I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the information and research leaked to 60 Minutes by a former Facebook employee. This information came as no surprise to those of us that have watched documentaries about the issue such as The Social Dilemma. The bottom line always seems to be: social media is bad for our mental health and our society overall. But does it have to be that way? That’s the question a lot of people are now asking.
The perspective I’ve noticed a lot of people having is that AI and algorithms cannot be inherently bad or evil. They are simply a reflection of what humanity wants. If that ends up being violence and divisiveness, can we really blame the algorithm? Or should we be turning that microscope on ourselves instead? There is certainly a lot of nuance to this issue, but here is what I think.
The reason these algorithms are feeding us content that angers and polarizes us is because that is the type of content that gets the most consistent and reliable engagement from users. At first glance this appears to be the AI giving us what we want. But consider this: Facebook and other social media apps understand that even though we are more likely to engage with content that is inflammatory, that isn’t what we want. They don’t care what consumers want. They care what will make them the most money, regardless of the damage that it may result in.
Evolution has primed us to react more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli for survival. Our negativity bias is not a reflection of our relative good or evil as a species. If we ignore a positive experience there is much less harm than if we were to ignore a negative experience that has the potential to hurt or kill us. So we may have a more visceral reaction to seeing a child be hit by a car than seeing a fireman give a child a lollipop, but does that mean we prefer to watch gruesome tragedies? I don’t think so. We just pay more attention to them in an effort to ensure our own safety.
It isn’t that we wouldn’t engage with the platform at all if there were more positive content, it’s just that we’ll engage even more when our feeds are full of things that upset or enrage us. Facebook was doing fine before these detrimental algorithms were put into place. But capitalism says the more money the better, regardless of the cost to the consumer. Therefore this negative feedback loop has begun to spiral out of control to the detriment of everyone.
It seems like a lot of people are hesitant to give up the idea that they are completely autonomous and always make conscious, educated decisions for themselves in life. It is unpleasant to consider that a lot of our behavior is being directed and influenced by things that are largely out of our control or even our conscious awareness. Nevertheless, that is the truth.
I think part of the problem is that people really want to believe they can avoid the negative mental health effects of social media because they are addicted to it. As humans we’ll make excuses to continue indulging in whatever addiction we may have. We’ve all known an alcoholic living in denial, loudly proclaiming at any opportunity, “I could stop if I wanted to.”
It’s hard to acknowledge that something we do every day is bad for us. Especially when stopping the behavior results in negative social consequences. I know a lot of people that want to stop using Facebook, but feel that they can’t because it would upset their family and friends and lead to a certain degree of social isolation. I struggled with this myself before I ultimately decided to stop using social media apps. Luckily for me, I was able to overcome this easier than others. I’ve never been one to care much about social norms or how others may perceive my life decisions. While these are things I consider, they’ve never held much weight for me. I empathize with the fact that most people place a lot more emphasis on these factors.
At the end of the day, yes, the individual is not absolved of all responsibility when it comes to societal issues, but the lion’s share of the responsibility is still on the developers of these sites. No one has to use social media. We do have the potential to feed the algorithm different information now that we know how it works. By actively choosing to engage with more positive content than negative we could make a difference. However, this is not a very practical or realistic solution when it comes to society as a whole.
The United States may claim to value freedom above all else, but the amount of freedom we actually have is often deceptive, especially when new generations are being influenced by these things at earlier and earlier ages. Are we really free to use social media in a mentally healthy way when the AI running the show are directing us and influencing us from behind the scenes? To me, the freedoms we fight for are often illusions of freedom perpetuated by a corrupt capitalist system that is profiting off of that “freedom.”
My main point here is just to say, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing the best you can within the framework our society and government have built. Freedom is a tricky concept. While we may have the freedom to choose in many aspects of our lives, those choices are also limited by our environment. You are not a helpless victim, but you are also not the only one responsible as many in the media would have you believe.