In March 2018, Facebook announced they would no longer integrate with third-party data providers that enable marketers to create targeted audiences on its platform as a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Consequently, I wrote an article about this entitled Facebook’s Red Herring, because that is exactly what it was–a very artful distraction and attempt to deceive consumers into believing Facebook’s action was about addressing their privacy. But that is not what it was about.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was about data leaving Facebook and being used in ways that were not authorized by participants of the survey. The decision to dissolve third-party data partnerships is about data that goes into Facebook to segment audiences for relevant targeting. However, what consumers have not seen the same publicity on is that Facebook has modified their stance on third-party partnerships so their data can still be used. The point I made in my article is that Facebook demonized third-party data providers in the press by announcing their dissolution of partnerships while avoiding the same public scrutiny around the real reason for their action.
Marketers can still append third-party data, which is compiled by a vendor to provide context, to a customer or prospect outside of Facebook and then ‘onboard it’ for digital marketing. Marketers simply need to sign an agreement with an onboarding provider that includes Facebook’s new terms and conditions. They can then append third-party information to customer lists and create target groups, or they obtain prospect lists of their target groups from a third-party data provider. From there advertisers onboard that data and upload it via Campaign Manager to Facebook. Some onboarders such as LiveRamp have third-party data available in their platforms so prospect audiences can be created and pushed to Facebook without the need to purchase the prospect list with personally identifiable information (PII) from the third-party data provider.
Regardless of how the marketer goes about it, once data is onboarded or audiences are created in an onboarding platform, they can be activated (used for media purchase) on Facebook. Voilá – third party data is still being used on Facebook. Facebook’s move to divorce themselves from third-party data did not mean it couldn’t be used, they are just requiring an additional step that many marketers are already proficiently executing.
If you are unfamiliar with how consumer data onboarding works, here is a short explanation: Consumer data onboarders like LiveRamp, Neustar and Oracle move offline marketing lists containing PII such as CRM data, loyalty databases, prospecting lists, etc., to the online ecosystem and match or link (via a common identifier such as email address) to cookies and device IDs in a privacy-compliant manner. The reason this matching is considered privacy compliant is because consumer PII is anonymized. Marketers never receive which specific cookies and device IDs are associated with the consumer profile.
Sorry dear consumer, Facebook’s dissolution of third-party data partnerships continues to be a red herring and does not prevent such data from being used on their platform. Furthermore, Facebook continues to collect and store first-party data (i.e., owned by them) on you that advertisers can leverage for target audience creation; and they have those rights because it is buried in the required terms and conditions you consented to when your account was created.
So, while Facebook has demonized third-party data in the press right after the Cambridge Analytica scandal (even though completely unrelated to the latter’s dubious use), they have not prevented its use. Frankly, I find Facebook’s use of first-party data and passive surveillance via their pixel on other websites resulting in those creepy retargeting advertisements much more intrusive then my being a member of a target audience based on my demographics and other modeled assumptions.
Consumer trust is the new “oil” in today’s data economy, and it requires more than lip service. Perhaps it is time for Facebook to figure that out.
Americans tend to think that fake news has little impact on them — but a large impact on their political rivals, according to a study recently published in Computers in Human Behavior.
“There has been a growing concern that fake news may cause confusion in the fact-checking process and eventually undermine an informed citizenry,” remarked study author S. Mo Jang of the University of South Carolina.
A Pew Research study found in 2016 that about two-thirds of Americans thought that fake news had caused confusion about basic facts. “But interestingly, I observed that individuals regarded others as more susceptible than themselves to the potential harmful effects of fake news,” Jang said.
“This expectation was in line with the self-enhancement explanation of the TPP (Third Person Perception), and we found our data supported it. American voters are more likely to think that they are smarter than others and that they are not easily influenced by false attempts at persuasion.”
According to the Third Person Perception hypothesis, individuals falsely believe that other people are more vulnerable to media effects than themselves. This false belief helps to maintain a positive self-image of oneself.
To test this hypothesis in regards to fake news, the researchers had 1,299 Americans complete a survey about the perceived influence of fake news on themselves and Democratic and Republican voters.
