We're All Just Lab Rats Now
Free speech and censorship. Manipulation and insecurity. Social media has many problems, and the answers aren’t easy. There is hope, however.
Capital Thinking • Issue #761 • View online
It’s a kind of prison experiment, where we’re just roping people into the matrix, and harvesting all this money and data from all their activity, to profit from.
–Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma
We want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it.
What’s wrong with social media?
I intended to write this weeks ago, before Twitter and Facebook banned the current President of the United States following the storming of the US Capitol, due to the risk of further incitement of violence.
Following those moves, if you asked people what’s wrong with social media this week, you might hear a lot about free speech and censorship. Many thousands of words have already been penned about the ramifications of a private company being able to censor the president, and this issue will be debated for a very long time to come.
This week also saw Apple, Google and Amazon come together to effectively kill another social platform called Parler that conservatives were flocking to in response to the booting of the president.
I’ll not comment further on the political impact of the past week’s events, other than to quote the electronic frontier foundation:
“unless we dismantle the increasingly centralized chokepoints in our global digital infrastructure, we can anticipate an escalating political battle between political factions and nation states to seize control of their powers.”
My intent for this article isn’t to try and settle any political or free speech issues today, but to grapple with how social media (and the massively wealthy companies who own the platforms) manipulates us and threatens the fabric of society and democracy.
And, obviously less importantly but still top of my mind is figuring out whether I personally am better off using social media at all, given all the issues I have experienced and come to understand.
As someone who has built businesses on the internet for the past 15+ years, I initially saw social media as a tool to reach potential customers, and to have conversations about topics before pursuing them deeper elsewhere.
But over the years, I noticed that social media didn’t feel like a neutral tool. Using social media often brought up feelings and emotions that I didn’t expect from technology, like insecurity, discouragement and angst.
As I learned in The Social Dilemma (Netflix link, highly recommended), social media isn’t a tool at all. When something is a tool, it’s just sitting there, waiting patiently for you to use it to accomplish something.
Social media isn’t a tool because it demands something from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you.
Social media has been expertly engineered to be as persuasive as technology can be.
It has been engineered to use our psychology against us, to accomplish its own goals, which is to keep us glued to the screen for as long as possible so it can sell more ads.
We’re all lab rats. We’re just zombies and they want us to look at more ads.
It turns out that the feelings I felt shouldn’t be surprising at all. As Dr. Anna Lembke, Director of the Stanford School of Addiction Medicine explains,
"Social media is a drug. We have a biological imperative to connect with other people that is directly connected to the release of dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain.”
That need to connect with other people, to be accepted and liked, is exactly what social media uses to keep us coming back. Every time we use social media, we’re putting our feelings of self worth and identity at risk.
When we post, the insecurity we feel comes from a worry that people might not respond with likes and comments. And if they don’t respond, maybe that means we’re no longer accepted or loved.
We all have different levels of sensitivity to feelings of insecurity. For someone like me who tends toward feeling more insecurity, social media can be an especially emotional (and addictive) experience.
And this is all coming from a (relatively) mature and well-adjusted 44 year old white American male. I can only imagine how social media is experienced by people of different backgrounds.
What social media is doing to kids is even more concerning. Imagine what it does to your sense of self worth and identity as a teenager, or when you’re even younger. It seems to be having a profound impact on the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide among young people.
I don’t have kids, but I feel for parents who have to wrestle with all these complicated issues, on top of wrestling with them yourself.
The way social media manipulates us individually is incredibly powerful. It’s so powerful that it goes far beyond our own feelings and emotions. Social media may actually contribute to an existential threat to society and democracy.
As Tristan Harris explains, when persuasive technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses, it is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification.
It’s not that technology itself is an existential threat. It’s that persuasive technology can bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society is an existential threat.
This is partly because social media has no knowledge of what is truth. It only knows likes and interactions.
Because fake news spreads six times faster than real news, it is used by the algorithms to keep your attention. Then, we’re all presented the information we want to believe, and we don’t see what others are seeing in our customized newsfeeds.
Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now tells a story in The Social Dilemma like this:
When you go to Wikipedia, we all see the same thing. It’s one of the few things online that we all share in common. Now, just imagine if Wikipedia said, “we’re going to give each person a different customized definition, and we’re going to be paid by advertisers for that.”
Wikipedia would be spying on you, calculating what it could do to get you to change on behalf of a commercial interest. That’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. Reality is customized for each person.
And so, conspiracies online have become as rampant and dangerous as the wildfires that are now consuming the west coast every summer.