Molly Parks ’24 is an English and History double major from New Jersey. On campus, Molly is the Managing editor for The Flat Hat, serves as an OA, and is involved in club tennis and the social sorority Kappa Alpha Theta. Molly loves to run, write, drink green tea with honey, play with her dog, and is passionate about the importance of grassroots journalism. Email Molly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
It’s my first night out with my best friends from home who I haven’t seen in four months. The four of us sit down at our Central Taco and Tequila outdoor table, eager to pick up where we left off in January. Jill reminds us that the last time we were together making dinner, we nearly burnt down her aunt’s kitchen with our pizza-making culinary skills. Ella tells a story about her painful econometrics class that sparks another round of belly laughter from the group. When Izzy asks if we’ve seen Grayson’s return to Instagram from his five-year hiatus, we all immediately flock to the app’s search bar on our phones. There is no way we would miss friend-requesting our group’s collective freshman year of high school crush. As we turn away from our screens laughing and smiling, I can’t help but be distracted by my Instagram explore page. Advertisements for Sami Clarke’s workout platform, Sanne Vloet’s newest reel titled “What I eat in a day as a model” and images of Keto diet plans flash across my screen. When our waitress approaches our table and asks for our order I say, “I’ll have the Avocado Crunch Salad, please”. As the waitress walks away and I settle in with my ice water, Ella turns to me. “Wait, you couldn’t wait to get the fish tacos; you always get them. What happened?” she asks. I look at her, then down at the table, “Changed my mind.”
Social media companies that use behavior modification advertising techniques strategically exploit the deep, psychological insecurities of their users in order to make more money. They do whatever it takes to keep you engaged for as long as possible so they can show you more advertisements from companies that are hand-picked for you by algorithms that use your data and scrolling habits to see which advertisements will keep you on their app. The longer your eyes are glued to your Instagram feed, the more Instagram stories you watch, the more money Instagram makes through third-party advertisers and the more the algorithm is fine-tuned to grab your attention.
We often have the misconception that we are the consumers in our interactions with social media companies. We are not. But we are also not exactly the product, although we are being sold to third-party advertisers. When companies profit off a product, they do their best to ensure that said product is in good condition for its consumers. Yankee Candle, for example, would not sell a candle to consumers that was cracked or had a broken wick. We are not the product because, as long as we are malleable to their interests, these companies do not care about our well-being. They do not care about our psychological, emotional, or physical state. What we become when we sign up for these platforms is free raw material that these companies drain and exploit for their own personal accumulation of wealth.
Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff argues this concept in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. In a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Zuboff explains the purpose of her book and the harvesting of individual human data through these digital platforms.
“These data are then combined with advanced computational abilities to create predictions, predictions of what we will do, predictions of our behavior, predictions of what we will do now, soon and later,” Zuboff said. “And these predictions are then sold to business customers in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. This was first invented in the context of online targeted advertising at Google back in 2001 in the teeth of financial emergency during the dot-com bust. But this same economic logic has now traveled not only from Google to Facebook and throughout the tech sector, but also through the normal economy into virtually every economic sector.”
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains the pervasive threat of surveillance capitalism that began in our digital social sectors now exists all around human life with smart speakers, doorbells, refrigerators and other invasive technologies. Zuboff offers eight definitions of “Surveillance Capitalism” at the beginning of her book. I have included three of the eight below that I see as most fitting for college students in the digital marketplace. (For more detail and depth on her research and conclusions, I highly recommend reading Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.)
“1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales,” Zuboff wrote.
“5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth,” Zuboff wrote.
“8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty,” Zuboff wrote.
So, why is this large-scale and complex economic system so important for us to understand as college students? Do you use your 15-minute-interval study breaks to sit on your phone in Swem rather than go outside in the fresh air? Do you look forward to the next time you get dressed up to go out with friends so you can take a cute Snapchat photo? Do you compile your semesters into photo-dumps on Instagram that take you hours to strategically prepare? I know I’m guilty of these things. The successes of social media companies make it clear that there are many more users like me. It has become part of our digital culture, and third-party advertisers and social media moguls are thrilled, because the more time we spend on their apps the more personal data and money we are willingly giving them.
