It’s Time to Have a Talk About Social Media

Our relationship with social media officially needs counseling.

We first met in college (Harvard, to be exact).1 Social media promised a future of easy connection, open sharing, and endless possibility. It was fun. Exciting. Different. We were infatuated.

As our infatuation grew, we shared more and more. What started as a quick text, a short status update, swelled until we had left our photos on their shelves and built our businesses through their networks. Our friends, family, and identities became deeply intertwined with social media. Infatuation turned into commitment.

It’s changing you, they warned. Some said that we were losing ourselves in the relationship, losing touch with our true friends, or that our new partner was hurting our self-esteem. We didn’t listen. The constant flow of approval and entertainment was too addictive, too captivating. Like. Retweet. Share. Social media just felt too good.

But the honeymoon is over.

The last six months have been a non-stop wave of stories about how social media hijacks our attention and enables the spread of false information. The catalyst for the crisis – social media’s role in the 2016 election – has rattled not just our trust in social platforms, but our values of truth, democracy, and free expression.

The idealistic promise of an open and connected future feels like the naive dreams of a college romance. We grew up, and adulthood is the pits.

How did we get here? Can things ever be like they once were? Are we ever getting those photos back? Most importantly, how do we make things right? It’s time to tackle the big questions in our relationship with social media.

Step into my office.


Isn’t this just about Russia and politics? What’s the big deal with social media?

The problems in our relationship with social media fall into two major categories: the impact of increasingly addictive social media on our mental health, and the role these platforms play in the spread of false information. Foreign meddling in the 2016 election exploited these openings, but foreign powers didn’t build the addictive tools that fragment our attention, lower our self-esteem, and enable the spread of misinformation. We did.

Fixing our relationship with social media is more than a political issue. It’s a challenge that will shape our emotional well-being and ability to differentiate truth from fiction. Killing Frankenstein’s monster isn’t much help if Victor heads right back to the lab.

Let’s start with category numero uno – the impact of social media on our emotional well-being. Before diving in, it’s important to distinguish between active and passive use of social media. Active use involves purposeful communication or consumption, while passive use involves logging in with no particular goal in mind. If you login to Twitter to reply to a message your friend sent earlier, you’re actively engaging. If you mindlessly pull out your phone while waiting in line for coffee and start scrolling through your news feed, you’re passively engaging. This distinction is critical because research suggests that active engagement can make us feel more connected and happier, while mindless consumption is correlated with increased feelings of anxiety, loneliness, sadness, or envy.  

Why is passive engagement harmful? Social media provides the fuel for social comparison on an unprecedented scale. It’s hard to compete with the touched-up reality projected on social media; no one posts pictures of their newly acquired love handles or shares a #ThrowbackThursday about the shouting match they had with their Mom last week. Constant consumption of filtered versions of reality throws our perception of our own success out of whack. My vacation was good, but it wasn’t that good.

Making matters worse, social media is carefully engineered to hijack our attention and suck us into mindless consumption. Ever wonder why there’s a brief, built-in delay before Twitter or Instagram refresh your feed? The same reason slot machines spin before churning out their variable rewards – the anticipation is addictive. Ever wonder why videos auto-play as you scroll through your News Feed? Because it’s easier to do nothing than to turn them off.

There’s a reason that “phantom vibration syndrome”2 has a Wikipedia page, or that we can’t sit alone for 5 minutes without pulling out our phones.3 We’re addicted.

These issues combine to form the first big problem in our relationship with social media. The more that our relationship swings from active communication to addictive and mindless engagement, the more we feel the harmful effects of loneliness, anxiety, and envy.  

Having fun? We haven’t even gotten to “fake news” yet.

The second major issue in our relationship with social media is the role these tools play in the spread of false information. MIT recently published the largest study to date of how information spreads on social media, and the results are… horrifying. Researchers analyzed over 126,000 tweets, posted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years. The study found that false information reaches more people, penetrates deeper into the social network, and spreads faster than accurate stories. Lies are kicking truth’s ass.

You probably don’t need anyone to tell you this, but the ease with which false information spreads on social media is a defining challenge of 2018. With over 2 billion monthly active users, Facebook touches more people than most religions and governments. The explosion of misinformation across these far-reaching platforms is changing the way our society works; two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey of 33,000 Americans said they can’t tell the difference between accurate journalism and falsehood anymore.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at lofty language about “undermining our democracy” or “eroding the foundations of truth,” so let’s put the threat in plain English: if the spread of falsehood on social media destroys our ability to agree on what’s real and what isn’t, we are in deep shit.

