Social Media Has Hijacked Our Brains and Threatens Global Democracy
The ‘social media revolution’ gave us Donald Trump and Brexit—and is making politics impossible.
Image: Shutterstock / Remix: Jason Koebler
David Golumbia is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches digital studies and theory.
The so-called social media revolution isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sites like Twitter and Facebook exacerbate emotions like outrage and fear—and don’t help democracy flourish.
Nearly a decade ago, particularly from 2009 through about 2011, commentators crowed about something called the “Facebook revolution, the “Twitter revolution” or simply the “social media revolution.” They were often unclear about what that revolution was. But whatever it was supposed to be, it involved social media and it was happening everywhere, or at least everywhere that wasn’t the west: Iran, Moldova, Tunisia, Egypt, as well throughout the Middle East, via what was dubbed the “Arab Spring.” (Interestingly, the current Iranian protests appear to be happening despite the government reportedly blocking many social media sites and messaging apps, and without the triumphalist technology commentaries we saw in 2009.)
Because of the advent of social media, the story seemed to go, tyrants would fall and democracy would rule. Social media communications were supposed to translate into a political revolution, even though we don’t necessarily agree on what a positive revolution would look like. The process is overtly emotional: The outrage felt translates directly, thanks to the magic of social media, into a “rebellion” that becomes democratic governance.
But social media has not helped these revolutions turn into lasting democracies. Social media speaks directly to the most reactive, least reflective parts of our minds, demanding we pay attention even when our calmer selves might tell us not to. It is no surprise that this form of media is especially effective at promoting hate, white supremacy, and public humiliation.
One of the reasons that social media is so powerful for propagandists is that they are able to leverage the vast amounts of data that platforms like Facebook collect, and then weaponize it using psychological targeting techniques
Social media too easily bypasses the rational or at least reasonable parts of our minds, on which a democratic public sphere depends. It speaks instead to the emotional, reactive, quick-fix parts of us, that are satisfied by images and clicks that look pleasing, that feed our egos, and that make us think we are heroic. But too often these feelings come at the expense of the deep thinking, planning, and interaction that democratic politics are built from. This doesn’t mean reasoned debate can’t happen online; of course it can and does. It means that there is a strong tendency—what media and technology researchers call an “affordance”—away from dispassionate debate and toward strong emotions.
On February 11, 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek resigned, ex-Google marketing executive and activist Wael Ghonim famously said: “A lot of this revolution started on Facebook. If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them internet.”
Yet in February 2016, to much less fanfare, while promoting a project called Parlio that eventually merged into Quora, Ghonim expressed reservations about his original claims. While he still believes that “social media is redistributing political power,” he now worries that “the power to develop networks, organize actions and exchange information at scale in a short period of time” can have “a drastic impact on civic life—positive or negative.”
While he sees them as separate, I am suggesting that what Ghonim calls the “never-ending popularity contest” of social media is in large part the same phenomenon that led to the failed political aspirations of the Arab Spring.
Consider for example whether the election of Donald Trump, and the United Kingdom referendum to exit the European Union (so-called “Brexit”) deserve to also be called social media revolutions. They capture in elegant form exactly what some have always believed to be the likely societal impact of social media: The replacement of other forms of political media, such as television, newspapers, and radio.
The 2016 elections represent the marshalling of emotional, reactive, “me-first” politics over the rational and considered deliberation that are at the heart of democratic governance. Almost every day, news stories are published further detailing how social media platforms were used to spread propaganda and manipulate the 2016 Trump and Brexit elections.
One of the reasons that social media is so powerful for propagandists is that they are able to leverage the vast amounts of data that platforms like Facebook collect, and then weaponize it using psychological targeting techniques. Data analysts are able to “nudge” individual behaviors based on data points as apparently innocuous as “liking” a particular brand of cosmetics.
