By Angus Muir
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software” – Edward Tufte.
Have you ever sat down to get on with some work and feel a random urge to pick up your phone lying next you, just in case you’re missing out with what is happening with the rest of the world? Have you ever laid down on your bed or sofa “for 5 minutes” just to scroll through a couple of your feeds, and then suddenly 30 minutes later you awaken back into the real world following your daily hit of stories, tweets and Tiktoks, questioning what you have even been looking at?
I, like many, find myself in these sort of scenarios much too often, giving my life away to a 5-inch screen that always seems to need constant devotion. Yet, despite being fully aware of my actions, I don’t seem to mind it. I will happily sit and scroll in front of an ever-growing to do list, knowing full well that I could, and should, be using my time much more productively. Even when trying to write this article, I feel that reoccurring urge to pick up my phone to check back in with the world. So how have I got myself into this position where I feel the constant need to pick up my phone and scroll mindlessly?
Jeff Orlowski’s latest Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ explains just this. With interviews from various tech experts, such as the engineer behind the ‘Like’ button on Facebook and the former president of Pinterest, this documentary sheds light on the total control that social media has on our thoughts and actions, in a way that's completely different to any ‘advice’ I have heard from patronising teachers or parents in the past.
The experts go into detail about how the complex algorithms driving these apps keep us scrolling for more, as they inject a sense of FOMO if we fail to watch the next video on the timeline or click on that new story that just flashed up on the top of the screen. Each person’s feed is completely different, based firstly on who you are friends with or follow, but more interestingly on which content you seem to engage with most. Be it a 60 second makeup tutorial, or the top 10 goals of the season, we are constantly feeding data to these apps depending on how long we spend looking at the post, whether we like or share it, or if we simply scroll past and ignore it.
These innocent choices that we make every time we open up our apps unknowingly help to fuel our addiction to them. The algorithm draws more and more information on what we like and don’t like, and tailors our timelines accordingly, allowing us to fall victim to yet another rabbit hole of recommended YouTube videos and Instagram explore pages.
What’s so harmful about this? Well, the Netflix documentary explains how social media can create a false sense in individuals that everyone agrees with them because everyone on their news feed sounds just like them. It creates an echo chamber where our timelines only expose us to ideas that we already agree with as we engage more and more with certain content, filtering out the rest, which we have scrolled past. The danger in particular then originates from the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories, which according to an MIT study spreads 6 times quicker on Twitter than true stories. We therefore create a society whereby we fail to become objective and constructive individuals as we cannot separate the truth from the lies.
Take the recent chaos over the conspiracy theory that 5G radiation was associated with coronavirus symptoms. False links between Wuhan and its 5G network, and the secret messages about 5G in the design of the new £20 note, were among a few of the claims that were circulated widely on social media, leading to a series of arson attacks on the cell phone towers in the UK and the abuse of hundreds of a staff working on the infrastructure. And where did they get their ‘facts’ from? Researches from King’s College London found in an online survey that 60% of those that believed that Covid-19 symptoms were linked to 5G said that much of their information came from YouTube.
I think it is clear to see how these ‘innocent’ rabbit holes can quickly transform into something much more dangerous.
But social media doesn’t have to be this way. It can be an incredible platform for progressive movements, exciting entrepreneurs, and budding relationships, particularly in a time where we have been encouraged to move online. We have to begin by recognising that this is a real problem, and start to change how we use these apps if we are to have any chance of containing its dangers.
Below are few examples given by the tech experts of the documentary of some individual changes you can make: