Posts Tagged ‘Social media’

Why is it so hard to pay attention?

May 9, 2022

STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022)

I find it much harder to concentrate on a task than I used to.  

Once I could dash off a book review like this in a couple of hours.  Now what took me a couple of hours takes me a couple of afternoons.  

It’s partly that the task itself takes me longer.  But it is also that I can’t resist the temptation break off the work and check my e-mail or browse my favorite blogs.

I’ve attributed this to a combination of old age and weakness of character.  

But although my age and laziness are real, a science writer named Johann Hari has convinced me that there’s more to it.  He says our whole civilization and lifestyle are conspiring to distract me from focusing on what I need to do.

Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, a best-seller about addiction, which I haven’t read, and Lost Connections, a best-seller about depression, which I have read and liked a lot.  In both books, he showed how a dysfunctional society makes personal problems worse, and the same is true of Stolen Focus.

In his new book, Stolen Focus, tells of his search for knowledge from neurologists, psychologists and his personal back-and-forth struggle to regain his own fading sense of focus.

He shows that distraction and the inability to concentrate are on the increase, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

A study of office workers in the U.S. showed that most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.  Another study shows that if you get interrupted, it will take, on average, 23 minutes to regain your focus.  Studies of top topics on Google and Twitter shows that the life of a hot topic on these media is growing shorter and shorter.

Increasingly, studies show, Americans and Britons are more stressed, more tired and more distracted.  We don’t get the sleep we need.  We read less and are less able to concentrate on what we read.  More and more of us juggle multiple jobs, or are on call 24/7 in the jobs we have. 

 It’s no wonder we find it hard to concentrate on things at hand. 

But if we can’t focus of this, we can’t deal with with the big challenges ahead we face individually and as a society.

Lots of things contribute to this—the faster pace of society, lack of sleep, our artificial manner of life and, of course, social media.

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

  • If you can, find a pursuit or sport that gets you into a state of “Flow”—a state where you are totally engrossed in something worthwhile that challenges you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep in a completely darkened, completely silent room.
  • Take long walks in the fresh air and sunshine without a phone.
  • Read long novels or watch long TV mini-series.  Fiction is more immersive than non-fiction and also makes you more empathetic.
  • Avoid or cut down on stimulants and sedatives.
  • Use all the Aps on your devices that enable you to set limits on notifications and interruptions.


But trying to change individual behavior isn’t enough, he wrote.  The problem is deeper.


Greenwald on the threat to freedom of speech

February 22, 2021

During the previous four years, Democratic leaders and pro-Democratic newspapers and broadcasters aligned with U.S. intelligence agencies to undermine the Trump administration. 

Now that Democrats are in power, the alliance continues.  It’s highly improbable that the Biden administration will dial down any of the covert wars now being waged by the United States.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald, who got his start as a civil liberties lawyer, has the facts.

I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump.  As one who believes in historic American ideals of freedom and democracy, I’m concerned about the large fraction of the 74 million Trump voters who endorse mob violence or believe in the crazy Q-Anon conspiracy theory.

But trying to suppress people’s basic rights is not a good way to refute their belief that there is a conspiracy to suppress their basic rights.

Also, progressives and left-wingers are naive if they think the social media crackdown is going to be limited to their enemies. 

Donald Trump was a very bad President.  I’m glad he’s no longer in office.  But I don’t believe in attacking historic constitutional liberties in the name of preventing Trump supporters from destroying historic constitutional liberties.


Congress Escalates Pressure on Tech Giants to Censor More, Threatening the First Amendment by Glenn Greenwald.  “In their zeal for control of on-line speech, House Democrats are getting closer to the constitutional line, if they have not already crossed it.”


Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

September 21, 2018

View at

These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.


Addiction as a successful business model

August 2, 2018

The problem is not just pornography.   Promoting addictiveness is a widespread business model.

A venture capitalist named Paul Graham, writing in 2010, said it is the nature of free market capitalism to make products addictive.

He wasn’t speaking of pornography in particular, but of everything from tobacco to gambling to compulsive viewing of the Internet.

