful rejection of the truth in favour of something that allows them (and you) to feel special, enlightened, or persecuted.
What are we supposed to do? Well, according the Facebook Robot overlord Mark Zuckerberg, the solution is more algorithms, and more sophisticated programming that would identify and deter these kinds of spaces from forming, and would stop conspiracies theories from being spread more rapidly than actual news. And before you scoff, they have actually started implementing measures in this direction. However, like all developing tech, these new features are still in the ‘stupid’ phase of development, and I have seen a lot of people get flagged for fake news, when they were making obvious jokes. Satire, it seems, is also outside of the algorithm’s conceptual wheelhouse.
But leaving the tech giants to unfuck something that they created themselves doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. Facebook designing software to check on software in order for that software to no longer be prone to making the mistakes that it has been painstakingly developed to make, feels slightly cyclical. Leaving private companies to regulate themselves has rarely proven to be a successful way of dealing with internal institutional problems. Here is where I might accidentally sound like a leftist, because I do think that the passing of some legislation regarding these kinds of things could aid the problem. If there were actual juridico-legal parameters set for how people’s data is being used, then maybe it would be more difficult for extremist groups to connect with potential recruits. If there are legal restriction regarding how much of your online persona can be utilised to keep you glued to an app, and by proxy, staring at ads, then it might be harder for your tendency to believe stupid shit to be utilised in order to transform you into a vector for misinformation.
Wouldn’t it be cool if social media wasn’t trying to coerce you into doing something, but just functioned as a fun way to see what your friends are up to? But you have become a product, and you are being sold to companies without even knowing it. And instead of laughing at a picture of your friend’s cat, you are arguing with someone you’ve never met about ‘wokeness’ in movies. That’s no fun. Wouldn’t it be nice to be on social media for a while, and not end up wondering “how did I get here?” Every little thing on your feed is meticulously placed there with the purpose of keeping you scrolling and typing. You are now in a war for your own time, with an AI that has all the time in the world, and knows you better than your parents do. That is why you keep losing. I honestly think that some external non-profit-driven regulations on these things could do a world of good.
Finally, there is us. As individuals of sound mind, we should start taking some responsibility for these things. If you have seen the documentary, or read this article, then you have no excuse not to start checking yourself. You know it is happening, so the ignorance defence has gone out of the window. I don’t have an answer to the question I posed in the intro, but I would like to offer a few recommendations, which I think could be a good place for anyone to start and reclaim some of the autonomy they might have lost to their online profiles. And I am not claiming that these are concrete solutions to your problems, I’m, honestly, not qualified to figure out any sort of solution for all of this. But if you feel as if you might have a problem, then these steps might help you to escape from your social media addiction or whatever fringe echo-chamber you might have gotten stuck in. Whether your apps have annexed and negatively impacted the practical aspects of your life, resulted in you entertaining conspiracy theories, or twisted your worldview according to some gross ideology, these tips should help you to overcome some of the more toxic effects of having a demanding auxiliary life in your pocket.
Groups to avoid
Avoid any group that claims to have access to truth and knowledge that no one else has. Also, avoid any enclave that tries to convince you that you are a victim in a way that is not apparent to anyone but the people in the group. Be wary of groups that base their beliefs and argument on an outright rejection of what can be considered ‘common knowledge’, and steer clear of any space that is dedicated to hate and scapegoating of other groups along racial, sexual, or religious lines. Stay away from any group that predicates its beliefs on fringe rhetoric concerning politics, spirituality, or ideology, whilst making the uninitiated seem unenlightened, ignorant, or sheepish by virtue of their non-belief. Any group or speaker that starts off by letting you know that you are in any way smarter or more special than everyone else, by virtue of believing them, is full of baloney. If any group’s appeal is based on your negative emotion towards something else, then I suggest that you take a step back. Your emotions do not make for a good barometer with which to scrutinise online groups. This is an important point to me personally, because I have often found so called ‘leftist’ spaces on the internet, which are usually run by someone using disingenuous emotional appeals and lies, mixed with vague reference to “the means of production” in order to try and get people to go burn down a Walmart or something. Leftism isn’t based on a hate for the rich, but a desire to help the rest. Finally, remember “everyone else isn’t wrong”. If there is any group that lures you in by virtue of a warning against some mass brainwashing, or social agenda, then they are probably the ones who are planning on doing the actual brainwashing.
Do not spend more than two hours a day on social media. It sounds like a lot, but you’d be surprised how quickly those two hours rack up during the day. One of the main priorities of these algorithms are to keep you scrolling. If you can commit to a time limit, then it won’t matter what they still want to show you, because you’ll be done for the day. I’ve been doing this for a while, and it made me a bit happier.
