Some people have bad social-media addictions. You probably know them.
But is it possible that you yourself have a mild case of social-media addiction, that it has made you a little depressed, made you spend money in ways that weren’t in your interest, kept you from voting when you otherwise would have, erected a slight veil between you and other people in real life, or in other ways lessened your freedom and happiness, albeit slightly?
These are reasonable questions to ask. When Facebook is selling its services, it tends to brag about the awesome powers it can bring to bear, modifying the behavior of those who log in to it. (I’ve been at their presentations. My friends and I sold our biometric company Neven Vision to Google, and I’ve attended the sales meetings where tech pioneers present themselves to the biggest ad buyers. These are closed but lavish affairs that might include dance numbers and literal pyrotechnics.)
Facebook’s brags are justified. After all, its researchers have published peer-reviewed papers proving that they can make large numbers of people slightly sad, without those people having known it was being done to them.
Furthermore, Facebook’s own former executives have spoken openly about how their designs carefully dole out pleasant moments, when you are retweeted or friended, for instance, to leverage “dopamine hits” to foster addiction.
I have been a computer scientist for almost 40 years, studying the effects of computation on people, and I’ve seen how fast-rising negative emotions like sadness, anger and paranoia are more easily detected by algorithms. While positive emotions are as powerful in general, negative ones end up being amplified the most by the present designs. While positive emotions drive addiction, negative ones are more effective at manipulation.
Facebook can plan a scheme along the lines of, “If we target people who are financially stressed in certain ways when their bills are due, we can track in their subsequent behavior that we’ve stressed them out in a way that helps sell a product, repress a vote or whatever.” I made that example up, but that’s the nature of what Facebook can do. (It doesn’t, so far as we know, track individuals to compile how successful it’s been at manipulating a given person.)
Nor can you really track yourself. We know that Facebook’s design and its powers were leveraged by Russian information warfare units to repress certain voter groups in recent American elections. For instance, according to CNN, black voters were targeted with media experiences designed to make them cynical and less likely to vote. Voters couldn’t tell what was being done to them as it happened.
The only way to tell if social media has changed your moods and outlook is to quit social media. That means deleting all the Facebook-owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc., as well as, crucially, getting the company to delete your data on its end. It means only watching YouTube without a Google account, cookies or autoplay and constantly closing and opening a private browsing window so you must consciously search for videos instead of having them pushed at you by an algorithm that has a model of you and a goal for changing you. It means you’ll have to endure the disbelief and taunts of social-media addicts who lack the same courage to give up.
One of the most challenging tasks you can possibly take on is perceiving yourself honestly. Do it in private. It isn’t my business, or anyone else’s but yours. If you share your self-exploration, especially on social media, you’ll open yourself up to weird abuses and manipulations from a lot of people who are trying to avoid looking at themselves honestly.
After an exercise in giving up — try six months — you may decide to return to social media. Only you can know what’s best for you. But what you should do — must do — is be extra careful next time an election comes around or you’re about to make a purchase or agree to something. Is the more cranky, paranoid part of you what’s driving you? If so, please, for God’s sake, take a few more days off social media before you make your decision.
No one is free of addictions; I certainly don’t claim to be — while I’ve never had a Facebook account, I have issues with food. Opioid addiction is methodically pillaging rural America. But social-media addiction is unlike all other dependencies because it’s nearly universal. It’s more subtle and gradual and possibly even more sinister because at its heart is a scheme for computer-driven, sneaky mind control. It’s not just about getting your money; it’s about steering your character and behavior.
Ultimately you are the person who can do the most to help yourself. Awareness is the first step, then self-exploration and finally a plan of action to make your life more independent, free and honestly lived for you.