The logic of the marketplace is that the person who makes the most addictive product wins the largest market share.

More recent Jaron Lanier, a famous virtual reality pioneer, wrote a book giving 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is about addictive social media companies.  The business model for companies such as Facebook is behavior modification, he wrote; they cannot give that model up and stay in business.

Their artificial intelligence systems use personal information, social science information and psychology to create “engagement” — which laymen would call “addiction” — by means of advertising and propaganda.  The systems are constantly at work to increase the power of their algorithms.

Stanford University has a Persuasive Technology Laboratory, which learns how to design interactive technology to alter human thoughts and behavior in the interests of advertisers and politicians, not the individuals targeted.

Richard Freed wrote about B.J. Fogg, the head of the laboratory, and how psychological research is used not to liberate people from addictive and compulsive behavior, but the opposite.

Click to enlarge

The “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers.

Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.”

Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.”  Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use.

Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site.  This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.


How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

Click to enlarge

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.


How much impact did Russian media ads have?

February 18, 2018

Double click to enlarge

I have to admit that the extent of Russian propaganda on U.S. social media was more than I assumed.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given that I’d once posted links about the extent of the Russian propaganda effort.

I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media myself.

I’m curious to know how far these ads reached and how much impact they had.

I’d like to ask American viewers of this blog to comment on the following questions—

  • Have you ever seen any of the ads above or below before?
  • Have you ever received anything from american veterans, Army of Jesus, Being Patriotic, Blacktivist, Born Liberal, LGBT United, Secured Borders or Stop AI (all invaders)?
  • If you did receive anything like this, what did you think of it?  Do you think it would influence people you know?

Of course, from the legal standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether these ads had a big impact or a small impact.   All that matters is whether certain individuals broke American law.

Click to enlarge


Suspicious characters in their own neighborhood

October 13, 2015

Black residents of a mixed-race neighborhood in Oakland, California, are regarded as suspicious characters by their white neighbors.

The white neighbors use to share information about suspicious activity in their neighborhood, which very often consists of black people doing normal things.

Some black parents are scared to let their children wander the neighborhood alone.  Maybe this is an over-reaction, but then look what happened to Trayvon Martin down in Florida.

I have lived in a mixed-race neighborhood in Rochester, New York, for more than 25 years, and I’m not aware of anything like this on my street.  On the other hand, maybe I’m not aware of everything that happens.


Racial Profiling Via by Sam Levin for East Bay Express.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)


China tests using credit scores for social control

October 12, 2015

Chinacredit1433817334738_646Source: China Daily.

Chinese authorities are experimenting with a new method of social control.

It is a credit score generated by Big Data methods that evaluates not only a person’s financial record, but everything that could throw light on their moral character, including associations and lifestyle choices.

A good credit score would give a person not only certain privileges, but prestige.  Conformity would be induced not through threats and punishments, but through positive reinforcement.

Last year the Chinese government announced it is working on something called a “social credit system” to enhance “sincerity discipline” in government, commerce and society in general, which is scheduled to be launched in 2020.

More recently a Chinese credit card company started testing a credit rating system that will use social media to gather information not only on people’s finances, but their hobbies, shopping habits, overall lifestyle and interactions with friends.

Based on that, the person will be given a rating of between 350 to 950 that not only determine their access to credit, but other privileges as well.

Some analysts think the two systems will come together to produce a system of total Orwellian surveillance, a kind of incentive-based totalitarianism.

Every aspect of a Chinese person’s life, including political opinions and friendships, would be fed into the system, which would produce a numerical score based on an algorithm.   That score in turn would be the basis for rewards and punishments that would shape the person’s whole life.

Now this is speculative.   I don’t know that the Chinese government actually has this in mind.


The passing scene: Links & comments 9/16/14

September 16, 2014

Ukraine Offers Amnesty to Rebels by Mike Shedlock on Mish’s Global Trend Analysis (via Naked Capitalism).

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine made a peace offer to separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, consisting of amnesty to helps, help in rebuilding, free local elections Nov. 9, limited self-rule for at least three years and the right to use Russian in official documents.