As part of the Generation Z college student population, we are at a ripe age for social media algorithms that harp on issues of political extremism, diet culture, conspiracy theories, toxic masculinity, white supremacy and professional comparison culture, just to name a few. As we grow into who we are intellectually, physically and emotionally in this new digital adult world, many of us are vulnerable to subconscious manipulation about these topics through the constant stream of our social media algorithms. Third-party advertisers can and do feed into our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities, exploit them to hook our attention, get our screen time up, and collect more of our data to ultimately feed artificial intelligence and make more money.
American computer scientist, author and silicon valley insider Jared Lanier writes about this third-party manipulation in his book Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He explains that the scary part about people’s individual algorithms is that through the advertising realm, these social media companies do not always know who is advertising on your feed and manipulating you.
“But, despite in some ways knowing more about you than you know about yourself, the companies don’t always know the identities of the advertisers, the parties who are benefiting from manipulating you. Tech company lawyers have testified under oath that the companies couldn’t have known when Russian intelligence services sought to disrupt elections or foment divisions to weaken societies, for instance,” Lanier wrote on page 25, referencing an Oct. 2017 Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election via social media.
I know, personally, that once you begin down a social media rabbit hole, like the diet culture algorithm, it is quite difficult to remove these advertisements and posts from your feed. As I am still learning to develop and mature as an adult in college, these habits and ideologies are entering my subconscious from simply seeing posts about dieting so often on my feed.
The more time we are seduced into spending on social media, the more our mental and physical health can decline. Lanier uses the acronym BUMMER, meaning “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent”, to describe the social media companies that participate in the mass manipulation machine. He argues in his book that the more we use these BUMMER social media companies, the more control we lose over our own volition and will, the less empathetic we become, the less value we place on truth and honesty and the more valuable time we lose as human beings.
As a college student in 2022, these effects are most obviously manifested in our politics. We see buzz-word politicians using heinous rhetoric to try and say something controversial enough to go viral on Tik-Tok and get more air time. Our individual algorithms also confirm and deepen our political biases, as companies mainly only show us videos that keep us engaged longer – and these are often videos we agree with, or more extreme versions of ideas we agree with to catch our attention. However, this lack of empathy or value for truth is not just affecting our politics, I believe it’s also deeply affecting our interpersonal relationships and community structure.
Many people cannot make it through a dinner without scrolling on their Instagram feeds or checking Facebook. People have blurred the line between Snapchat friends and real-life, genuine friendships. Our communities are becoming more and more digital, as many people would rather communicate online with their Instagram followers than in person with their next-door neighbors.
I believe we are not only surrendering our privacy to these manipulative social media companies and the overall system of surveillance capitalism, we are endangering those ideals that make us human: real-life connection with others, empathy, truth and free will.
I will leave you readers with a lengthy, but insightful quote from social media software programmer and entrepreneur Justin Rosenstein. He explained this in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, and it greatly helped me frame my perspective on this issue.
“We live in a world in which a tree is worth more, financially, dead than alive, in a world in which a whale is worth more dead than alive. For so long as our economy works in that way and corporations go unregulated, they’re going to continue to destroy trees, to kill whales, to mine the earth, and to continue to pull oil out of the ground, even though we know it is destroying the planet and we know that it’s going to leave a worse world for future generations. This is short-term thinking based on this religion of profit at all costs, as if somehow, magically, each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result. This has been affecting the environment for a long time. What’s frightening, and what hopefully is the last straw that will make us wake up as a civilization to how flawed this theory has been in the first place, is to see that now we’re the tree, we’re the whale. Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we’re spending that time living our life in a rich way. And so, we’re seeing the results of that. We’re seeing corporations using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention toward the things they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives,” Rosenstein said.
As Soshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Jared Lanier addresses in Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, these technological forces CAN function without the behavior-modifying, surveillance capitalist practices it currently uses. For now, however, as long as these platforms are dealing in this marketplace, I am challenging myself to take consistent breaks from, deactivate, or delete my social media accounts. I invite you to join me.
Let’s take the necessary steps to regain our active human lives by retiring from social media platforms, together. Next time I sit down at Central Taco and Tequila, I can order the fish tacos, free from manipulative social media feeds.
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