Before Zuck puts a hit on me, it’s important to acknowledge that social media isn’t all bad. Purposeful use of social media can increase feelings of connection and overall happiness.4 These platforms enable us to keep in touch with friends and family across any distance, to learn about world events as they unfold, and to push our blogs to friends who feel obligated to feign interest.5 Social networks do tremendous good.

Even if we wanted to, it’s hard to imagine a world in which divorcing social media is possible. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and these tools are here to stay. That reality leaves us with no choice but to build a healthy relationship with social media that maximizes the benefits it can bring while minimizing harm to our individual and societal well-being. If not for us, think of the children!

You make some good points, but isn’t there always some “scary new tech” ruining society?

Cries that <latest media technology> is tearing society apart are not new. A respected Swiss scientist argued that the modern world flooded people with information that was “confusing and harmful” to the mind… in 1565. People once complained that television was corrupting our minds and distorting our reality. Today, we’re more likely to complain that people won’t get off their phones and spend real quality time watching the same screen we are. Why is social media any different?

While TV or radio producers worked to get us hooked, no past media wielded the kind of artillery social media companies bring to the table. Modern computing power, artificial intelligence, and a huge pile of personal data allow companies like Facebook to build a personalized profile of everything you have ever said, bought, liked, or watched. They use that profile to show you the perfect thing to keep you scrolling and clicking.

You know that creepy moment where Facebook pops up an ad for the exact thing you just mentioned to your buddies in real life? What’s terrifying isn’t that Facebook listens to your conversations – it’s that they don’t have to. Facebook already has data on everything you view online, what you tend to buy, who your friends are, who you’re dating, where you live, and where you were last time you called an Uber.

It’s not as if someone is spying on you… someone is actually spying on you. Social media is the first media technology that can get inside our heads.

The way we engage with social media is also fundamentally different from past media technologies. As transformative as radio or television were, they were still one-way tools for broadcasting content from creators to consumers. Social media goes well beyond delivery of entertainment and information to do, well, everything. It’s storage for personal information and photos, it’s a place to communicate with friends, and it’s a way for every person to be a content creator, consumer, and critic all at once. Social media is in our pockets all day, buzzing with reminders and updates. We don’t have to wait until we get home to tune in. If books, radio, and television all played the same game, social media invented a new sport.

Social media is the first technology that is watching us, that is with us 24/7, and that shifts media from one-way consumption to a royal-rumble-style free-for-all. Concerns about social media harming our well-being and spreading misinformation may be just the latest round of tech paranoia, but the case is compelling enough that we can’t be completely sure. Even a small chance is reason enough to take the threat seriously.

Imagine you’re a turkey born and raised on a small, local farm. Each day humans feed you and ensure your safety. With each passing day, you become more confident of an irrefutable fact of life: humans exist for the sole purpose of serving turkey-kind. Some of your more uptight turkey friends whisper that the humans may turn on us someday, but what evidence is there of that? We’ve seen a lot of humans come along, and they always bring snacks.

Unfortunately, it only takes one Thanksgiving to go from “humans have never hurt us before” to the dinner table.

The “turkey problem,” first posed in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is why we can’t ignore concerns about social media.6 It’s easy to say “people feared that the printing press, the TV, and the radio were destroying society. We’ve been here before.” But what if this time it’s actually happening? Maybe social media is just more of the same, but maybe we are living blissfully on our farm, unable to see that preparations for the first Thanksgiving are underway. No one wants to be the inaugural turkey.

Alright, fine. There are real problems in our relationship with social media, and we can’t be sure this is just another round of tech paranoia. What do we do about it?

Ideas for how to heal our relationship with social media have emerged as the volume of complaints has grown louder. Let’s take a quick stroll through the major proposals for reform:

Limit data collection, sharing and targeting. Remember that fun bit about how we’re all being spied on 24/7? It may be time to put some ground rules in place about what digital companies can and can’t do with our data. Perhaps it should be illegal to target content to groups based on implied political preferences, or based on data collected outside of the service you’re directly utilizing (such as how Facebook presents ads based on credit card balances tied to the same email as your Facebook account).

In recent weeks, news broke that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested 50 million Facebook profiles, filled with private information, and used that data in efforts to influence the 2016 election. One member of the Cambridge Analytica team said “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.” I may not know exactly where the line should be, but “advertising based on inner demons identified by harvesting your personal data” crosses it. Time to tone down the creepin’, fellas.

