Studies tell us that Facebook causes depression. Those intimately involved in creating the platform, from vice presidents to even its first CEO, now claim it was built to addict its user base through “dopamine-driven feedback loops.” And it’s no secret that Facebook’s business model is almost exclusively based on selling user data to third parties. To put it simply: when it comes to Facebook and other “social” media platforms, we are the product.
So why do so many people, myself included, keep using social media feeds to get their news?
I’d imagine that a lot of us use Facebook because of its addictive qualities. Who doesn’t want short term gratification at the tip of their fingers? Who wouldn’t dream of a never ending supply of things to see and likes to like? A list of all of our real friends and fake friends, and shows, and musicians, and obscure corners of the web we managed to hoard for our private viewing pleasure? We want that, right?
Sure, we can make excuses that our friends are on Facebook and we’d “miss too much” if we delete our accounts, but who are we kidding? We don’t need Facebook messenger to keep up with anyone; if there’s an event worth attending, we will probably find it outside of Facebook’s bubble.
What we are dealing with is not the fear and inconvenience of deleting Facebook, but the fear and inconvenience of facing reality as it is, because a reality in which our President is, let’s say, a racist-whisperer, isn’t much fun to live in. So we find refuge in the spectacle of social media where at least we have our profile pictures, and background pictures, and opinions, and blue checks, and the biggest one of them all—a wall where…something…cares about what we think.
Does it matter if the “something” facilitating this “social” interaction is an algorithm that funnels our fears and desires back to us through psychological profiling and product marketing? We are all willing to ignore our self-commercialization as we get the daily dopamine hit and shot of “progress.”
We also know that Facebook will not be forever. No matter how much “innovation” and PR Facebook exerts on the public to prove its worthiness, it will eventually run out of ways to bamboozle the next generation of users. This is already happening—as older folks embrace the platform, younger people are ditching it for Snapchat, Instagram, and other “cooler” options. Unfortunately, those options are owned and influenced by the same or similar interests. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for an astounding one billion dollars.
But hey, there are pretty pictures and videos in those other social media places so they can’t be as bad as Facebook, right?
Clearly, another social media platform won’t save us from our feed-scrolling addictions, because we can’t keep on delegating to technology what is fundamentally a human problem. To denounce the propaganda machines that sell our data under the guise of being social we have to trace how we, the public, let such platforms infiltrate our lives and culture on a daily basis.
Some methods such as addiction and psychological manipulation are baked into such platforms. Being open about our social media use can help us get a grip on the sources of our problem (in the form of destructive habits and self-deception) and guide us toward possible solutions, such as reading books, going outside, and embracing our “hear and now” reality.
Another way to reflect on social media is to view it as a manifestation of capitalism. If addiction is the black box of our catastrophic mass addiction to social media, then capitalism is the plane’s failing propellers. Yet, virtually all organizations you support pay someone to generate and disseminate social media content as part of their job. These employees use the same techniques as any big corporation to reach the public—they put money behind content so it can reach a wider audience.
This is how, by dedicating money and “human resources” to produce social media content, organizations, many of which you probably support, are literally funding platforms like Facebook through ad revenue.
This is how capitalism and addiction work hand-in-hand when it comes to social media. On one hand, marketing employees are tasked with getting “results” by promoting products and collecting donations; on the other, addicted users continue to log in and out of their feeds and consume information presented to them by the business with the largest marketing budget.
Similarly to any drug-selling operation, the real winners in this game are the sellers—those who probably don’t even use social media, but benefit from the exploitation built into social media platforms. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that, according to a 2018 study by a group of researchers from New York University, Trump is the biggest spender of political ads on Facebook. As reaching voters through social media becomes one of the most effective ways “to get a message out,” the weaponization of platforms like Facebook and Twitter as vehicles for political propaganda and brainwashing will become ever so evident.
“We cannot have a society where when two people wish to communicate, the only way it can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them,” says Jaron Lanier, a computer science philosopher who proposes we pay for Facebook and Google in order to promote quality content instead of junk marketing. Perhaps that’s an option.
Or maybe someone will come up with a more authentic way of communication which doesn’t conflate public interest with that of the corporate state. What would happen if we used technology for the advantage of the many and not the few? Perhaps, then, platforms like Facebook will be significant only in terms of their value as case studies in human greed and shortsightedness.