“Our minds can be hijacked”: the concept of anti-social media hits mainstream news

I have long ranted about the negative social ramifications of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other forms of social media.

This opinion is slowly making its way into the mainstream. The Guardian released an article this month “Our minds can be hijacked”: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.

Aside from the political bias that is demonstrated periodically in the article (undoubtedly and ironically cultivated by the “echo chamber” the author Paul Lewis is in), the article does a good job discussing some of the common sense problems with social media such as the rise of narcissism and its ability to brainwash its users.

The abstract reads:

Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks alarmed by a race for human attention

About seven years ago, I also disconnected myself.  I didn’t necessarily find Facebook addictive, but I did notice the “race for human attention” and the gradual disappearance of rational thought in favor of group-think. I noticed social media’s cliquish lifestyle that felt like being in high school in perpetuity.

Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook.

I’m hoping he hasn’t actually had a heroin addiction to make that kind of comparison, but I digress.

He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook “likes”, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button in the first place.

“It is very common,” Rosenstein says, “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.”

I had a similar situation working for a conglomerate tech company. Unknowingly, I was creating data mining software under the illusion it would help improve infrastructure, but was instead used as a tool to sic on “abusive” customers.

Similarly, Rosenstein’s “like” button seemed like a simple and innocent request within the company he worked for.  He could not have imagined at the time how much of a broad and sinister impact it would eventually have.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

Add my hypothesis that the repeated exercise of reading 140-character limited Facebook statuses and Twitter posts has also reduced people’s attention span to 140 characters.

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

In what would otherwise be a well-written, balanced article, Lewis inserts his political bias and backs it up with the bias of Rosenstein and his peers.

These two paragraphs serve as a meta-analysis of the psychological ramifications of social media: corporate media and Silicon Valley cannot escape its own “echo chambers”. The author is unable to rationally argue and understand all perspectives. He states as fact rather than opines that the political system has been “upended” and democracy threatened to the point of being “obsolete”.

From an impartial perspective, it is hyperbole. The choice of words like “devastating”, “earthquakes”, “upended” and “obsolete” demonstrate overconfidence in opinion and an unsurprising lack of humility. This is a consequence of the mob mentality and group-think fostered by social media.

What should have been evident based on the exposition of social media from the rest Lewis’ article, is that there has been isolation between groups holding differing opinions.  Rather than debate rationally, they are shunning each other irrationally, just like cliques in high school. Social media creates a high school lifestyle for adults.

Facebook’s “like” feature was, Rosenstein says, “wildly” successful: engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers.

It was Rosenstein’s colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that since 2009, there has been a visible increase in the amount of “virtue signalling”. “Virtue signalling” is maintaining social status within a clique by citing platitudes of that clique rather than making any meaningful contribution. People have become obsessed with being “liked” that they will put a false front to give the impression of fitting within the group.

The addictive “like” feedback loop causes another harmful feedback loop where memes, mantras and cult catchphrases dominate discourse.  Social media is a popularity contest, there is less rational discussion and more ridicule, snark, and other forms of persuasion.

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Tomorrow’s blog post will address the next part of Lewis’ article (four parts in total), which discusses the planned psychological manipulation that goes into social media and smart phone software design.

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