One way social media often exploits our most simple emotions can be found in two 2007-2008 meetings between Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Thaler and many of the most powerful people in tech, who are discussed briefly in Jamie Bartlett’s recent BBC documentary Secrets of Silicon Valley.
Many scholars have argued that the world has grown less democratic since the internet was introduced. It is important at least to consider the possibility that these things are connected
In 2007 and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a class in “Thinking, About Thinking” to a powerful group of executives from companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia Microsoft, and Amazon (he also gave another talk about “Thinking, Fast and Slow” at Google in 2011). Kahneman is well known for bringing public awareness to the distinction between so-called “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. System 2 is good old fashioned, actual, “slow” thinking, it’s “effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.” System 2 is the kind of rational cogitation we like to imagine we do all the time. System 1 is “fast” thinking, fight or flight, “automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.”
Facebook and Twitter are built on System 1, as is most social media. That’s why so many tech executives were at those master classes. And that’s what they learned there: How to craft media that talks to System 1 and bypasses System 2. You don’t have to look far to see digital technology developers recommending that their products speak exclusively to System 1.
Social media “primes” us—it asks us to throw System 1 thinking at issues that we know we should use System 2 for. It’s been that way from the beginning. Zuckerberg’s precursor to Facebook, the Harvard version of “hot or not” called Facemash, certainly exploited System 1, and Facebook’s News Feed does the same today. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, stated this clearly in a November 9 interview with Mike Allen of Axios: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ...was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”
Parker went on: “It's a social-validation feedback loop...exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” In the same month, former Facebook VP for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya stated in a talk at Stanford that social media companies “have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
James Williams, a former Google advertising executive, wrote that social media and digital technologies are “designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own.”
Parker and Palihapitiya are not alone in making these observations. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early stage investor in both Google and Facebook, wrote in an op-ed recently that these companies “have consciously combined persuasive techniques developed by propagandists and the gambling industry with technology in ways that threaten public health and democracy.” In a CNN op-ed, two criminal justice experts stated that “social media has transformed stories that might have been dismissed as conspiracy theories into what some tout as conventional wisdom” and that “For the once anonymous extremist, the appeal of quantifiable social status... is too great.”
In late 2016, an international award called the Nine Dots Prize, established in part by Cambridge University, solicited for entries to its inaugural competition. The judges were looking for answers to the question “Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?” The winner, James Williams, a former Google advertising executive, wrote that social media and digital technologies are “designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own.” In a recent interview with The Guardian he went further and stated that “the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” Williams is among a small group of former Silicon Valley workers who participated in building technologies whose purpose they themselves describe as “hijacking our minds.”
Summarizing academic research from as long ago as 2008, Knight-Mozilla Fellow Sonya Song wrote in 2013 that although “people constantly switch between fast and slow thinking modes...on social media, people are mostly guided by the fast mode.” Recent books by Natasha Dow-Schüll (Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, 2013) and Adam Alter (Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, 2017) detail the social media industry’s deliberate use of mind-hijacking techniques. And pediatrician Robert Lustig goes further in explaining how these techniques work in his book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains (2017).
Far too many of us have implicitly believed technology would solely be a force for good. But there is almost no reason to think this is true. Many scholars have argued that the world has grown less democratic since the internet was introduced. It is important at least to consider the possibility that these things are connected: That the internet’s democratic promise isn’t what it seems.
The gadgets we use and the social media we engage with are all designed to compel our attention by short-circuiting the more considered aspects of our brains. Why should we imagine that this short-circuit leads to more democracy, when world history shows that System 1 thinking, at least when not tempered by its complement, leads to authoritarianism and violence?
Those who celebrated the Facebook revolution and the Twitter revolution were celebrating the replacement of (relatively) calm reflection with the politics of reactivity and passion. This domination of System 2 by System 1 thinking is the real social media “revolution.” The question that remains is whether democracies have both the will, and the means to bring considered thought back to politics, or, whether digital technology has made politics impossible.