Social media and the illusion of choice

Social media is changing collective human behavior so much that biologists have issued a warning.

Social media and the illusion of choice
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡¦ / Unsplash

If religion is the opium of the people, then the designer drug of choice of practically everyone in the postmodern world is social media.

Social media has become the most visible and widespread form of the collective hallucination that we call the internet. And while these web2 applications can be useful tools for communication, the problem is that for far too many people, social media has become a substitute for the real world, replacing instead of complementing real-world interactions while giving users the illusion of choice, influence, and power.

Risk to humanity

In fact, social media is changing collective human behavior so much that biologists have issued a warning.

In "Stewardship of global collective behavior", a paper published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 researchers across different fields said the study of technology's large-scale impact on society should be treated as a "crisis discipline". Here's an excerpt from the Recode interview with the paper's lead author Joe Bak-Coleman and co-author Carl Bergstrom.

"When I talk to people about social media, yes, there's a lot of concern, there's a lot of negativity, and then there's bias by being a parent as well. But the focus is often on the individual-level effects. So it's, 'My kids are developing negative issues around self-esteem because of the way that Instagram is structured to get 'Likes' for being perfect and showing more of your body.'
"But there's less talk about the entire large-scale structural changes that this is inducing. So what we're saying is, we really want people to look at the large-scale structural changes that these technologies are driving in society."

One of the problems pointed out in the paper is that social media content and behavior are guided by algorithms that most of us don't even understand, and which were designed for click-based advertising.

As the authors of the paper pointed out, they're not necessarily claiming that exposure to advertising is bad. But the problem is that these systems were designed by Big Tech to optimize transactions and facilitate the clicking of links and sharing of content β€” without taking into account the veracity of information, or the effects on human behavior.

Filtered by algorithms

The irony is that we keep worrying about a science fiction future where artificial intelligence (AI) will take over, just like the Terminator franchise's Skynet. When algorithms have already reshaped us and how we interact with the world and other people.

As serial tech entrepreneur Tyson McDowell says in his TEDxSantaBarbara talk:

"Here's the fundamental issue: the artificial intelligence that filters the internet for each of us, overwhelms us into rejecting our own humanity. And the humanity we reject is empathy, compassion, open-mindedness, and curiosity. And we reject it because AI has the power to make the world seem to agree with us even when it doesn't.
"AI systems like Google and Facebook and Alexa have this effect because they're predicting how we might think and then driving information to you filtered to fit the prediction. And it's so much easier to consume information that's driven to you than to search by your free will alone that you're very likely to accept whatever they send you verbatim. And everything from the internet's affected, from what friend to connect with, a piece of news, a social media post, a product to buy. It's all filtered by AI. So if you are digitally connected, AI is actively manipulating the majority of information that you see and heavily influencing the majority of people that you know."

In a world where social media masquerades as real life, it takes great strength and courage to resist.

Open your eyes. Take the red pill.