Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier details an online dystopia of propaganda and manipulation. He urges you to leave social media as a spur for it to change.
Don’t Be Exploited
Social media channels are a time sink. The urge to check and recheck your feeds can become compulsive to the point of addiction. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier argues convincingly that social media’s toxicity arises from its business model, which encourages advertisers to exploit user data in targeted, manipulative messages.
If, when you participate in online platforms, you notice a nasty thing inside yourself, an insecurity, a sense of low self-esteem, a yearning to lash out, to swat someone down, then leave that platform.Jaron Lanier
The longer you stay on Facebook or Twitter and their ilk, the more data such firms can harvest and sell to advertisers. And the longer you stay on, the more addictive these channels become; that’s the foundation of their design. Lanier argues that to spur change – and save your soul – you must delete your accounts.
Perpetual User Surveillance
Facebook and other social platforms conduct perpetual mass surveillance of users to compile gigantic amounts of data on your preferences, activities and relationships. Advertisers mine and exploit that data. Today’s universe of marketing, Lanier insists, is a mass “algorithmic behavior modification” program, enabled by your smartphone.
Hate groups and hostile foreign powers exploit data-driven algorithms to spread propaganda and disinformation. Legal regulations and industry self-policing won’t ameliorate these dangers because they don’t address the central, underlying problem: the data-centered profit model.
Social media companies provide user services for free and host paid advertising. This business model sprang from the philosophy of “free and open” software from the pre-network computing era. The “techie hippies” of that era believed all information should be free.
Your own views are soothingly reinforced, except when you are presented with the most irritating versions of opposing views, as calculated by algorithms.Jaron Lanier
Their model mirrored television and radio: selling advertising to support content. As the algorithms, networks and devices grew increasingly sophisticated, however, advertising mutated into large-scale manipulation.
When advertising supported free media, such as network television shows, advertisers had to present the same message to everyone. Digital advertisers, Lanier notes, can customize their messages to the emotions and desires of individual, specific consumers. Algorithms control exactly which content each user sees, that is, which content you see.
Social media algorithms measure the emotions various combinations of online stimuli evoke. They tweak user feeds and analyze user feedback, looking for stimuli that incite the most intense emotional responses.
The problem isn’t any particular technology, but the use of technology to manipulate people, to concentrate power in a way that is so nuts and creepy that it becomes a threat to the survival of civilization.Jaron Lanier
Lanier stretches the language to create his model: The “BUMMER machine”: “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.”
How that works lies in the way social media companies keep users coming back for more because their algorithms deliver small emotional rewards by manipulating “social pressure.”
Concern about what other people think influences real-world behavior. But the real world mitigates social effects. Social media’s unreal environment elevates social concerns to critical importance. These rewards prove effective because you can’t predict when another user will like or comment on your posts.
Negative reinforcement – punishments – encourage addictive behavior. Online punishment can be social rejection, ridicule or personal attacks.
Social networks more easily stimulate negative user emotions than positive ones. Making people angry, sad or paranoid turns out to be the most efficient way of promoting engagement.
Content is chosen and ads are customized to you, and you don’t know how much has been changed for you, or why.Jaron Lanier
Algorithms nurture user bias by prioritizing content that conforms to that bias. The algorithm offers alternative ideas only to provoke users’ annoyance. Because users lack a common source of information, neither side can find any explanation for the other’s views. Consider, for example, the mutual incomprehension between President Donald Trump’s supporters and his opponents. Each camp believes the other side has gone crazy.
After the Arab Spring uprising, observers predicted that social media could fuel uprisings against despotic governments. Other social movements found a foothold as well, for example, LGBTQ+ groups and the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized on social media. Such efforts usually go awry due to the algorithms’ tendency to pigeonhole people. When algorithms categorize activists, they turn their groups into targets for disinformation and threats, and that noise obscures their positive messages.
Bots and Fake People
Social media hosts fake people, bots, fake reviewers and fake followers. Bots post fake product reviews, gaming search-engine results and manufacturing buzz around news items or videos. Criminals popularize fringe ideas with memes and misinformation to propel dangerous delusions, such as the anti-vaccination movement.
You might think that you’ve never interacted with a fake person online, but you have, and with loads of them.Jaron Lanier
Legitimate news sources must tailor their stories to fit the algorithms’ selection criteria. Their headlines must use keywords that algorithms identify as generating a high impact. Tech firms seek to root out fake accounts, but they face conflicting incentives. Bot activity creates buzz about the social media sites themselves, which enhances user engagement.
To replace the BUMMER model, Lanier suggests companies could charge a low monthly fee for using a search engine or social media network, and pay users who contribute popular posts.
If you don’t quit, you are not creating the space in which Silicon Valley can act to improve itself.Jaron Lanier
Lanier insists that social media steals your free will; that it surveils and manipulates you; turns you into a nasty person; destroys the truth; leeches meaning out of anything you post; undermines your empathy; makes you unhappy; renders politics meaningless; and steals the spirituality from your soul.
A Sometimes Shocking Rant
Jaron Lanier’s report on social media reads almost like science fiction. The dystopia he presents thrives on surveillance, behavior modification and fake people spreading lies, propaganda and hate. This is a rant, and Lanier repeats himself and offers vague examples, but he does both with heartfelt passion. When he rants less, he offers a surprisingly clear description of how algorithms generate addiction and malaise. Lanier provides a provocative, sometimes shocking overview for social media users, emerging entrepreneurs and activists who seek to disrupt current practices. So, he says, to save yourself, disconnect!
Jaron Lanier also wrote Dawn of the New Everything; Who Owns the Future?; and You Are Not a Gadget.