Facebook is ruining your life
A quick look at the negative effects of social media on our society
Towards the dawn of the last Millenium, the Wachowski brothers created a cult sci-fi movie called the Matrix. The storyline centred around the idea of humans hooked to a machine which simulates their reality and harvests people for power. Of course, the idea seemed far fetched at the time.
Today, two decades later, every one of us is living in the matrix. We are hooked to social media for around 2 hours and 20 minutes per day, according to Hootsuite. The social algorithms feed us a distorted version of reality and harvest our time for money. If this sounds scary, have a seat because there’s much more.
First of all, social media works on Likes (or variants of it like hearts). Since being “liked” is a significant social stimulus, people go to great lengths. That is why photos portraying the perfect life of people litter our news feed. Of course, it is untrue that most people in my social circle spend their time on a luxury yacht eating caviar and sipping champaign. But the algorithm knows that these photos (especially the heavily edited ones) garner likes, so it promotes them further. The adverse effect of this is that it accentuates this fake lifestyle (which most people cannot afford) and makes one’s everyday life seem miserable (even if it isn’t).
Second, even the characteristics of the posts are artificial. One tends to find these keyboard warriors, that write neverending monologues with BIG CAPS. In real life, we do not communicate with monologues. Our dialogues focus on turn-taking between an argument and a counter-argument. So this monologue format makes a person think that he’s giving a speech, it gives them a false sense of importance and of achievement (because people like or share it). The irony of it all is that 6 out of 10 people just read the title and share it without even reading it!
Third, social media is like a megaphone which gives every Tom, Dick and Harry the ability to babble about anything. The issue here is not freedom of speech but rather the freedom of being ignorant (which shouldn’t even exist!). Of course, everyone can have an opinion, but opinions are acceptable when you’re talking about subjective matters. Like, whether it is a mortal sin to have a pizza with potato chips or not! But if we take the current Pandemic as an example, the existence of the COVID-19 virus shouldn’t even be questioned! Virologists with decades of experience from around the world can prove it. So no, spreading ignorance over social media is unacceptable!
Fourth, just because other people agree with one’s point of view doesn’t mean that one is right either. In the famous game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, it is quite common that the “Ask the Audience” helpline gives a wrong reply, especially after the 10th question. It occurs because widespread knowledge is not necessarily the truth. Take Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian astronomer; the Roman Inquisition sentenced him because he dared go against the accepted belief of the time even though it was wrong. Yet he was right! One can find a myriad of such theories on social media; the anti-vaxxers, the 5G conspiracy, the flat-earthers and the list can go on forever. The Facebook algorithm is aware of this, and since it is a mercenary for likes, it gradually creates echo chambers. The more it gets to know a person, the more it chooses posts from people who share the same sentiment. Thus these people validate each other’s ideas (by pressing like) and make one believe that they’re correct. Once again, it is all just an illusion!
Fifth, these echo chambers accentuate polarisation. Recent studies show that the difference between Democrats and Republicans grew in the past decade only because people are becoming more polarised. Thus, this leads to social unrest, similar to what the US has been experiencing in the past few months. People are so convinced about their myopic views (because the social media algorithm has nurtured them) that they are not capable of accepting contrasting views.
Sixth, many armchair critics have rebranded themselves as social activists. Most of these post comments, without even bothering to read the article they’re posting about. This fact came out from a recent study on Reddit, a social networking site, whereby 73% of posts received a rating without being read. Just because these people spend their time writing posts and replying to other people, doesn’t mean that they’re making any tangible contribution to society at large. At most, these keyboard worriers might be labelled as trolls, but nothing more than that. Let’s not forget that most of these comments have no tangible benefit, only follow a particular agenda and very few of them actually get read. Eventually, the algorithm will relegate them to the social dump of oblivion until they come back to hunt you. In fact, there have been several cases, where employees were rebuked or even fired for commenting on social media.
Seventh, the algorithm is biased towards the spread of false information. Fake stories spread six times faster than real news. The primary culprit for this spread are people who seem to prefer sharing phoney stories rather than real ones. However, once an article goes viral, the algorithm kicks in and starts sharing it too, further accentuating the damage. As if this wasn’t bad already, in many cases, Facebook gets paid to spread fake news, and Mark Zuckerberg is, of course, defiant about it because “people should be able to judge for themselves”. So Facebook is fine with feeding people fake news as long as they can make money out of it.
Eight, and maybe the worst part of it; social media is robbing us from living the moment. These social networking sites are addictive, aimed at hooking us to machines. Every colour used, every feature implemented is designed to make us go back and check the sites for the latest updates. It is not surprising that people everywhere regularly stare at their device rather than engaging in fruitful social conversations. Unfortunately, this is the game which social networking sites are playing. We have become the product, and the algorithm wants you to get hooked to the system so that the company can sell more adverts. The rise of digital slavery is upon us.
The scope behind this article is not to scare people off social media. But it shows how technology is, unfortunately, being used to bring out the worse in society. Because of this, it should be an eye-opener. Be careful about the photos you post online. Be truthful in your posts. Seek expert advise and ignore conspiracy theories. Fact-check what you read online. Open yourself to other viewpoints and accept the fact that people might have a different opinion. Read everything, pros and cons and then use your brain to decide what’s true or not. Do not share stuff which might be untrue or hurtful to others. Live the moment, take frequent tech-breaks and nurture the next generation to do so as well.
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Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.