The anti-social network, by Tristan Rutherford

Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2021 

Social media companies never set out to be evil. So says Justin Rosenstein, the former Google manager who invented the Facebook Like button. “When we were making the Like button our entire motivation was: ‘Can we spread positivity and love in the world?’” Tim Kendall, the former Director of Monetisation at Facebook, shares a similar story. “(T)hese tools actually have created some wonderful things in the world. They’ve reunited lost family members. They’ve found organ donors.”

 

Neither Rosenstein or Kendall foresaw social media’s purported downside. “Rewind a few years ago, I was the President of Pinterest,” Kendall explains. “I couldn’t get off my phone...despite having two young kids who needed my love and attention. I thought: ‘God, this is classic irony. I am going to work during the day and building something that then I am falling prey to.’” Rosenstein, the Facebook Like inventor, agrees: “The idea that, fast-forward to today and teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough Likes, or it could be leading to political polarisation, was nowhere on our radar.” 

 

Rosenstein and Kendall aired their views in The Social Dilemma. The award-winning docudrama shot to #1 on Netflix, while being streamed in 30 languages to 38 million households. All in the first month of its release in September 2020. Other rockstar techies like Sean Parker, the former President of Facebook, and Aza Raskin, who invented social media’s infinite scroll, share their worrying thoughts about the platforms’ effect on extremism, addiction and children’s health. The movie has sown wildfire-like fear among tech bosses, politicians and parents in the 190 countries where it has been viewed. 

 

The primary issue is the humble telephone. As technology has improved, the cellphone has rendered obsolete the calculator, camera, alarm clock, notepad, calendar, dictaphone, compass and personal music player among other things. A decade ago, the world’s bestselling device was the Nokia 1280. Its key features were speed dial, predictive text and an FM radio. In 2020 the most shipped cellphone - reportedly 65m units worldwide - was Apple’s iPhone 11. It can be used to produce a feature film, perform online banking or manage a Nasdaq 100 company. Around half the world's population - the wealthiest, most-influential half - own a smartphone. In the United States the ownership level is 85%, according to Pew Research. In the 18-29 age group, smartphone penetration is 100%. 

 

The second issue is the apps installed on these ubiquitous devices. Like any company, each social media platform needed to make its product more compelling. Chamath Palihapitiya, an early executive at Facebook, explains the process in The Social Dilemma. “So we want(ed) to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit,” he claims. Dopamine, as Harvard University describes it, is a feel-good chemical released when we exercise, eat a delicious meal or "have a successful social interaction”. Palihapitiya’s dopamine high was widely copied. “We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it.” 

 

As social media grew exponentially, it needed funds to support itself. Tim Kendall, the Director of Monetisation at Facebook, was an inside guy. “(W)e talked about having Mark (Zuckerberg) have those dials,” Kendall recalls. “‘Hey, I want more users in Korea today.’ ‘Turn the dial.’ ‘Dial up monetisation, just slightly.’... I mean, at all of these companies, there is that level of precision.” No-one can blame a company for wishing to deliver value to shareholders. 

 

The problem, claim the high level interviewees in The Social Dilemma, is that growth was outsourced to algorithms. The movie argues that the essence of social media is to present users with a search result or YouTube video that will make them interact more, and therefore view more ads, regardless of the content’s truthfulness. Although critics of the film claim that it over-dramatises the issue, or that the interviewees have long ceased to wield any power on the platforms they spoke about. 

 

Jaron Lanier, one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, sums up one indisputable issue. “Just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said: ‘We’re gonna give each person a different customised definition, and we’re gonna be paid by people for that.’ It’s exactly what’s happening in your YouTube feed.” Internet searches have become skewed to the extent that if a Google user types in ‘Climate change is…’ they will be given differing results based on their geographical location and search history. In some cases the autocomplete will read ‘Climate change is a hoax’. In others ‘Climate change is not caused by humans’. And so on, for pandemic information, presidential debates and every other subject. 

