Today, many celebrities are silencing their social media accounts to protest the monetization of hate speech for profit. The campaign, however, isn’t really taking off.
Despite the star power, the reasons the campaign is falling flat are obvious: 1) the vast majority of us depend on Facebook, Instagram, etc. for our social interactions (esp. in a pandemic), and 2) most people don’t understand how or why social media companies are promoting hate speech (think QAnon conspiracies, viral anti-semitism, misogynist groups, etc.) for profit.
Enter The Social Dilemma.
This Netflix documentary discusses and illustrates how the technology behind social media works. And it is terrifying.
First, the algorithms that control your feed and notifications are designed to maximize the amount of time you spend on the platform. So they’re only going to show you the people, content, and information that will keep you scrolling away. This is why I follow over 200 people on Instagram but only see posts from fewer than 50. It’s only showing me the people whose content I’ve interacted with.
Second, the algorithms know everything about you. Every one of us has had that moment where we’re sure our phone is listening to us because Facebook showed us an ad for a product that we’ve been thinking about buying. That’s not spy craft, it’s the clairvoyant power of the algorithm.
Third, how many times in the last five years has a friend, family member or colleague expressed a political opinion and you were like, “How can she believe that? Can’t she see how wrong that is?” Well, part of the answer may lie in her social media feed.
Imagine you click on a #Savethechildren video discussing child trafficking because you’re a parent, and it seems like an issue you should be concerned about. Facebook will now suggest more content that uses that hashtag. Pretty soon, you’ve watched dozens of videos about cabals of wealthy people who traffic children for sexual exploitation. You might be skeptical at first, but there are so many videos and articles all saying the same thing.
Then come the videos about how this cabal opposes the Border Wall because it will make children more expensive to traffic. Followed by the videos about Deep State conspiracies and underground tunnels transporting slaves cross-country. Then Facebook will suggest that you join groups where you’ll interact with thousands of people who believe exactly what you do.
Before long you’re a full QAnon believer, interacting primarily with other believers, consuming content that is showing you just one message. Of course you believe that it’s true, you’re not seeing any contrary information! But the algorithm that fed you all the #savethechildren content increased your time spent on the social media platform, where you consumed more ads that generated more money.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the algorithm could be programmed to do anything. Silicon Valley is run by some of the smartest people on the planet. If they wanted to make sure that you saw content covering both sides of a political issue, they could. If they wanted you to see every post from every friend chronologically, they could. But they don’t. Because if your feed is filled with content you don’t interact with, you might sign off. And if you sign off, they won’t get those sweet ad impressions.
The algorithmic process is elegant in its sociopathic pursuit of profit. And the algorithm doesn’t care if the messages it’s showing lead to genocide in Burma or Ethiopia. It doesn’t care if it feeds Russian-created disinformation into a U.S. election. Because the algorithm did its job; the promoters of that genocide and that disinformation bought ads and targeted them to the “right” people. And those ads created more content, that created more interactions, that generate more profit from ad impressions.
Facebook knows that its algorithm is killing people, and it just doesn’t care. It wants to put the onus on us to be good people, even when we’re bombarded with information that’s making us increasingly tribal and close-minded. But Facebook needs us to collect all of the data that it sells in order to make those ads profitable, so we have the power to make Facebook change.
Want to learn more about #StopHateforProfit? Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Then, visit the #StopHateforProfit website where they explain the myriad ways that Facebook and other tech platforms promote hate speech and conspiracies to maximize profits all while claiming that they’re blameless. And then swing by the Center for Humane Technology to learn why it doesn’t have to be this way.
I could post a bunch of recipes and Amazon finds in this post. But this is all I’ve been able to think about since I watched the documentary on Sunday. As someone who has the blue-checkmark on Instagram, runs seven Facebook groups and pages, and uses those platforms to grow my blog and business, it’s a lot to consider.
While having the Kardashians and DiCaprio posting about #Stophateforprofit helps, it’s not enough. Millions of us would have to simultaneously leave the platform for Facebook and social media companies to see that they need to change their ways. But when we’re relying on tech so heavily during this pandemic, we’re not likely to walk away.
We need government regulation to stop this from happening. So send a letter to your congressman and Senators. Encourage friends to do the same. Social media has the ability to destroy our democracy, we have to use that democracy to rein in their excesses before it’s too late.
P.S. Someone sent me this article from Hitha’s #FiveSmartReads, and it is just as damning as you’ve ever imagined. It goes into how a whistleblower is saying that Facebook is very aware that it’s platform is being used for political manipulation on a global scale.
A commenter left this below and I thought it was so important that I wanted to add it to the post.
Thank you Abra for putting this out there, I really appreciate you using your platform
to speak out. I have been following your blog since My first job out of college and it’s been over ten years now.
I have so many thoughts on your post and for this community that I have been lucky to Be apart of but I am going to try to make them brief.
I am a founding member of a group called the Alliance to Counter Crime Online. We are forty experts in organized crime and criminal activity coming together to address crime on social media/the Internet. I also feel the need to say, no we are not QAnon believers and while we do talk about child trafficking and some of the trends our experts see, we also say wear a mask! .
The things happening in social media are absolutely terrifying. You are totally right, Facebook has everything from genocide to disinformation, from animal torture videos to ISIS selling antiquities to people selling Indigenous bones. And as pointed out in the movie, it is Facebook’s algorithms bringing these people together, creating silos for them to act, and in many cases providing payment systems and encrypted messaging.
I think the only way this stops is through legislation. We have already seen an appetite for CDA230 reform. From the first cutout of Sesta/Fosta to other draft legislation currently being kicked around. But we keep running into road blocks/misleading information shared by lobbyists or trade groups or non-profits all funded by google/Facebook/the like.
Most of the organizations, like mine, run entirely with volunteers or with minimal staff. Couple that with the fact that Google, Facebook, and the like are spending 4 times our annual budget on lobbyists each month. We are in a real David and Goliath situation.
If we want to change social media, disinformation to criminal activity, we need folks to act. Write your Congressional representatives, participate in black out days, and most importantly donate to the small guys fighting to make the Internet safe again. From AAVAZ to Tech Transparency to us at ACCO, we can all use your help!
Last two things, if you work on/near Cap Hill/lobbying and are interested in learning more or volunteering check us out. Also if you are interested learning more about Facebook and their PR playbook check out our new report: http://www.counteringcrime.org/timeline