”We found significant in-group/out-group (or partisan) differences regarding the perceived influence of fake news,” Jang explained. “Republican voters believed that the influence of fake news was greater among Democratic voters than for them or other Republican voters. Similarly, Democratic voters perceived that Republican voters were more influenced by fake news than were they or other Democratic voters.”
This effect was amplified among those who strongly identified as a Republican or Democrat.
“Typically, those who have third-person perception (overestimation of media influence on others and underestimation of media influence on me) tend to show strong support for media regulations,” Jang said.”
“But this study did not find that that those with higher third-person perception support fake news regulations. This is may be due to the fact that individuals may not want their freedom of speech to be regulated based on others’ vulnerability. If individuals perceive fake news to have effects on others, educating others is more reasonable than regulating everyone’s freedom of speech.”
“Lots of discussions about how to combat fake news are based on the ‘perceived’ influence of fake news on the public and society, instead of ‘real’ consequences of fake news,” Jang remarked. “More efforts should be done about the real effects of fake news.”
Lifelong learning will help you be happier, earn more, and even stay healthier, experts say. Plus, plenty of the smartest names in business, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, insist that the best way to get smarter is to read. So what do you do? You go out and buy books, lots of them.
But life is busy, and intentions are one thing, actions another. Soon you find your shelves (or e-reader) overflowing with titles you intend to read one day, or books you flipped through once but then abandoned. Is this a disaster for your project to become a smarter, wiser person?
That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.
Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever-growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes:
A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.
“People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did,” Taleb claims.
Why? Perhaps because it is a well-known psychological fact that it’s the most incompetent who are the most confident of their abilities and the most intelligent who are full of doubt. (Really. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.) It’s equally well established that the more readily you admit you don’t know things, the faster you learn.
So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a to-read list that you could never get through in three lifetimes. All those books you haven’t read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of other people.
≈ Comments Off on Play it Again: People Find Comfort Listening to the Same Song Over and Over
A new study reports listening to your favorite song over and over may provide you with some comfort. Niche listening enables the development of a ‘meaningful relationship’ with a particular song, which allows the affection for the tune to persist across a great deal of exposure.
With the frequency that some people play their favorite song, it’s a good thing vinyl records aren’t used often because they might wear out.
University of Michigan researchers have found that people enjoy replaying a favorite song many times even after the novelty and surprise are gone. In a new study, participants reported listening to their favorite song hundreds of times.
The mean among the sample was more than 300 times and this number was even larger for listeners who had a deep connection to the song—something that was particularly likely if they had mixed emotions, such as “bittersweet,” while listening.
The availability of digital music through streaming services and YouTube makes it easier than ever for people to listen to virtually any song any time.
“Niche listening may enable listeners to develop the kind of personally meaningful relationships with particular songs that allows their affection for those songs to persist across very large amounts of exposure,” said Frederick Conrad, professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.
The study’s 204 participants completed an online questionnaire in fall 2013 about their experience listening to their favorite song, including how it made them feel and the frequency with which they played the song. Although people’s favorites songs fell into 10 genre categories, they were mainly pop/rock songs.
About 86 percent of the participants reported listening to their favorite song daily or a few times weekly. Forty-three percent of those who listened to daily replayed the song at least three times a day. Sixty percent listened to the song multiple times consecutively and about 6 percent indicated they urgently wanted to hear the song before they played it.
“Clearly, these listeners were very engaged with these songs,” said Conrad, who directs the Michigan Program in Survey Methodology at the Institute for Social Research.
Jason Corey, associate professor of music and a co-author of the study, said certain features of the song were particularly important reasons why respondents listened many times. The most important features were the song’s “melody,” “beat/rhythm” and “lyrics.” For songs that made listeners happy, beat/rhythm was especially important for relistening.
Finally, the more times people listened to their favorite song, the more the listeners could hear it internally, the researchers said.
“Listeners…should be able to ‘hear’ large amounts of the song in their heads, potentially including all the instrumental and vocal sounds,” Conrad said.
In fact, the more times they listened to the song, the more of it they could hear in their heads.
ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH ARTICLE
Funding: The study’s other authors are Samantha Goldstein (Eastern Michigan University), Joseph Ostrow (Massachusetts General Hospital) and Michael Sadowsky (Civis Analytics)
Extreme re-listening: Songs people love . . . and continue to love
Despite the lack of surprise each time they listen to their favorite song, people re-listen to these songs many times. We explored “extreme re-listening” by conducting a survey about the song to which participants were “listening most often these days.” We questioned participants about their listening experience, e.g., the deepness of their connection to the song, which aspects of the song draw them back, how much of the song they were able to hear in their heads, and how (in their own words) the song made them feel, which we classified as “happy,” “calm,” and “bittersweet.” More participants whose favorite song made them feel happy reported being drawn back because of its beat/rhythm. Participants whose favorite song made them feel bittersweet reported having a deeper connection to the song than those whose favorite song evoked other feelings. These patterns held irrespective of musical training. Finally, we found that the more times they listened to their favorite song, the more of the song listeners could hear internally. People’s affection for songs to which they voluntarily listen at high rates appears not to wane as it does for songs to which their exposure is ambient as is the case with the hit parade.
In the beginning, there was the word. Now, there’s a deluge of language. On average, Americans consume 34 gigabytes of content and encounter 100,000 written words from various sources in a single day (pdf).
For context, Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace is 460,000 words, read entirely by only the most devoted Russian literature fans (and it’s a wordy genre generally). That means we’re encountering more than we can take in, according to literati and cognitive-load theory. We may need a language break.
Writers like Cormac McCarthy and William S. Burroughs have long claimed that language is a parasite or an infectious virus. Too much can leave you feeling feverish and tired, drained, and weak. Their view is supported by numerous studies on cognitive-load theory and information overload in various fields, including psychology, education, and business.
Cognitive-load theory posits that brains have only so much bandwidth, so to best take in information, you must also limit it. Choosiness improves information intake. Since most of the information we encounter is in the form of words, limiting language helps.
Think of your focus as a precious resource; protect it like a national forest.
Limits decrease stress. Info overload makes us cranky, distracted, and ineffective, intellectually and emotionally bloated. Hence the coinage “infobesity.” Info-bingeing causes this information obesity and it’s much-discussed among entrepreneurial types obsessed with efficiency.
Infobesity, a widespread problem, can be managed by balancing your diet. Try just reading an article without checking text messages or listening to music. Don’t multitask and don’t play a podcast while working. Think of your focus as a precious resource; protect it like a national forest.
Need an extreme language detox? Go silent. Stop talking or take a break from technology, or both. Retreating from the word, even briefly, refreshes and provides perspective. It also improves communication, says Phil Sanderson, a partner at IDG Ventures in San Francisco who talks for a living.
He took a week off speaking in February, though his job is talking to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors. Chatting is his thing—the venture capitalist even ended his seven-day silence break with a talk.
Yet, Sanderson needed to reset and he didn’t want to retreat from the world, just the word. So he communicated in short notes on a whiteboard. “Not talking was frustrating for me,” he told Quartz. “But communication became efficient and I listened.”
Despite the difficulties, not talking felt good and changed Sanderson’s relationship to language. He wasn’t stressed, His senses were heightened. Plus, he spoke, wrote, read, and listened mindfully once he was chatting again. That improved his business negotiations and relationships.
Some become so taken with the language break that they don’t speak for years. Environmental activist John Francis stopped speaking spontaneously one day in 1973, realizing debating didn’t advance his causes. He listened and learned instead, earning three degrees in environmental studies.
In 1990, Francis spoke again and started a global project, inspiring walks for the planet. He explained, “After 17 years of not speaking, I felt I had something to say.”
Even the people who know me best would be astounded by that assertion. Most people would label me an extrovert. I am confident. I have no trouble striking up a conversation with strangers, and do so — in bars, online, at the coffee shop. I play team sports once or twice a week. I have 1,605 Facebook friends — about 1,300 more than the average user. My life is very busy and full of lectures and concerts, meetings and comedy shows.
It’s completely acceptable, even a bit of a brag really, to talk about needing or wanting alone time. Michael Harris, the author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, writes about the transformative power of being alone, noting that “the capacity to be alone – properly alone – is one of life’s subtlest skills.” But admitting you don’t want to be alone, and that you are alone not out of choice but involuntarily is something completely different. Even in these over-sharing times, it is rare to hear someone say they’re lonely.
