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Eat the Doughnut: Why Social Media Threatens Democracy

Social media creates addicts—and that poses a real political danger.

American flag
Source: DWilliams/Pixabay

Earlier this week, US Democratic Senator Blumenthal warned that "our democracy is under attack" following the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a move widely thought to be an attack on the Mueller investigation. Later that week, a video doctored by the right-wing site Infowars was circulated by the White House Administration alongside a false accusation of assault by CNN journalist Jim Acosta. The allegation was used as a basis to recall Acosta's press pass.

Blumenthal’s sentiment is not sensationalistic. In truth, it lags far behind the warnings of many major Silicon Valley players, who have been warning of this danger to democracy for some time.

Not as Free as We Think

Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and Google, warned that social media constitutes “ a menace to public health and democracy ”, partly as it promotes addiction and because it has played a major role in facilitating destabilizing political propaganda. He stated that the platforms now terrify him . Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and social media critic, similarly explained how Facebook algorithms push users toward outrage-based political content that pushes our primal buttons, commenting that ‘ All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are ’. In other words, “ Outrage just spreads faster than something that’s not outrage .”

These concerns hold up; in a nod to the current American political era, researchers of a recent social media political study concluded that ‘ Twitter breeds dark, degrading, and dehumanizing discourse; it breeds vitriol and violence; in short, it breeds Donald Trump’.

Lizard Brains and Political Campaigns

Facebook investor Roger MacNamee explained well how tech addiction, social media use, and right-wing populist content emboldened each other: “ Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger. And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment .” Former Vice President of Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya voiced his guilt in helping to develop a system that explicitly sought to make users addicts and in then indulging this lizard brain response, pushing users toward fear and anger-based sensationalized content: ' The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works ’.

Human Brain
Source: VSRao/Pixabay

A Degraded Democracy

Populism has been referred to as ‘ a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals ’ offering little more than a fantasy or seductive metapolitical illusion. But it is a hugely profitable fantasy, and one that came at a time when new Internet revenue streams had been difficult to find; there are now, for example, 3.6 billion Internet users globally, surpassing half the world’s population, but new growth has become harder to find, with 0% new smartphone unit shipment growth in 2017.

That new growth was pushed exponentially by a right-wing populist juggernaut, spawning a hugely profitable grey market in clickbait and fake news-friendly services. One of many is the ‘Boryou Public Opinion Influencing System’, for example, which can post manually and/or automatically at a rate of 100 posts per minute to around 30,000 websites.

Companies such as 118t Negative News or Weberaser offer quick removal of offending web content, whilst click farms like Weibosu can flood online polls with thousands of votes. Russian firm Siguldin can reportedly manipulate voters, competition and polls as a means of influencing public opinion: ‘ Siguldin markets itself as being capable of manipulating almost any voting system on the Internet’ . Many providers run as many as 10,000 devices simultaneously. VTope, a Russian crowdsourcing company, leverages around 2 million memberships to offer real-life posts and activity for a client in exchange for credits and other incentives.

Source: AJEL/Pixabay
Source: AJEL/Pixabay

The Entertainment Effect: Eat the Doughnut

8.4m voters who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. A major instant regret factor emerged afterward—amongst this 8.4m, post-election disapproval of Trump was twice as high than for any other voter. This might be the ‘eat the doughnut’ effect: voters clearly could not swing that far ideologically so quickly, so were more likely temporarily moved by the seduction, excitement, and sensationalism of dopamine-infused last-minute online populist appeals .

Tech critic Tristan Harris explains that social media works by seducing users into exciting short-term fixes—not necessarily healthy choices—as a means of keeping them hooked, recalling that: ‘ People in tech will say, “You told me, when I asked you what you wanted, that you wanted to go to the gym. That’s what you said. But then I handed you a box of doughnuts and you went for the doughnuts, so that must be what you really wanted.” It is easy to see why the market for last-minute micro-targeted political appeals to swing voters is so profitable.

Chutzpah & Testosterone

Who knew that all it would take to make progress was vision, chutzpah and some testosterone? ’ asked Trump voter Steven Sanabria, in a letter featured in a New York Times Op-Ed . That who turned out to be Silicon Valley, and a whole raft of populist politicians, political consultants, and a huge global grey market. As stated by political scientist Drew Westen, dopamine reward circuits ‘ overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix”, giving new meaning to the term political junkie ’.

By turning voters into junkies, and by repackaging politics as entertainment, social media giants have pulled off an impressive and highly profitable coup d’etat; pro-democracy campaigners now need to tame the technological beast if they do not want it to become an even greater threat to democracy than it already poses today.