Don’t stay up in the evening to scroll through your timelines. Those things can wait. There are many studies on how detrimental staring into your phone can be for your sleeping patters. Add to that a nice line of digital cocaine every few seconds, and you’ll be scrolling until midnight. If you just stop scrolling at least an hour before bed, then you’ll sleep better, and you’ll be avoiding late night arguments with Cletus and Billy-Bob about free speech.
Don’t indulge trolls and bots
If there is a hell, then trolls and people with troll accounts will be ending up in the pineapple queue along with Hitler. I honestly think that people who get their rocks off by being as inflammatory and offensive as possible, behind a veil of anonymity, are archetypical examples of just how destructive personality disorders can be when left undiagnosed. But it is your choice to indulge them, and you shouldn’t. They are going to enjoy it, and feel victorious, regardless of what you do. And at the end of the day, you’ll be upset, and some sweaty dude will be getting friction burns from the amount of furious masturbation he got out of your argument. Why bother, it doesn’t contribute to your life. I can honestly say that my own faith-in-humanity-o-meter underwent some significant restoration when I stopped arguing with these people. Also, don’t argue with bots. They are easy to spot. They usually have photos of someone who counts as someone else’s idea of a stereotype, and speak in short sentences. Their responses are usually only vaguely related, and the actual accounts themselves are vacuous in an obvious way. Oh, and they love all-caps, because it is the easiest way to get attention.
Don’t scroll as an activity-supplement
What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t be scrolling whilst doing other recreational things. If you are watching a movie, and you feel like scrolling through your feed in the middle of it, then the movie is not for you. Pick something else. If you’re reading a book, and you keep putting it down to scroll, then find another book. If you are having drinks with friends, and find yourself scrolling, then find some more interesting friends. All jokes aside, your fun activities should be fun enough for them not to necessitate Facebook or Instagram. I usually scroll when I am doing tedious work-related things, but not when I am enjoying a person, a piece of literature, or a piece of entertainment that warrants all of my attention. Those things should be amazing enough on their own, and not in need of some scrolling to make them more interesting or fun. True story, I once had a friend who couldn’t stop scrolling whilst watching movies. I recommended that he start watching foreign films with subtitles. These are his favourite kinds of films now, and he has relearnt to enjoy English movies without scrolling as well. Try it.
You are supposed to enjoy it
If you find that the notification noise on your phone fills you with dread and annoyance, instead of the ecstasy that it was designed to give you, then maybe you are using the app wrong. It is easy to develop a relationship with social media that is more about arguing with strangers than sharing memes with a thousand of your closest friends, and at that stage it might be time to get a new account. We all got social media because we were told it would be fun, but if you are afraid to post jokes or ideas, because you don’t want to invoke to pseudo-intellectual wrath of Cletus and Jordan B. Shapiro the third, then maybe you’re not having as much fun as you think. It is great to have conflicting viewpoints on your timeline, because that is one way of avoiding the echo-chamber, but it is also worth being cautious enough about it to ensure that your social media doesn’t become something that has a negative impact on your affect. Back when I did argue with people on social media, I had many a day completely ruined by asshole on the internet, and the resulting negative affective state would influence my real-life relationships in ways that I wasn’t able to see. I would be unnecessarily confrontational and thin skinned, even if the situation didn’t call for it. I got to the point where I spent more time arguing on social media than I did looking at post that I liked, and the resulting psychological state was rather terrible. I would be in a bad mood the moment I was notified that someone commented on my posts. It wasn’t any fun, and it completely defeated the point of social media, which is to connect with friends, and distract in times of boredom, not to colour every waking moment in a cloud of irritation. So, I stopped, and I am truly happier for it. And sure, I still get prompted for argumentation all the time, but from the same sort of people who are unwilling to consider news sources that might tell them that they’re wrong, and if someone is that far gone, then I’m not ruining my day by arguing with them.
Turn off notifications
On the topic of notifications, it might be a good idea to turn them off. At least some of them. They are designed to grab your attention any time you are not on your phone. Every time you hear a beep or a ping, it is the algorithm desperately trying to draw your attention away from whatever you are doing, and towards you phone screen. If you turn off these things, then you alone can be in charge of when you check your feed, not some program who will remind you about your social media every five minutes, in a bet for your undivided attention. I have actually been doing this for a while, and it really helps, because I can do other things without being constantly harassed by my phone, who wants to tell me that someone that I know liked a post by some else that I know (that really is how asinine it can get). Doing this also helps with limiting your time spent online, and it helps with not being tempted to check your phone an hour before bed time.
