Today, many celebrities are silencing their social media accounts to protest the monetization of hate speech for profit. The campaign, however, isn’t really taking off.
Despite the star power, the reasons the campaign is falling flat are obvious: 1) the vast majority of us depend on Facebook, Instagram, etc. for our social interactions (esp. in a pandemic), and 2) most people don’t understand how or why social media companies are promoting hate speech (think QAnon conspiracies, viral anti-semitism, misogynist groups, etc.) for profit.
Enter The Social Dilemma.
This Netflix documentary discusses and illustrates how the technology behind social media works. And it is terrifying.
First, the algorithms that control your feed and notifications are designed to maximize the amount of time you spend on the platform. So they’re only going to show you the people, content, and information that will keep you scrolling away. This is why I follow over 200 people on Instagram but only see posts from fewer than 50. It’s only showing me the people whose content I’ve interacted with.
Second, the algorithms know everything about you. Every one of us has had that moment where we’re sure our phone is listening to us because Facebook showed us an ad for a product that we’ve been thinking about buying. That’s not spy craft, it’s the clairvoyant power of the algorithm.
Third, how many times in the last five years has a friend, family member or colleague expressed a political opinion and you were like, “How can she believe that? Can’t she see how wrong that is?” Well, part of the answer may lie in her social media feed.
Imagine you click on a #Savethechildren video discussing child trafficking because you’re a parent, and it seems like an issue you should be concerned about. Facebook will now suggest more content that uses that hashtag. Pretty soon, you’ve watched dozens of videos about cabals of wealthy people who traffic children for sexual exploitation. You might be skeptical at first, but there are so many videos and articles all saying the same thing.
Then come the videos about how this cabal opposes the Border Wall because it will make children more expensive to traffic. Followed by the videos about Deep State conspiracies and underground tunnels transporting slaves cross-country. Then Facebook will suggest that you join groups where you’ll interact with thousands of people who believe exactly what you do.
Before long you’re a full QAnon believer, interacting primarily with other believers, consuming content that is showing you just one message. Of course you believe that it’s true, you’re not seeing any contrary information! But the algorithm that fed you all the #savethechildren content increased your time spent on the social media platform, where you consumed more ads that generated more money.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the algorithm could be programmed to do anything. Silicon Valley is run by some of the smartest people on the planet. If they wanted to make sure that you saw content covering both sides of a political issue, they could. If they wanted you to see every post from every friend chronologically, they could. But they don’t. Because if your feed is filled with content you don’t interact with, you might sign off. And if you sign off, they won’t get those sweet ad impressions.
The algorithmic process is elegant in its sociopathic pursuit of profit. And the algorithm doesn’t care if the messages it’s showing lead to genocide in Burma or Ethiopia. It doesn’t care if it feeds Russian-created disinformation into a U.S. election. Because the algorithm did its job; the promoters of that genocide and that disinformation bought ads and targeted them to the “right” people. And those ads created more content, that created more interactions, that generate more profit from ad impressions.
Facebook knows that its algorithm is killing people, and it just doesn’t care. It wants to put the onus on us to be good people, even when we’re bombarded with information that’s making us increasingly tribal and close-minded. But Facebook needs us to collect all of the data that it sells in order to make those ads profitable, so we have the power to make Facebook change.
Want to learn more about #StopHateforProfit? Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Then, visit the #StopHateforProfit website where they explain the myriad ways that Facebook and other tech platforms promote hate speech and conspiracies to maximize profits all while claiming that they’re blameless. And then swing by the Center for Humane Technology to learn why it doesn’t have to be this way.
I could post a bunch of recipes and Amazon finds in this post. But this is all I’ve been able to think about since I watched the documentary on Sunday. As someone who has the blue-checkmark on Instagram, runs seven Facebook groups and pages, and uses those platforms to grow my blog and business, it’s a lot to consider.
While having the Kardashians and DiCaprio posting about #Stophateforprofit helps, it’s not enough. Millions of us would have to simultaneously leave the platform for Facebook and social media companies to see that they need to change their ways. But when we’re relying on tech so heavily during this pandemic, we’re not likely to walk away.
We need government regulation to stop this from happening. So send a letter to your congressman and Senators. Encourage friends to do the same. Social media has the ability to destroy our democracy, we have to use that democracy to rein in their excesses before it’s too late.
P.S. Someone sent me this article from Hitha’s #FiveSmartReads, and it is just as damning as you’ve ever imagined. It goes into how a whistleblower is saying that Facebook is very aware that it’s platform is being used for political manipulation on a global scale.