“Our minds can be hijacked” Part 3: to regulate or not to regulate?

This article follows Parts 1 and 2 of a four part commentary on The Guardian’s article “Our minds can be hijacked”.

The widespread negative social ramifications of smart phones and social media gives way to the question: to regulate or not to regulate? Should we trust people with weaponized legislation to be moral arbiters?

The inventor of “pull-to-refresh” cites addictions as a failure of capitalism:

All of it, he says, is reward-based behaviour that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways. He sometimes finds himself clicking on the red icons beside his apps “to make them go away”, but is conflicted about the ethics of exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities. “It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product,” he says. “It’s capitalism.”

I agree. It is capitalism at work.  However, there would be nothing to exploit if people were cognizant of their vulnerabilities.

Just as people have the freedom to drink, freedom to gamble and freedom to eat, people can exercise the same freedoms to become an alcoholic, a compulsive gambler, or an obese overeater. People largely know about the negative effects of drinking and gambling, albeit the postmodern fat-positive movement is undoing a lot of the common sense knowledge about obesity. People have the choice, as long they have the willpower, to avoid being alcoholics, compulsive gamblers or obese overeaters.

If you don’t strengthen your willpower by relying on a nanny state to watch over you instead, you will become weak and more susceptible to addictions and psychological tricks.

In my last article, I hypothesized that the postmodern takeover of education and media has weakened the minds of this generation (think “safe spaces” in university, political correctness run amok and single-mother helicopter parenting). This has allowed social media and smartphones to compound the psychological destruction. People are so fragile that their willpower has almost disappeared completely. People increasingly blame others for their own misfortunes and inabilities.

The old adages have gone away. A fool and their money are soon parted? Nowadays, a fool with no money begs the government to save them.

“Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

“The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.”

Tobacco companies survive because people exercise their free choice to curtail their lives for an immediate hit of nicotine. They know it’s bad for them in the long run but they choose to make the trade off.  Intervention that may be justified in this case is discouraging second-hand smoke from affecting those that choose not to smoke.

How much does advertising affect the decision to smoke?  It is a function of people’s knowledge. If people did not know it was unhealthy to smoke, then they can’t critically judge the advertisements they are exposed to and are more susceptible to persuasion.  This knowledge can be suppressed if one-way channels of communication such as television, news media, and educational institutions succeed in hiding the scientific facts about tobacco smoke.

The problem with social media is that its negative psychological effects are not common knowledge. Users don’t know that it is bad for them in the long run and figure that if everyone is doing it, then it must be safe.

McNamee believes the companies he invested in should be subjected to greater regulation, including new anti-monopoly rules.

Rosenstein, the Facebook “like” co-creator, believes there may be a case for state regulation of “psychologically manipulative advertising”, saying the moral impetus is comparable to taking action against fossil fuel or tobacco companies. “If we only care about profit maximisation,” he says, “we will go rapidly into dystopia.”

I disagree. Profit maximisation strictly between the company and its customers provides incentive to produce mutually beneficial products.

Profit maximisation via government intervention results in dystopia.

Allowing the government to impose more regulation grants them more power to arbitrate what is moral and immoral and ultimately threatens citizens to abide by their moral standards.

This increases the concentration of power in one area. A growing government incentivizes unethical businesses to invest in government rather than towards building a better, mutually beneficial product. It is fundamentally anti-capitalist: if you buy the power of the state, you earn a monopoly and maximize your profits illegitimately.

If you can get government legislation on your side, then you can censor knowledge and criticism to make any business succeed that would otherwise fail in a free market .

Let’s make a hypothetical out of Rosenstein’s example of tobacco companies. If tobacco companies influenced education, Hollywood and news media, then they can convince everyone smoking is good by portraying scientific data and health reports in a manner that shows no negative health effects. To cement this idea and avoid any dissenting opinions, they can convince legislators to pass laws preventing discussions on the topic in public forums such as the Internet.  Does this scenario sound familiar?

Instead, if people can see all sides of the tobacco story via uncensored information open for debate, people can exercise their own willpower and judgment to decide what’s best for them rather than rely on government.

Regulating “psychologically manipulative advertising” doesn’t solve the problem — it only makes it worse. It further contracts the open market of ideas, concentrates power to brainwash and propagandize, reduces people’s ability to reason for themselves, which feeds into a cycle of making “psychologically manipulative advertising” even more effective.

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The final part of this four part series will discuss the increased political polarization facilitated by social media and predictions of the future.

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