“In the last 35-40 years that I have done psychotherapy, I have had one person who came and said I’m lonely,” says Dr. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist and professor at York University. But for almost all of his patients, loneliness is or was one of their primary issues. People will come in confessing to feeling depressed, anxious, ill, or heartbroken, but are loath to admit out loud that they are lonely. “People talk about depression, mental issues, relatively openly. I haven’t met people who talk about loneliness openly,” he says. Dr. Donna Ferguson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, acknowledges the same reticence to admit loneliness: “I think that if you’re coming in, and just saying that you’re lonely, that there is a bit of a stigma. You’re lonely; it must be your fault.”
I feel that stigma. It took me a long time to decide whether to include that first sentence in this piece, to admit to my own bouts of loneliness. I typed it and deleted it so many times. Even though I’ve written confessional pieces before, pouring out my personal experiences of dating and the subtle racism I encountered as a Bay Street lawyer, this disclosure felt particularly scary. In a world where we are connected, instantly, to everything and everyone, admitting that you want or lack connection feels like an admission of personal failing. When you have a plethora of Facebook friends and people that you conceivably could message, admitting that you don’t feel closely connected to most of them feels like you’re to blame.
Yet, we know we are not alone, those of us who are lonely. Every week, there’s another story warning of the rise of loneliness and linking it to some ailment. Recently, it was the revelation that a review of over 148 studies found that loneliness is a greater public health concern than obesity, with a 50-per-cent increased risk of early death. Loneliness has even been linked to genetic responses, as our bodies may shut down genes that increase our sensitivity to cortisol, a hormone that lowers inflammation, leading to increased inflammation and, as a result, everything from heart disease to cancer. Just last month Britain announced it was creating a ministry for loneliness to combat the problem.
But what is making us lonelier? Why are we increasingly disconnected? Why do we see our friends less, and feel less close to them, despite having more means to talk and connect with them?
The most commonly cited culprit is the smartphone and the easy access to social media that it brings. We’ve all heard the warnings: Articles with titles like “Your iPhone is Making You Depressed” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
I stare at my iPhone, directing my ire toward it, then pick it up and click on the Facebook app. I can’t help it; it’s a compulsion for me now. I ride the subway, my phone in my pocket. I try to leave it there, but it’s an irresistible crutch. Hunched over my phone, rather than making eye contact with a stranger. Feeling like the only one not on my phone. Despite not having cell service in the recesses of the tunnels, I reach for it, not once, but three times, my fingers automatically opening apps that I can’t access, denied by my lack of cell service.
Armed with the knowledge that my phone and social media could be contributing factors to loneliness, I decide to see if they can be put to good use. Rather than see the phone as my enemy, I want to try to use this potentially “dangerous” technology for good, not evil. I want this technology to improve my friendships and connections; use it as a tool for communication rather than isolation. I embark on what will be a months-long journey of self-discovery and research, simultaneously immersing myself in the various online tools built to help with connections and withdrawing myself from my reliance on social media. It would prove to be an extremely revelatory experience.
In their seminal work on loneliness, researchers Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau define loneliness as “a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those we want.” It’s a definition that resonates with me, as I have never felt more lonely than in the last four months of my last relationship, when the quality of the relationship and social bond that I wanted did not match what I had. I had a partner, a ready-made companion. I wasn’t supposed to feel lonely, I was supposed to feel connected. Not abandoned and disconnected. Feeling the chasm between my expectations and my reality made me feel incredibly, achingly alone for months.
There is an evolutionary purpose to this kind of transient loneliness. In their work on loneliness, John Cacioppo and William Patrick, describe how our ancestors relied upon social bonds for reasons of safety and for their genes to perpetuate through their offspring. Loneliness told them when those bonds were insufficient or endangered.
Much in the same way that physical pain prompts a change in behaviour — burning skin telling you to remove your hand from the hot pan — loneliness evolved as a stimulus to change action and improve social connections, prompting you to reach outwards, to strengthen weakened or weakening bonds. Cacioppo and Patrick liken it to a thermostat, “turning on and off distress signals, depending on whether our individual need for connection is being met.” Thus, much like physical pain, loneliness serves as a warning that you need social connection, and hopefully triggers a change.
