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Social Media are Manipulating your Free Will

We should be in control of our own decisions—nobody else.


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Julien Dimastromatteo

3 years ago | 6 min read

Photo Montage Credit: Julien Dimastromatteo (Author); Inset from Jessica Ticozzelli on Pexels.

When the technology era began, society experienced important changes. Tools like social media platforms, i.e., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, … managed to gather people worldwide. They created promising and unprecedented opportunities.

We reconnected with old friends from kindergarten. Others reunited lost family members or found organs donors for their loved ones.

These revolutionary tools enabled many wonderful and meaningful societal things. No one would have ever imagined social media are manipulating your free will.

Behavior of Addiction

The number of smartphone users keeps increasing and will surpass 3 billion by the end of 2020. Such devices are omnipresent in our lives — it’s a fact.

After waking up, the first thing you do is looking at your smartphone for news feed and missing social media apps notifications.

Is it becoming a “normal” behavior? Is it still possible to have a technology-free wake-up routine? Such action reminds me of what heavy smokers do after waking up — They light a cigarette.

It reminds me also of what alcohol heavy drinkers do after waking up — They drink an alcoholic beverage. In other words, looking at the news feeds recommended by your smartphone’s apps after waking up reminds me of what addicted people do.

Insiders are Concerned

Lately, I watched “The Social Dilemma,” a Netflix documentary, and it blew my mind.

People are actually focused on the problem of free will manipulation by social media. Interestingly, concerns were not emanating from the general population.

It came from former social media executives, co-inventors, and engineers. It came from people who have been involved in social media companies.

They left because they felt like ethics were not taken into consideration as they should. If such people are worried about it, something must be sincerely wrong.

Centre of Humane Technology

Tristan Harbis, a former Google Media Designer and now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology rang the bell. He was the first professionals in the field to understand what was happening.

He narrated his job was to play with colors, fonts, and other details to make Gmail more appealing to users on mobile devices.

It worked so well that he became personally addicted to his emails and notifications. He was scrolling down and refreshing his inbox many times during the day, hoping something new appears.

He returned to his phone as soon as the red dot popped up in the app icon's top right corner.

The manipulation occurs when a small group of people is directing billions of others without transparency and consents.

Conscious of the danger of such behavior, he wondered whether the tech company was losing its way of serving people with helpful tools.

He then asked himself, should we, Google employees, do something to make it less addictive? He also asked his colleagues, “did you guys noticed a change of behavior as well?” Many acknowledged that they were impacted as well. Some of them even witnessed a change of behavior in their surroundings, including their children.

Social media are manipulating your free will.

Let’s take a step back and think about it. Never in tech companies' history, a small group of 30 years old engineers decided for more than 3 billion people worldwide.

These 3 billion individuals have thoughts they did not intend to have because this group of engineers said this is how notifications work.

It was no surprise that Tristan's question to his colleagues created a mini-revolution at Google HQ.

After all, they are still humans with an ethical consciousness. It was surprising that this revolution did not sustain and did not drive the executives to change their approach.

Social Media Business Model

In the past decades, the business models of tech companies took a different turn. Traditionally, Tech companies are selling products like desktops, laptops, software, or services to their customers, i.e., the general population.

Indeed, advertisers contributed as well to increase sales. Note that a software buyer is not a customer anymore; he/she is a “user.”

Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, …, the business model switched from selling the product to customers to selling their users. We, users, are now the product being sold to advertisers.

The advertisers are paying social media platforms to show ads to their users. We are the product; our attention is the product sold to the advertisers.

Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and founding father of virtual reality, would say the product is actually bigger than our attention. The product is “the slight change in our behavior and perspective.” It is changing what you do, how you think, therefore, who you are.

Let’s imagine the price advertisers are ready to pay for a proposal to change 3 billion individuals' behavior toward the advertiser’s interests. And yet, this is precisely what is going on.

To ensure such a change in behavior in the general population, to ensure monetizing, social media platforms are selling certainty to advertisers. In other words, they will sell the certitude of your clicks.

They will provide the advertisers that the users will see the ads and buy the proposed product.

Shoshana Zuboff, Ph.D., Harvard Business School Emeritus professor, authored the age of surveillance capitalism.

She said the success of this strategy comes with great predictions. This level of predictions can only be made based on a considerable amount of data.

Social Media is Collecting your Data

Everything we do on the internet is being tracked, measured, and monitored. Actions are recorded. Collected data became a commodity to reach profits. This is the foundation of surveillance capitalism.

How much time are we spending on a specific web page? Which photos have been looked at? And in which state of mood was we when it occurred?

All the data are implemented in self-improving algorithms thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence. Social media platforms are using these data to predict your actions with three main goals:

  • Engagement, or how to keep you scrolling.
  • Growth or how to keep you coming back.
  • Advertisement or how to make sure the two previous goals lead to monetizing.

Whoever has the best model wins.

Therefore, social media platforms are the perfect place to deliver content that will affect the way you perceive the world.

Social media have your undivided attention. Their algorithms will recommend information “just for you.” Your history of search, interests, paid advertisements, and the most popular info dictate your feed content. That is the danger.

The most popular information is most of the time unreliable. Its popularity is based on its ability to spread regardless of its veracity.

Fake news has been shown to spread 6 times faster than factual information. It has also been shown that 64% of all extremist group joins on Facebook were due to recommendation tools.

Fake news reads only once increases the risk of a reader thinking that it is true. In other words, fake news planters are spreading their own point of view. The fake news travel really fasts which emphasize our vulnerability to manipulation.

Get your Free Will back.

Can we still decide with free will is an everlasting debate.

The business model of social media platforms is clearly contributing to ease the manipulation of our free will for profit. Is it intended? This is a question for the justice department or ethics committees. But in the meantime, we can still recover a bit of free will by:

  • Diminishing the overall screen time, especially before bedtime. Give your brain some rest.
  • Choosing directly which newspapers and articles you’d like to read. Do not let the apps picked for you.
  • Turning off all notifications on your devices. It is ok to check what’s going on in the world when you choose to do it and not when your apps decide for you.

Try it, and you’ll be back to performing tasks with undivided attention.

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Julien Dimastromatteo

Doctor in Science | Entrepreneur | Writer | Founder of Open-Minded Elixir


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