Parents, don’t let your children start too young
I have heard the recommendation that children should wait until the age of sixteen before joining social media, and it honestly sounds like a very reasonable proposition. I am not talking form a ‘back in my day’ position, because no one in history has ever had this problem growing up before, at least not on such a grand scale. I’ve already mentioned some of the troublesome statistics about this, and there is good scientific and psychological reason to argue that the impact that social media is having on kids and teens is overwhelmingly negative. Being a kid is hard enough, and as teenagers most of us were already feeling a bit icky about ourselves, but we didn’t have it this bad. Remember the kids that bullied you and called you names? Imagine a world where there are thousands of them, and they follow you home from school every day. They sleep in your bed, and are the first people you see when you wake up. Well, kids growing up today don’t have to imagine that. Also, remember how bad you felt for not looking like the ‘good looking’ people in school? Remember the hours in front of the mirror, and the envy you felt for the attractive heroes featured in your favourite shows? Imagine having an entire Instagram or Snapchat feed dedicated to making you measure your life and looks against those of more attractive ‘peers’. It is borderline dystopian, and these are problems that grown adults are having trouble navigating! I can’t understand why we would subject children to that. It is very telling that most of the people in the documentary, who helped build these platforms, either place intense restrictions on their children’s use of social media, or disallow it altogether. They know it is harmful, because it was low-key designed to be.
Escaping the echo-chamber
Being sceptic and being contrarian are two different things. Just because you feel the need to question and double-check everything you read; does not mean you are turning into an edgelord. It is a good idea to look at multiple, distinct sources, before forming an opinion. And don’t fall for source-echos, where a few biased sites cross-reference each other, in order to validate a piece of crap story. Go out of your feed, go into Google news, and look at several different credible sources on the matter. They might not all say the same thing, but it is better than just going with whatever narrative shows up on your feed. In a historical period defined by the popular emergence of ‘fake news’, combined with the fact that Facebook’s algorithm is designed to build you your own little echo-chamber, it would be irresponsible not to fact-check the ‘facts’ that show up on your newsfeed.
Be wrong sometimes
Or at least entertain the idea that you might be wrong. Echo-chambers and fringe groups do not work by telling you that you’re wrong. They positively reinforce your politico-identity by means of confirmation bias. A lot of people won’t do what the previous point recommends, because they might have to find out that they are wrong. And in 2020, being right is all that matters. Dualistic political lines are drawn in the sand, and you can watch people fall on their swords and die, rather than give an inch of consideration to the possibility that they might be partially wrong, or worse, that someone else could be partially right! In South Africa, if you suffer from being a ‘conservative Afrikaner’, then you have sworn allegiants to a carcinogenic fuck-factory of a publication, which I won’t name here. A publication so biased, that they only write ‘news’ in a language that huge portions of the population can’t speak. I have personally fact-checked and debunked stories on this website for people, but they would persist in using it as their primary news source regardless of my efforts. The problem is that this insipid trash-fest of a publication knows what their audience wants to hear, and they are more than willing to shovel that shit down people’s throats as long as it keeps their benefactors happy. And this will not change until their audience starts to develop as much interest in the truth, as they have in hearing that they are right. See the problem? And there are millions of shit-shovelling publications like this all around the world, preying on your desire to have your biases reinforced.
The internet is, obviously, not all bad, and implementing some self-control, scepticism, and good judgement could prove a damn good start to addressing a problem that, as of yet, does not have a clear solution. And on that note, I am so happy to be part of one of the spaces on the internet that tries to do things differently. Every time I read an article by Dayna Remus, Wehan Coombs, David Barnard, Darryl Wardle, or Helgard Jordaan, I am in awe of the amount of thought that goes into these. I share them because I love them. And it is wonderful that there exists a space that makes no absurd truth claims, or draws lines in the sand with regards to who we get to hate. It is wonderful to read what thoughtful people have written, in an attempt to honestly convey their thinking, and inspire thought in others. This space has become one of the most positive on the internet, without having to compromise on its core values, which is a rare and difficult tightrope to walk. Thanks to all you guys for making the internet a cooler place, and thanks to all our readers who support this space. And if we ever start behaving like those dangerous groups mentioned in this article, then I beg you to let us know, and to call us out. Do it for all our sakes, and for the sakes of those people who might find us on one of their leftists, algorithm induced, deep dives. Welcome to your thinking space, we don’t know the truth, but we are happy to look for it with you.
Contributor: Sarel Marais
Disillusioned academic going through every day life. Entertainer, musician, and comedian that hates entertainment, music, and comedy. Writer that uses any and all writing skill, stretching to the far reaches of my vocabulary to convey my utter annoyance with the absurdity of human existence.