October 3, 2020

Today’s Hidden Persuaders: Goodbye Facebook, Twitter, Et al.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Yes, I’m quitting.

Today’s social media makes “The Hidden Persuaders,” Vance Packard’s 1957 best-selling expose of surreptitious efforts to influence unsuspecting consumers, seem like kindergarten tomfoolery.

Watching the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” convinced me to do what I had been contemplating for quite some time. For too many of the 233 million social media users in the United States and an estimated 3.6 billion worldwide, social media has metamorphosed from a once trendy and effective way for friends and family to keep in touch to a, too often for too many, insidious, mega-data-driven manipulative intrusion machine, or worse. I personally no longer want to be a part of it.

I haven’t come to this decision quickly. Social media has been an effective medium for me to introduce my books to a broad public as well as this weekly series of on-line essays that I have been writing for over ten years. Even more important, working with several non-profits, as I do, I recognize that it is virtually (no pun intended) the most effective way to communicate with the kids and adults we serve who are entrenched social network users. I recognize that it is often the only practical way a social-service organization can communicate with kids and many adults. I do not, for a moment, discount the enormous benefit the internet provides to business, to students, and the general public, young and old alike.

Nonetheless, in far too many instances, social media negatives too often outweigh the positives—and the malevolent far too often overshadows the benevolent. So, personally, I’m done. I’ll rely solely on email to distribute these OF Thee I Sing 1776 commentaries to subscribers.

The Social Dilemma now streaming on Netflix consists mostly of conversations with many early social media pioneers, executives, and investors who are, today, recoiling at what they helped create. Other important voices also discuss the social media phenomenon. Among the early social media pioneers and executives are Tim Kendall, former President of Pinterest and Director of Monetization at Facebook; Justin Rosenstein, Facebook engineer, and creator of Facebook’s “Like” button; Jeff Seibert, former Twitter executive; Bailey Richardson, early Twitter executive; Alex Roetter, former Senior Vice President for Engineering at Twitter. Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube and former CEO at Intuitive AI; Lynn Fox, former director of corporate communications at Apple, Dr. Anna Lembke, Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, several other former Silicon Valley executives, and several academicians.

Many people assume that keeping in touch, sending and receiving photographs and trading stories and holiday and birthday greetings are why most social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram exist. But that isn’t so; not anymore. Being able to keep in touch with family and friends, and send and receive photographs and share news and experiences is simply bait to snag users. These are the services social media provides in order to accumulate an incredible amount of information about you and millions like you.

Social media does that in order to sell that information about you to people who want to sell products, services, and, perhaps, most troubling, “sell” political ideas and outrageous and dangerous conspiracy theories to you and tens of millions of others. Social media has become manna from heaven for trolls and malevolent individuals, groups, and nations hostile to America that want to sow discord and confusion in America.

Machine Learning:

To these gigantic social-media companies, you and I, and hundreds of millions like us, are simply data-generating sources for data-accumulating supercomputers. These machines are powered with machine-learning programs that enable them to automatically learn and continuously refine and expand what they learn about, well, you and me.

Machine learning does not refer to what we can learn from machines, but, instead, what these machines learn about us. These machines are now programmed to self-adjust, continually refine their capability, and teach themselves more and more about you and me. Everywhere you visit as a social network member or user becomes a data point about you. The time you spend on a given message also becomes a series of data points. These machines not only learn what your interests are but even the intensity of your interests based on how long you linger on a given message or site. If, for example, you seem interested in or merely concerned about, say, civil disturbances, that interest or concern will shape the messages you will begin receiving from those who wish to exploit that interest or concern. The “news” you receive on social media can and will be tailored to exploit those concerns by those who are willing to pay to exploit them.

Is There a Correlation Between the Rise of Social Media and Teen Depression and Suicide?

Yes, there is a correlation between excessive teen use of social media and depression and suicide. However, I hasten to add that correlation and causation are not, necessarily, the same thing. But, is there cause to be concerned? You bet.

To many users, especially young users, their sense of belonging or acceptance or popularity is greatly influenced by the messaging they receive or observe on social media. According to a recent report published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%. The increases were nearly as steep among those ages 12 to 13 (47%) and 18 to 21 (46%), and rates roughly doubled among those ages 20 to 21.

In 2017—the latest year for which federal data are available—more than one in eight Americans ages 12 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode. Interestingly, and, perhaps, only coincidentally, the onset of this trend (2009) corresponds, exactly with the year Facebook activated its “Like” button and its FriendFeed. It was also the first year Facebook became cash-flow positive. Is that, possibly, just a coincidence? Definitely. Should we be concerned? Definitely.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  A recent CDC study found that teen suicide spiked (56% from 2007 to 2017) during social media’s meteoric rise. Purely coincidental? Perhaps. Cause for concern? For me, a lot more than perhaps.

I recognize that if social media is a problem, it is, and can be, equally an excellent tool for problem-solving. Great information is also exchanged and disseminated on social media. However, what is of growing concern is the extent to which social media is being skillfully and negatively exploited.