Give people their data back. This proposal suggests that social networks should be required to allow users to export their friends, photos and profiles from any network to another. Why would it be hard to ditch Facebook today? The two biggest reasons are that (1) they have all our stuff, and (2) everyone else would still using it. Allowing users to take their data and leave makes it possible for competitors to break into the space. That possibility could help push entrenched players to respond to what user’s want – you know, like platforms that don’t fill us with envy and undermine our shared understanding of truth.

Break up the superpowers and stop social networks from acquiring one another. The internet fundamentally changed how business works by creating a world in which an aggregator (like say, Facebook) can connect suppliers with consumers without any transaction costs. In other words, it costs Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter nothing to add additional content, new users, or more ads. More content attracts more users, which makes the platform more attractive to advertisers, which makes it easier for content creators to profit from advertising, and so on. This cycle drives the social media business and is the reason why a few dominant platforms control the playing field. What’s the point of advertising or posting on the runner-up to Facebook?

Unfortunately, the victors in this winner-take-all environment wield enormous power. Barely over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg shared a post outlining his goals for Facebook. He wrote that “[Facebook’s] greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics.”

One small problem, Mark. Does anyone really think it’s a good idea that a 33-year old dude in a gray hoodie, who is accountable to no one, who runs a private company that tracks your every move so it can sell more advertising, should be taking the lead on spreading prosperity, fighting poverty, or ending terrorism? If the news since that February 2017 post has taught us anything, it’s that “King Zuck” isn’t the best idea.

Show us (or turn off) the algorithms. Social networks have long kept the details of how they use data to target content and build feeds hidden. While it makes sense that these companies want to protect their secret sauce, there are calls for more transparency around how our data is being used and our news is being filtered. Without the ability to understand what social networks are doing, it’s hard to know just how blatantly we are being manipulated or misled. Another option would be to provide user’s a realistic way to opt out of the algorithmic news feed and go back to a simple, chronological view of content.

Get rid of bots and push for verification of users – especially when it comes to political or issues-based advertising. Social networks could push to tie every account to an actual, verified human in an attempt to limit the influence of fake accounts or “bots.” In particular, there should be additional scrutiny on highly sensitive paid content such as political or issues-based ads. Human review may not be scalable (GASP!), but it could have helped avoid the firestorm currently swirling around the 2016 election.

Ideas like these, if implemented, could go a long way towards cleaning up the social media landscape. Yet would these changes put an end to the unhealthy social comparisons inspired by Facebook and Instagram? Would they cure social media of it’s addictive properties? Most importantly, would they stop the spread of misinformation online?

The recent MIT study mentioned earlier didn’t just explore if false information spreads further, faster, and deeper than truth on social media; it also explored why. The spread of falsehood couldn’t be explained by bots, or who posted misleading information. The blame couldn’t be placed entirely on Twitter itself.

The study’s authors write that fake news thrives “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

Our relationship with social media is like any relationship: we can’t fix it unless we work on ourselves.

The relationship metaphor! It came full circle!

Right? Didn’t think I was gonna land this plane, and bam – put those boosters back down on the landing pad like Elon Musk.

Cool down, hotshot. You were saying?

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram may enable the spread of misinformation and unhealthy social comparison, but we’re the ones posting, retweeting and filtering. A healthier relationship with social media requires more mindful users.

What does mindful use look like? Acknowledging how social media encourages feelings of envy, hijacks our attention, or facilitates the spread of false information enables us to be more deliberate in how we use these tools. Awareness can help us catch ourselves when we get into “my vacation was good, but it isn’t THAT good” mode, or when we’re locked on our screens instead of conversations with friends and family. Tools like Facebook may game our subconscious biases, but understanding the game gives us a chance to choose how we play it. We can steer our use from mindless, passive consumption to active, purposeful engagement instead of letting social media grab the wheel.7

Mindfulness is even more critical when it comes to misinformation, falsehoods, and “fake news.” Imagine social media as a sleazy car salesman. Let’s call him Joe Cologne. If you’re short on cash and need a car, you may end up dealing with Joe – like it or not, sometimes guys like him are the easiest way to get what you need.

Would you just blindly accept everything Joe Cologne has to say? Of course not! Before you trust Joe, you might check online to see the retail value of the car he’s pushing, or have a mechanic inspect the engine to make sure it’s not a lemon. We’ve learned that sleazy car salesman aren’t always telling the truth, so we slow down to make sure we’re not making a mistake.