 

The Social Dilemma explains how each user is prompted to interact. Essentially a virtual avatar exists for every social media user, based upon almost every digital interaction that the real life person has ever made. In other words, a digital you. 

 

That is troubling for society, says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google. “There’s an entire discipline...called ‘growth hacking’,” Harris explains. “Teams of engineers whose job is to hack people’s psychology so they can get more growth.” Harris believes that growth can swiftly spiral. Algorithms can cause feeds to become an echo chamber of, for example, like-minded conspiracists, who are encouraged to interact as long as they view more ads. “If I want to manipulate an election,” he says, “I can now go into a conspiracy theory group on Facebook, and I can find 100 people who believe that the Earth is completely flat. Facebook will happily send me thousands of users that look like them that I can now hit with more conspiracy theories.” 

 

A prime example is Pizzagate. The incident took place during the 2016 American presidential election. A false claim stated that a politician's emails contained coded messages about a human trafficking ring that performed satantic rituals inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC. The news went viral. The more people clicked on it, the more social media propagated the message, despite its patent untruths. The pizzeria in question suffered a gunshot attack and, years later, an arson assault. 

 

“There's an MIT study that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news,” says Harris. He was so concerned that he co-founded the Center for Humane Technology, an organisation dedicated to highlighting issues of addiction and misinformation in the social media sphere. “Never before in history have 50 designers - 20- to 35-year-old white guys in California - made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.” 

 

The impact is a double-edged sword for the next generation. On one side, technology can enhance global interaction. On the flipside, expectations raised by social media can cause mental anguish, says Dr Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership, who was also interviewed on The Social Dilemma. “Gen Z...are the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school,” Dr Haidt explains. “They’re much less comfortable taking risks. The rates at which they get driver’s licenses have been dropping. The number who have ever gone out on a date or had any kind of romantic interaction is dropping rapidly. This is a real change in a generation.” 

 

Dr Haidt’s prognosis becomes more serious. “The number of teenage girls [who self-harmed]... was pretty stable until around 2010, 2011”. Now he claims the figure is up 62% for older teen girls. “It’s up 189 percent for preteen girls,” he continues. Teen suicide follows a similar pattern. “The older teen girls, 15 to 19 years old, they’re up 70%, compared to the first decade of this century.” Preteens, who had very low rates to begin with, are up 151%. “[That timing] pattern points to social media.” Online bullying and viewing harmful content are cited as issues. As is 'Snapchat dysmorphia'. In this instance teens hide their perceived physical flaws with puppy ears or bunny noses, or with a body modifying app like Facetune (the #1 paid app in 150 countries). It’s argued that physical sensitivity becomes so great that it can lead users to self-harm. 

 

When will the digital alchemy end? One person to ask is Jeff Orlowski, the director of The Social Dilemma. “We need to understand that these platforms are not actually designed for human connection,” Orlowski claims. “They're designed around a false pretense that you have to have thousands of friends to have a social affirmation.” Orlowski’s previous documentary films, Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, provoked similar discussion. For the latter he holds a Guinness World Record for capturing an iceberg calving event at the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. 

 

The tech talking heads that appear on Orlowski’s film suggest various means to reduce reliance. Like turning off notifications lest the constant ping decrease your productivity. Or using an app - no irony intended - to gauge and reduce cellphone usage. With children it’s important to discuss social media and set limits collaboratively. Google CEO Sundar Pichai (who admitted watching The Social Dilemma to a US Senatorial panel set up to discuss the subject) imposes strict limits on the screen time of his two children. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel grew up without a television and credits the restriction in technology as part of his creative success. 

 

Orlowski goes one step further. “We need to take this exploitative industry and regulate it for the betterment of the public,” says the movie’s director. That could be by taxing data collection or data assets, as the tech giants currently have no fiscal incentive to change their profitable model. “People love human connections and I’ve been using FaceTime during the pandemic to talk to my family,” says Orlowski. “That’s what we really want from our technology. But that’s not what the intention of social media is.” 

Read more about Tristan's global travel stories here.