Certainly, social media is here to stay. Hopefully, the positive will far outweigh the negative. For me, however, the pure junk, the deliberate, poisonous misinformation from both foreign and domestic sources, and the avalanche of political vitriol from the right and from the left are far too prevalent and, I believe, exceedingly unhealthy.

So, for now, I’m out…I’m done.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

Invite friends, family, and colleagues to receive “Of Thee I Sing 1776” online commentaries. Simply copy, paste, and email them this link— www.oftheeising1776.substack.com/subscribe  –and they can begin receiving these weekly essays every Sunday morning.

13 responses to “Today’s Hidden Persuaders: Goodbye Facebook, Twitter, Et al.”

  1. susan duman says:

    I was done 2 years ago when I inadvertently got seduced into a scam that cost me 9k………through false information on Facebook messenger.
    Email and personal texts are satisfying and intentional.
    Thanks for this essay.

  2. Jerry Maltzman says:

    2007-2019. Are those not the years Obama was in office? Could that not influence the statistics as well?

  3. Response to Jerry Maltzman: Well, no. According to the CDC teenage suicide trends continued unabated through 2019, which, of course, encompasses three of the four Trump years. No data is available yet for 2020. Nice try, though.

  4. Steve Hardy says:

    I haven’t watched the documentary yet, but I listened to a long Sam Harris interview with Tristan Harris, a central figure in the Social Dilemma. Like many other topics today, we only hear about the adverse side effects and not the benefits. He discussed the crazy conspiracy theories found on YouTube but failed to mention the millions of educational and do it yourself videos. I have use Google daily for years and have never paid them a penny. Sure they use my information to target ads. Ads for products that I might find interesting. I suggest that Google, Facebook, etc. offer a subscription alternative to those concerned about their data privacy. My hunch is most would prefer the “free” service.
    I agree that social media has contributed to our current polarization. But maybe that has something to do with us and our reluctance for critical thinking and confirmation bias. I also suspect that what these smart tech guys want is to determine what we should and shouldn’t hear and see. That scares me.

  5. Jerry Kessler says:

    I start every Sunday reading your weekly report. On some occasions I am motivated to make a comment or extend a thought. Of late I hesitated to publish those thoughts as I fear the vituperative hate reaction of those who may disagree. I have often wondered if you were spared those concerns or if you had to endure hateful responses to your postings.

    Please continue what you do. Sundays wouldn’t be the same without you. Yours is a voice of reason.

  6. Steve Hardy says:

    Also, Instead of censoring social media content, there is a better way to let the market determine the fake from the real. Already we have sites like Snopes and FactCheck. As the demand for honest content increases, no doubt, we will get more.

  7. Perry Green says:

    Great essay to which I concur completely. The lack of
    in person social action and participation is also noted and
    it is inconceivable that people would post either intimate photos
    or stories is appalling at best.

  8. Barbara Fromm says:

    We watched The Social Dilemma, after Diane and Hal’s recommendation, it is an exceptional documentary. A great deal of information to learn and ultimately be concerned about for the future.
    Barbara and Bernie Fromm

  9. Steve Prover says:

    Response to Jerry Maltzman: Brilliant well researched observation… I urge you to post it on Facebook.

  10. Stuart Goldfine says:

    How does one know that Snopes or Fact Check are truthful and impartial? Who is behind them.
    I refuse to use Facebook because there are thousands of crazies out there and they disseminate lies and untruths and you cannot check every detail for the real truth.
    Twitter, Tweets, Google,Facebook, etc should be stopping this flow of garbage. Yes, we have the First Amendment, but this is simply falsehoods. No wonder we have so many teen suicides and drug use today. Youngsters are gullible and less educated than years ago. Textbooks matter!!

  11. James Fisher says:

    Hal – I just finished watching the Netflix program you recommended – what an eye-opener. I do not personally use all of the social media platforms mentioned therein – but my progeny does.

    I will stick to just email myself and, while I am generally opposed to governmental regulation, I trust that this program will influence enough courageous and innovative politicians to introduce legislation – not to control – but at least to curb – and foster complete transparency in these industries going forward.

    Thanks for such an edifying essay.

  12. Jan C Harnik says:

    Thank you Hal. The Social Dilemma provides important information. Its information that we should all have and be open to receiving with a critical thinking sieve. Understanding that what we read on social media is designed for each of us based upon our “data points”, with hope, will help us open our minds and forage out the complete picture and all the facts.
    I encourage everyone to watch The Social Dilemma.

  13. Julie Ballinger says:

    I believe we start with awareness of what is being done “to” us through our media platforms. Thank you for the recommendation and I hope it encourages all of us to share it forward as you have.

    I am also watching a docuseries called “Why We Hate” produced and available on the Discovery Network https://www.discovery.com/shows/why-we-hate . Again – I believe it is through awareness of our own vulnerabilities that we can choose what is best for us, our families, and our communities. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections – I also look forward to your weekly take on our world.

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