That’s basically how we need to engage with news on social media. We can’t trust everything at face value, but that doesn’t mean every sale is a rip-off either. We need to take a beat, double-check the facts, and make sure no one is taking us for a ride.

Of course, Joe doesn’t have a modern-day watchful eye of Sauron carefully studying our every move to build the perfect sales pitch. Social media is much more persuasive than ol’ Joe Cologne, but the same principles of mindfulness and active over passive engagement can help protect us from lies and misinformation.

Nobody is perfect; it would be naive to argue that all we need to do is “be aware” and “try harder.” Social platforms are built to prey on our biases, and some people will simply never make the effort required to build a more mindful relationship. That’s why we need meaningful oversight and changes to social media platforms.8 These companies need to be held accountable for the influence they have over our world and the impact they have on our minds.

At the end of the day, however, the tools of social media are still just tools. We have the power to make up our own minds – and we have some thinking to do.

 

 

 

  1. Maybe you met MySpace in high school, but all you did was hold hands. Doesn’t count.
  2. This is the fancy term for the perception that one’s mobile phone is vibrating or ringing when it isn’t
  3. I am 100% guilty of this. No judgement, just calling it out.
  4. Think of how enriched your life is now that you clicked on my Facebook post and read this fascinating article!
  5. Thanks for reading, friends! Don’t be afraid to click an ad while you’re here.
  6. The logic behind the turkey problem can be taken too far and used as justification to fear literally everything. The lesson is not to fear everything, but to appreciate that everything is unprecedented until it happens the first time. Combined with legitimate reasons for concern, that’s a good argument to pay attention.
  7. There are a lot of recommendations for small tricks or changes to encourage more mindful use of social media; this link has a great list of potential ideas.
  8. At the very least, I would like to bask in the sweet, sweet schadenfreude of seeing Silicon Valley uber-douches like Zuckerberg get knocked down a peg. People use your website to watch 40 second videos of how to make one-pan chicken marsala, get outta here with this “our challenge is to end terrorism and poverty” shit.

7 thoughts on “It’s Time to Have a Talk About Social Media”

  1. Might be the first one of these I disagree with you on. Well done as always, but I don’t think people generally care about giving out their data as much as you think. Oh of course the left will be outraged when Cambridge Analytica uses data to help Trump win, and the right will be outraged when Obama was also on the cutting edge of analytics to help fuel his 2008 and 2012 victories, but I think people care more about the results than the process, similarly to how miraculously, the right and the left completely flipped on their opinion of Russia in a pretty short time period just because it helped their political viewpoints at the time. For most people, seeing the results of that personality quiz someone else posted on their wall is more than worth giving up their facebook data to some third party. Now in this particular example I think I saw where their previous policy was allowing third party apps to see data from friends as well, but I believe they’ve already fixed this. So that said, I don’t think a government response would be appropriate without dangerously attacking some basic principles of free speech and free enterprise.

    Similarly, the reason fake news spreads super far, is generally people don’t want to see real news, they want their own worldview confirmed. And I think as a general rule government crackdowns do more harm than good when it comes to this topic. The funny part is that I actually think people like you and me are in our own bubbles when it comes to bubbles (meta-bubbles?). Most people I know, left right or center, want to understand and interact with the other side. But that’s not the norm. Most bubbles exist because people actively seek their bubbles out. People end friendships because of differing opinions, people actively stop clicking on links with headlines that hint at even questioning any of their views. Sure you and me doing these things are good for you and me, and to make sure we’re better informed. But the vast majority of people WANT to have their worldviews confirmed, and I don’t even think it’s an unconscious thing, I think it’s actually conscious.

    And it’s more than just not questioning their worldview. If you have a concrete belief that your views are correct and the other side is evil, you’ll believe the spirit of the fake news even if you are given concrete proof that it was fake news. So if you saw the news about the Trump pee tape and you’re a hardcore liberal, you may agree that there was no real proof he did it, but you probably still have a strong suspicion he did it and even if he didn’t, he’s the type of person who would have done it, and that’s all that’s important right? Similarly if you were a birther and given 100% evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii, you may reluctantly agree he was born in the US but you still believe the spirit of the story, which is that he hates America and is intent on destroying it from within. The important part of all fake news are not the actual facts of the case, but the worldview they confirm. Fake news doesn’t take a neutral person to one side or the other, it confirms a worldview. Do you think for one minute that if we found out Trump was actually not born in the US that all the birthers would turn on Trump? Do you think for one second if a real verified tape was released of prostitutes peeing on Obama in Trump tower that hardcore liberals would turn on Obama? Or maybe now they would but would they have turned on him if he was still President and the Republicans were attempting to impeach him over it? I’m pretty sure the answer to both is no, because neither fact would confirm a worldview, and they would be dismissed as unimportant.