To me, an outsider ignorant of internal Ukrainian politics, this looks like a reasonable offer.   But it is opposed by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who came to power with the backing of neo-conservatives in the U.S. State Department.

Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent by Nick Bilton for The New York Times.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Most CEOs of Silicon Valley companies set strict limits on how much time their children can spend in front of computer screens or use social media.  Instead they encourage their children to read printed books and engage in face-to-face conversation.   Consumers of their products should follow their example.

Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore for The New York Times. (Via Avedon’s Sideshow)

Non-profit research organizations such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council are supposed to provide expert and objective advice.  But how objective can they be if they take money from foreign governments?

John Crawford Shooting: Open Carry for Whites, Open Season on Blacks by Albert L. Butler for The Root.

Doubts cast on witness’s account of black man killed by police in Walmart by Jon Swaine for The Guardian.

Police in Ohio shot and killed a black man in a Walmart store in Ohio because they thought the toy gun he was holding was real.  But Ohio is an “open carry” state.  If he had been carrying a real gun, it would have been perfectly legal under state law.

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/11/13

October 11, 2013

The Golden Dawn Murder Case, Larry Summers and the New Fascism by Greg Palast for TruthOut.

The Greek government has banned the xenophobic racist Golden Dawn party and arrested six members of Parliament who belong to that party.  Greg Palast wrote that the real reason for the Golden Dawn’s ban is that it is the only Greek political party who opposes the austerity measure imposed by the European central bank.  If you define fascism as the union of corporation and government, Palast said, then the Golden Dawn party is Greece’s only anti-fascist party.  He predicted that Greek leftists will come to bitterly resent the precedent that has been set, because they will be next.

He quoted Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank, as saying that when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank impose austerity measures on Third World governments, they always insist that money be set aside for riot control.  He said they even have an expression, the “IMF riot.”

Fear and Loathing in the House of Saud by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Peace between Iran and the United States would be good for almost everybody except the Saudi Arabian royal family and maybe the government of Israel.  Pepe Escobar explained why the Sandi Arabian government is threatened by a U.S.-Iran agreement and how it will use its leverage to prevent it.

Murder in the Age of Distraction by Jonathan Coppage for the American Conservative.

A man on a San Francisco commuter train pulled out a .45 pistol and aimed it at fellow passengers.  Nobody noticed until he actually shot someone because they were all focused on their hand-held phones and computers.

New law threatens vote-counting reliability by Thomas D. Elias of the San Bernadino County Sun.  Hat tip to the Brad Blog.

Touch screen voting machines can vulnerable to tampering by hackers.  But California has enacted a new law that allows counties to use touch screen machines that have not been certified as reliable.  This is a bad law and a bad precedent for other states.  Why take a chance on tampering with voting results?

Pharmaceutical firms paid to attend meetings of panel that advised FDA by Peter Whorisky of the Washington Post.

Two college professors who organized an FDA advisory panel on painkilling drugs charged big pharmaceutical companies $25,000 each to have their experts attend meetings.  The money went to fund their research projects.

There’s nothing wrong with a government agency getting outside advice, including advice from drug companies, but it is wrong to charge for the right to give advice and with giving special privileges to big companies who can pay a fee.

Quebec Fracking Ban Lawsuit Shows Perils of Free Trade Deals by Julian Beltrane on the Huffington Post.

A Canadian company registered in Delaware has appealed to a NAFTA tribunal to overturn Quebec’s mortatorium on hydraulic fracturing because it takes away expected profit.  The moratorium is intended to give the Quebec government time to study the impact of fracking.

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement also would give international companies the right to appeal and possibly overturn national laws if it deprived them of privileges granted under the treaty.

Hillary Clinton: It’s Not Her Turn by Richard Kim for The Nation.

It would be nice to show that a woman can be elected President, just as it was nice to show that an African-American can be elected President.  But Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama and like her husband Bill Clinton, represents the corporate and Wall Street establishment, not working people and young people.

The maturing of democracy: Picking up the tab in the Economist.  Hat tip to Craig Hanyan.

