How social media try to manipulate your mind

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Any time you log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter or other “free” social media, information on every keystroke is being fed into powerful computers somewhere.

Algorithms in these computers correlate this data.  They compare you with other people with similar profiles,  The algorithms—”intelligent,” but blind—experiment with ways to use this information to modify your behavior so you will do what they want.

What they usually want is for you to respond for an ad for a particular product or service.  But they can be trying to influence you to vote—or not to vote.

Jaron Lanier, a scientist and entrepreneur who pioneered virtual reality, wrote about this in his new book, TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW (2018)

He thinks this is sinister.  Your social media may not be influencing you a lot, but it is almost certain to have some influence, and that influence is operating on you below your level of awareness.

Social media feeds you stuff that is intended to stimulate your emotion, and it is easier to stimulate feelings of anger, fear and resentment than it is feelings of joy, affection and security.

I know this from my newspaper experience.  Back in the 1990s, my old newspaper made a big effort to discover what kind of news our readers wanted.  In surveys and focus groups, they said that wanted positive news—articles about people accomplishing good things.  But the article they remember the best was a horrible story about a dead baby being found in a Dumpster.

The people who answered the survey weren’t hypocrites.  Not at all.  It is just that we human beings react in ways we don’t choose, and this leaves us open to manipulation.

Another effect of feedback from social media is to reinforce whatever it is you happen to be—liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-war—and to diminish you ability to understand people who think differently from you.

I was shocked when I read about Cambridge Analytica, the campaign consultant that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, and its claim that it could manipulate voter behavior on an individual basis.  But I later came to realize that this was the standard Facebook service, and could have been available to the Clinton campaign.

Lanier takes the charges of Vladimir Putin’s interference in the campaign more seriously than I did.  The Russian ads seemed amateurish to me (unless they were decoys to divert attention from the real influence campaign) and most of them were posted after election day.

But effectiveness of the 2016 ads is beside the point.  If the combination of Big Data, artificial intelligence and behavior modification algorithms can influence voting behavior, Putin is sure to use it, and he doesn’t, some other foreign government or institution will.  Not to mention our own NSA and CIA.

Lanier said the problem with Google, Facebook and other media companies is their business model, which is engaging your attention and then selling it to third parties.

He saw no problem with Amazon or Netflix using computer algorithms to suggest books or videos you might like, because this is done with the intend of getting your business, not of influencing you for the benefit of some third party.

He doesn’t think regulation is the answer.  When there’s a profit motive, there’s usually away to get around any rules.

Jaron Lanier

Lanier’s answer is a new business model, in which Google and Facebook get their revenue from users, not third parties. The social media companies also should compensate individuals for using their material.

The benefit of this is that the users of social media would be the customers, and not the product.

He said the technology to make payments in pennies or fractions of a cent exists and is feasible to use.  Of course people who can’t even afford micro-payments should be given access anyhow.

This would be hard to do.  Newspapers at the height of their power and influence were never able to free themselves from dependence on advertisers.  Many profitable print publications are giveaways and get their income solely from advertising, but few that do without ads and depend only on subscriptions, and my impression is that these few depend on donations to offset losses.

The economics of Internet publishing are different from print publishing, so maybe Lanier’s proposal would be feasible.  There remains the problem of persuading a profitable business with no serious competitors to give up a source of problem.

Meanwhile Lanier recommends users of social media simply delete their accounts—not forever, but for, say, six months.  This is enough time for you to judge how social media affect you and whether it’s worthwhile to continue.

Does it seem far-fetched that large numbers of people would do this?  Once it seemed far-fetched that large numbers of people would give up smoking.

For what it’s worth, I have no social media accounts, although I spend a good bit of time each day logged onto the Internet.  I don’t have a smartphone.  I was on Facebook once, and decided it was more trouble than it was worth.  It was a lot easier, by the way, to get on Facebook than to get off.

I communicate by means of e-mail.  I pick my own sources of information instead of letting some computer algorithm choose them for me.  But I admit that, even so, I spend too much time in front of the glowing screen when I should be out and about.

LINKS

Six reasons why social media is a Bummer, an excerpt from Ten Arguments in The Guardian.

Four Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier for Thrive Global.

Jaron Lanier interview on What Went Wrong With the Internet for Select All.

You Have to Invent Yourself: an interview of Jaron Lanier for The Millions.

The Acceleration of Addictiveness by Paul Graham.

Web Resources related to the book Ten Arguments.

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