When I was a child, we’d have dinner as a family every evening. If a telemarketer happened to phone the landline, my parents considered them extremely rude. How dare someone disturb our family time?
Fast-forward 20 years and it’s all too common for meals to be punctuated by the constant ping of smartphone notifications — all ultimately designed to sell in the same way the tele- marketers did.
I’ve spent the past three years working on The Social Dilemma, a film about what’s really going on in Silicon Valley and how social media is taking over our world.
Larissa Rhodes, producer of The Social Dilemma, is warning people against over-suing social media and being glued to their smart phones (stock image)
I’d previously worked on climate change-related projects for a decade, and I admit that, at first, I couldn’t see the rise of social media as an equal threat. But then we were given unprecedented access to a host of former employees at the world’s biggest tech companies, from Facebook to Twitter and Google.
What they said terrified me. These insiders admitted that our time and attention are being sold to the highest bidder, while false news stories are actively promoted. The result is political chaos, social division — and a generation of addicted children whose self-worth and ability to connect with others may be permanently damaged.
Dr Anna Lembke, medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, says in the film: ‘I’m worried about my kids. And if you have kids, I’m worried about your kids.’
She explains: ‘Social media is a drug. We have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people. So a vehicle like social media, which optimises this connection, is going to have the potential for addiction.’
While my friends with young children worry about how much to let their kids use social media, I was stunned to learn that many of these experts now forbid their own children any screen time at all.
What we learned made me and my husband Mark Crawford, a composer, do a total 180 on our tech use. We’ve turned off all notifications and largely logged off social media altogether.
Along with her husband, Larissa has completely logged out of all social media sites (stock image)
WHY CAN’T I PUT DOWN MY DEVICE?
According to an Ofcom report, in the UK people check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes. Even the creators of this technology aren’t immune.
Tim Kendall, a former executive at both Facebook and Pinterest, repeatedly tried — and failed — not to take his phone to bed.
He says: ‘Knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my usage.’ The reason? Companies like Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok have cynically rewired our brains.
Take the refresh tool. Joe Toscano, Google’s former experience design consultant, says it was created to tap into our psychology: ‘Every time you refresh there’s going to be a new thing at the top.
In a report, Ofcom claims that the average person in the UK checks their smart phone every 12 minutes (stock image)
‘Every single time. In psychology, we call this a positive intermittent reinforcement.’
Former design ethicist at Google Tristan Harris says the ‘refresh’ button operates like a Vegas slot machine.
‘Every time you see your phone lying there, you know if you reach over and click refresh, it just might have something for you, and so you play that slot machine to see what you get. That’s not by accident. That’s a design technique.’
IT SEEMS FREE, BUT YOU ARE THE PRODUCT
We don’t pay to use the likes of Google and Facebook, so how do they make so much money? Harris, who now runs the Centre for Humane Technology, explains: ‘The classic saying is if you’re not paying for the product then you are the product.’
It’s advertisers who pay for our attention — we are the thing being sold. On the other side of the screen, Harris says: ‘It’s almost as if they have this voodoo doll-like model of us. All the clicks we’ve ever made, all the videos we’ve watched, all the likes . . .
‘That helps build an accurate model. You can then predict the kinds of things a person does, what kind of videos will keep them watching.’
Former design ethicist at Google Tristan Harris said that we as consumers of social media have become the product and social sites make money by keeping our attention (stock image)
This is known as ‘surveillance capitalism’, says Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The infinite tracking of everyone, everywhere is the tech companies’ business model — they profit by making sure advertisers are as successful as possible.
She says: ‘This is what every business has always dreamt of, to have a guarantee that if it places an ad, it will be successful. For that success to happen, you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative: you need a lot of data.’
You may have known they wanted to get you hooked. But did you realise they wanted to change you, your habits, who you are?
VR pioneer Jaron Lanier concludes it’s too simplistic to say we are the product: ‘It’s the gradual, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product.’
Surveillance capitalism is a business model employed by social media companies to track and trace people’s online footprints (stock image)
HACKING YOUR BRAIN WITH A ‘LIKE’ BUTTON
Huge teams of psychologists at tech companies are employed to help manipulate your brain. Harris says when it comes to children, ‘social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity’.
We have evolved to care about what others in our tribe think about us, and nowhere is this more exploited than with the ‘Like’ button. Justin Rosenstein co-invented the ‘Like’ button at Facebook.
He says it has gone horribly wrong since then: ‘When we were making the ‘Like’ button, our entire motivation was, how can we spread positivity and love? The idea that teens would be getting depressed when they don’t get enough likes was nowhere on our radar.’