A democratic system requires wisdom and maturity in the electorate and in elected and appointed government officials.  The Economist reviewer considers two books that examine the past and future of democratic governance.

Snapshots of technology’s global village

May 14, 2013

I lifted these photos from the Beneath the Tin Foil Hat web log.


How media multi-tasking makes us stupid

April 21, 2011

New research shows that multiple use of social media undermines your ability to think analytically, to remember things long-term, to focus on one thing or even to multi-task.  It vindicates all the college professors I know who complain about their students texting during class instead of paying attention.

Clifford Nass

Clifford Nass, director of Stanford University’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Laboratory, said that what the social media promote is multi-tasking—trying to do more than one thing as the same time. So he organized a team to study multi-tasking.   Here are highlights of an interview on what they discovered.

What did you expect when you started these experiments?

Each of the three researchers on this project thought that … high multi-taskers [would be] great at something, although each of us bet on a different thing.

I thought, those guys are going to be experts at getting rid of irrelevancy.  My second colleague, Eyal Ophir, thought it was going to be the ability to switch from one task to another.  And the third of us looked at a third task that we’re not running today, which has to do with keeping memory neatly organized.  So we each had our own bets, but we all bet high multi-taskers were going to be stars at something.

And what did you find out?

We were absolutely shocked.  We all lost our bets.  It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking.  They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.


The Internet will not save us

January 10, 2011

Democratic and populist movements rely on the ability to communicate.  When the Thirteen Colonies began to resist the authority of the British crown, the first thing they did was to set up Committees of Correspondence.  When General Jarulzelski proclaimed martial law and suppressed the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, the first thing he did was to shut down the telephone system.

Clay Shirky in his presentation to TED said the Internet has empowered people in an unprecedented way because of the multiple ways it enables people to communicate.  What he said is true and important, but, as he himself might agree, it is not the whole truth.

He gives three examples of the Internet’s potential: (1) how Americans picked up from Nigerians an idea of how to use electronic media to monitor elections and prevent voter suppression, (2) how Chinese used electronic media to disseminate news of an earthquake and call corrupt officials to account and (3) how President Obama’s supporters engaged in dialogue with him through the Organizing for America web site.

All good things.  But the Internet also facilitates international scam artists operating out of Nigeria and other countries.  It does not threaten the power of the rulers of China and other authoritarian countries. In fact, they turn the social media to their own purposes.  And Organizing for America has not made President Obama accountable for his original campaign promises.  Rather he tries to use it as a vehicle for his own purposes, such as his call to members to support a federal pay freeze.  I don’t think many Organizing for America members signed up with the idea of preventing pay raises for letter carriers, VA hospital nurses and FBI agents.

The Internet enables people to communicate in ways they couldn’t before, but it also enables government to monitor citizens in ways they couldn’t before.  Every e-mail communication is subject to being monitored.  Every Google search is on record.  The two-way television set in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a technical possibility; Winston Smith could send information down the Memory Hole with the click of a mouse.

During the 2009 protests in Iran, government supporters took pictures of protesters on cell phones, then posted the pictures on public web sites and used “crowd sourcing” to identify them.  As Evgeny Mazarov says, secret police no longer have to torture people to find out their networks of friends; all they have to do is network on Facebook.  The U.S. Department of Justice has subpoenaed Twitter accounts of people connected with Julian Assange – another example of how a means of communication can be a means of surveillance.

The anonymity of the Internet does not just protect dissidents and whistleblowers.  It allows secret government agencies to circulate disinformation and inflammatory propaganda, without individuals have any way to distinguish the genuine from the bogus.

Then there is the distracting nature of the Internet.  Few people accustomed to communicating by Twitter would sit down to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.


I’m glad I’m retired from newspaper reporting

December 8, 2010

A journalism educator named Wayne MacPhail says today’s reporters need to be masters of the electronic social media.  I never even heard of some of the applications he says are essential to communicating with the younger generation.  I feel like a dinosaur.

Click on MediaShift to see what I’m talking about.

[Hat tip to my friend Anne Tanner]