The link to physical pain is more than an analogy. Brain imaging studies show that the same brain regions are activated when we experience social rejection and isolation and when we experience emotional responses to physical pain. Loneliness serves as both a mental and physical call to action. And ignoring that call can have a serious physical and social impact, leading to more long-term, chronic loneliness.
There is a series of photographs by artist Eric Pickersgill that perfectly captures this very modern paradox of being together, but alone, connected but disconnected. It is a series of beautiful black and white photos, called Removed. In it, Pickersgill takes subjects as they are, has them hold still, and removes their phones from their hands. What is left is haunting. A just-married couple, sitting on the hood of their car, turned away from each other, intently gazing at their hands. A mother and daughter, sitting together on the couch but again turned away from each other, and toward the missing devices.
Pickersgill drew inspiration for the series when he was a newlywed sitting in a coffee shop in a city away from his wife, watching a family interact. “One person in the group didn’t have a phone — the mom was just staring out the window. It made the contrast so apparent, right within that family dynamic, that you could see what one person was experiencing while the majority were all engaged in their hands. I think being away and missing the company of people that I was close to made me look at them in a more judgmental way — they’re wasting so much time that they have with one another,” he told me over the phone.
Our smartphones have gone from curiosities to conveniences to ubiquitous appendages. As someone who likes the vanguard of tech, I purchased my first smartphone in 2008, then in the minority. Now, a smartphone is the norm — according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report, 76 per cent of us own a smartphone, up from 55 per cent only two years prior. Smartphone penetration is even stronger in the younger generation — 94 per cent of 15-34 year olds own one.
Researchers have found that smartphone users interact with their phones, on average, 85 times per day, from the minute we wake up, to the time we go to sleep, and sometimes, in the middle of the night. The times that I have forgotten my phone, I’ve felt a low-level buzz of anxiety the whole day – is someone trying to reach me, and can’t? Am I missing an important email or text? What’s happening on Twitter? I’ll reach instinctively into my bag or pocket for my phone, only to find it absent, spiking my heart rate and blood pressure once again.
This is not to say that phones are all bad, or that we are all obsessed. A 2014 study that observed people’s use of phones in public spaces found quite low rates, and found that people tended to use their cellphones or tablets when they were alone. This, according to Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor at Western University and author of Technology & Society, suggests that we use our phones to fill gaps in our face time and human interactions, not replace them.
But our phones, and their constant beckoning are often our life’s biggest distractions. The mere presence of your smartphone, on the table or even in your bag, has been shown to distract you and reduce your available cognitive capacity. This can mean less presence, and less focus in our interactions with actual humans.
Social media use has mirrored our increasing reliance on phones. Less than ten years ago, social media use didn’t even make it into a Statistics Canada Canadian Internet Use survey — in 2008, blogging, chatting on instant messenger and downloading were profiled activities. Now, 63 per cent of the country’s population uses social media, with Facebook the most popular site (75-per-cent penetration rate), followed by Twitter (37 per cent) and Instagram (34 per cent).
Again, social media isn’t all bad; 77 per cent of Canadians feel that technology helps them communicate with other people. In fact, those who use social media sites, like Facebook or Twitter, are actually more likely to report seeing their friends in person a few or more times a week than those who do not use these sites. I find that social media helps with my more distant friendships, friends from past worlds, often in other cities. When we meet for a coffee in five years, or bump into each other on the street, I have a sense of what has happened in their lives since I last saw them. It also makes it easier to pick up friendships with people who have moved back into town or made their way back into your world.
But what social media does do, and does dangerously well, is highlight the gap between the connections we wish we had, and the ones we do have — the definition of loneliness.
This propensity for social comparison on social media is in part what inspired The Loneliness Project, a website started last fall by Marissa Korda, a 25-year-old graphic designer in Toronto. “I recognized that everyone struggles with loneliness, either chronically or time to time, and nobody ever talks about it,” she says. “Instead, everybody is just busy posting pictures on Instagram of their perfect pets and their delicious meals, and their cute partners and their beautiful homes, where all the mess is just shoved out of the frame photo.”