    The one thing I do agree 100% with you on is how social media impacts happiness. I’ve talked to so many people who feel like failures due to social media, including a particular person making well into 6 figures and being in a pretty impactful role at her company. She was insanely successful by any objective measure, but because some of her peers were already CEOs, or were speaking at conferences, or publishing research, she considered herself a failure. My advice is always to look back at their own timeline. Is there any record of that time they got passed up for a promotion? Any record of when they didn’t get the job they interviewed for? Any record of when they got dumped? Any record of when they spent hours cooking a dish and it ended up burnt and disgusting?

    There’s also a bigger thing that goes beyond social media where I think it’s important to do our best to not compare ourselves to other people. We all have our own journey through life, and our responsibility is to be the best selves we can, not beat other people at life.

    1. The “confirmation bias” angle is the elephant in the room I did not tackle; you are smart to point it out. That’s the part of the whole fake news thing that is most difficult to come to terms with – I agree completely with all of your analysis of how people self-select into their echo chambers, seek out information that confirms their world view, or agree “in spirit” with news moreso than at the level of evaluating specific facts.

      The place I think that we most strongly disagree is on people not caring about their data – on the issue of privacy. The amount of data that social media companies collect on us is, in my opinion, a MASSIVE invasion of privacy. Privacy is a fundamental right, and our data is sensitive. It can be used to harm us, it can embarrass us, etc. Just because it has not been used in the worst possible way does not mean it can’t in the future. The choice we face today is either (1) let our private data be harvested, or (2) opt out of tons of the best products and technological innovation of the last decade. That is not a fair choice for consumers, and I believe regulation is needed to protect our privacy and our data better. People who do care about data privacy don’t have many good options, and I think we have a responsibility to protect those who don’t understand or care as well. Tons of people don’t vote; doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect their right to do so or assume “people don’t care about voting.” Here is a link (full disclosure – top Google result when I was looking for a reference, it’s good but probably not the best thing out there or a top-tier source) that captures the privacy argument a little more directly.

      While I agree that the echo chamber/ confirmation bias thing is spot on, I still think social media plays a problematic role in the “fake news” problem. People will always retreat to their bubbles, but do we really need a tool that facilitates targeting to worsen that phenomenon? To me, that targeting is both an invasion of privacy (see above) and detrimental to society, so I think there should be serious consideration to limiting it. I also think social media can do a much better job of verifying the sources of information and making it easier to differentiate what is “real” and what is not. The fact that social media has an algorithm behind the scenes optimized to keep us scrolling, and thus showing us news that keeps us engaged via outrage or surprise – worsening the bubble problem – is not what anyone wants… except for the social media companies who sell advertising for a living. I am 100% against any censorship of free speech – people should always be able to post what they want – but platforms have work to do to help people understand the credibility of a source and not worsen the effects of our natural biases and filters.

  2. So I agree with you that personal data has value and we shouldn’t give it out willy-nilly. I don’t agree with you that that is a common belief. First off let’s clarify I’m not talking about pictures, private messages, or even “public” posts only your friends can see. I’m talking about the things that are typically shared: likes, friend list, where you live, job title, relationship status, political leanings, etc. Now if you offered the average person $5 for that data, what % do you think would say yes? I’m saying I think that number is north of 80%. They may say no if you ask for it for free, but in the Cambridge example it wasn’t free, it was for a cool little personality test. It may have been complete nonsense, but I believe most people would probably have consciously agreed to take the quiz even if they knew exactly what was being shared and that it could be sold to third parties. That’s what I’m saying.

    1. You’re probably right that the majority opinion on privacy of data isn’t in line with my take. I do think people would object much more strongly to how their data is used – that’s where I think oversight and more rules are needed.

  3. Zuck knows the Government will only slap his wrist, if anything. FB is so powerful and if Zuck chose to he could influence elections at all levels of Government. I don”t blame Zuck himself as he has been allowed to create the monster under U.S laws. Now it”s too big and exerts too much influence. I doubt any side of politics really has the gonads to take FB on in any meaningful way.

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