Office for National Statistics released data saying that the number of women and girls between the ages of ten and 24 who committed suicide has increased by 94% since 2012 – with experts highlighting the role of social media (stock image)
Yet tech companies plunge into ever murkier ways they can manipulate us, despite a massive increase in depression and anxiety in teenagers. A recent study found that the use of social media for at least three hours a day was associated with twice the risk of mental health problems in teens, compared with those who shunned it.
Last month, new figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the number of women and girls between the ages of ten and 24 who committed suicide has increased by 94 per cent since 2012 — an unprecedented rise, with experts highlighting the role of social media. And the more stressed we are, the more we now turn to our devices.
According to Harris, a whole generation who never knew life before social media have been conditioned to turn to their digital pacifier whenever they feel uncertain, afraid or lonely.
FAKE NEWS? BIG MONEY
Two years ago I was in our office in Boulder, Colorado, when I Googled ‘climate change is…’ The suggested searches included ‘not real, false, a hoax’. I thought, how is this possible? Shouldn’t the suggestions be about the threat it poses?
So I asked friends to Google the same thing around the world and the suggested searches varied wildly according to their locations. We realised the algorithm was feeding us what it thought people in that area wanted to hear — regardless of the truth.
This was a lightbulb moment for me: what tech companies choose to show us is influencing our political and moral beliefs. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found fake news spreads six times faster than true news on Twitter.
Engineers have created a system that biases towards false information because it makes companies more money — the truth is dull in comparison.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found fake news spreads six times faster than true news on Twitter (stock image)
As we dug deeper, we discovered that the YouTube algorithm detects that if you’re likely to click on conspiracy theories, you will be fed ever more outrageous things.
A huge online community of ‘Flat Earthers’ now exists and you may wonder how these people can be so uninformed. But don’t judge too soon: they may be being fed radically different information to you.
U.S. businessman Roger McNamee was one of the earliest investors in Facebook. He describes it as 2.7 billion Truman Shows: each of Facebook’s 2.7 billion global users gets their own version of the ‘facts’.
‘Over time you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you because everyone in your newsfeed sounds just like you — and once you’re in that state, it turns out you are easily manipulated.’
After digging into the YouTube algorithm, Larissa found that if the video website found you were watching conspiracy theory videos, it was more likely to suggest videos with outrageous claims in them (stock image)
The whole internet is moving in this dictatorial direction under the guise of a ‘tailored’ service.
RULE THE WORLD… WITH FACEBOOK
McNamee believes Facebook may be the greatest ‘tool of persuasion’ ever invented: ‘Imagine what that means in the hands of a dictator . . . if you want to control the population of your country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.’
Conspiracy theories and disinformation are all part of the persuasive power of social media. It is claimed that in 2016, Russia used every major social media platform to try to influence the U.S. election in favour of Donald Trump.
McNamee claims that this sort of ‘persuasion’ fits in with Facebook’s business model: ‘The Russians didn’t hack Facebook . . . they used the tools that Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users and they applied it to a nefarious purpose.’ He compares it to ‘remote control warfare’.
U.S. businessman Roger McNamee was one of the earliest investors in Facebook and he believes that the social media platform may be the greatest ‘tool of persuasion’ ever (stock image)
Tristan Harris explains: ‘If I want to manipulate an election, I can now go into a conspiracy theory group on Facebook and find 100 people who believe the Earth is flat . . . and I can tell Facebook, “Give me a thousand users like that.” Facebook will happily oblige and I can now hit them with more conspiracy theories.’
Insiders warn that algorithms are becoming so expert that we’re absorbing their propaganda as if it were true. It’s as if we have less and less control over what we believe. And that spells disaster.
Still not convinced to put down your smartphone? As Jaron Lanier says: ‘If we go down the current status quo, for let’s say another 20 years, we’ll probably destroy our civilisation through wilful ignorance.’
Silicon Valley insiders protect their own families
I’m convinced the onus shouldn’t be on individuals to wean themselves off these intoxicating inventions — companies must take responsibility. But if you’re worrying about your own use — or that of your children — here are our insiders’ top tips:
- Turn off all notifications in your phone’s settings — they’re designed to hack your brain’s reward centre.
- Never watch videos recommended to you on your feed — if you do you’re falling into the clickbait trap and will see more and more.
- Before you share, fact-check any story against trusted news sources away from social media.
- Psychologist Jonathan Haidt recommends not using social media until age 16, to protect young minds from permanent changes.
- Work out a time budget and talk with your children, asking them how many hours they want to spend on their devices each day. You’ll be surprised at how reasonable their answer is. Then work hard with them to stick to it.
- VR pioneer Jaron Lanier takes a more hard-line approach: ‘Get out of the system, delete. The world’s beautiful … it’s great out there.’
The Social Dilemma is available now on Netflix