When she put out a call on Facebook for stories, she wasn’t expecting much response. “I was thinking that I would have to coerce people, friends and family, into submitting. I got over 100 in less than a week,” she tells me. In the first month that the site was live, she received 800 stories. She now posts three stories a week.
Social media is a recurring theme in these stories. One user, aged 25, writes, “all over social media, I saw my friends living their lives, enjoying their jobs, getting into serious relationships, moving into their own apartments. I felt stunted.” Another, age 26, says “sometimes I even get jealous when I see people on Facebook taking selfies with each other or even tagging one another in posts because that rarely, if ever, happens to me.” Another user, age 25, says that loneliness means “watching people at work, on social media, in public, go about their busy, seemingly full lives. They always have someone around, have plans with someone, are doing something exciting. They never seem to have any time for me. I feel like I’m invisible a lot of the time, tired of monotony, tired of watching everyone live the lives I want so desperately for myself.”
It is one of the failed promises of social media that something that is supposed to keep us constantly connected should so often deliver the completely opposite effect. How prone we are to this effect may also depend on how we each choose to use and engage with social media. And that is where I began my adventures in social media land.
One study found that passive use of Facebook (browsing, creeping, and not engaging) is shown to be more harmful than being an active user liking and commenting and interacting with other users. The research on this is mixed, with some studies saying social media can enhance relationships, and others saying it can cause loneliness, because the virtual world is not the real one. For those who already have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to connection, social media can be a useful extra tool. But for those who don’t, it can serve a different function.
I experimented with this notion of how usage impacts the psychological outcome, trying to be an extra-engaged user one week, and abstaining from social media the next. I realized that I was already a pretty engaged user. Plus, given the volume of people I am linked to, I found it exhausting to be a super user. It didn’t make me feel more connected. In the week without social media, I experienced some fear of missing out for the first couple of days, but didn’t really miss it or feel less connected as a result. When I finally rejoined Facebook, I became less inclined to check it, and mindless browsing through my feed no longer carried the appeal that it used to. Taking a break reminded me that the content wasn’t going anywhere. Now, months after the experiment, I log in far less frequently, mostly to check notifications, and to find interesting events to attend that have been flagged by my friends.
I consider using one of the virtual AI friend apps, but I know it won’t work for me. There are too many downsides to relying on a friendship that is not real.
Sociologist and author Robert Putnam argued in his prophetic book Bowling Alone that online interactions take people away from face to face, in-person contact. Do these apps serve as a replacement for real connection, or do they act as a supplement? Can they really provide different thoughts, and ideas, when they are described as learning from you and matching your personality? One of the things I love about my real friends is that they are different from me, and I learn from them — new information, new ideas, new ways of doing things and approaching problems. While a 2017 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that engaging with anthropomorphic products, such as Siri or a smiling Roomba, can partially mitigate social exclusion, a reminder that these products are not real people ends the illusion. According to the study’s authors, “Once individuals are reminded that the product is not actually alive, the effect disappears.” Or, as Dr. Rokach says, “All the likes you may get cannot give you hug.”
I lean towards apps and sites that help me reach people in real life. One of my early attempts predating this experiment is with Yes New Friends, a friendship matchmaking service created by Amy Wood, a 31-year-old marketing creative and co-head of creative agency 100 Acre Wood. Introduced by a mutual friend, I immediately volunteered to be matched in the beta pilot. In the real world, as my friends coupled off and procreated, spending time with them became harder to coordinate, and I was eager to meet women in my same life situation, with visions of a Sex and the City-esque posse dancing in my head. I also liked the idea that finding a potential friend would be taken out of my hands, but that a human would be involved in the interaction.
“It was designed for my friends, really,” Wood says. “I started off matching people I knew, or had connection with. But by the time I got to a hundred requests, and started to get requests from strangers, I realized that there was a real demand for this.” She has around 5,000 people interested in the next round of Yes New Friends, and is working with a developer on an iOS app that will allow her to make this project available on a larger scale.
As a beta user, I filled out my profile, and a week later, received a brightly coloured email notification alerting me that I had a friend match, and giving me a link to message my new friend on our friendship page, with a nine-day window to start conversation. I was matched with Ariel, a newly married tech-savvy woman in her early 30s, who shares my love of films, comedy and music.
I recently asked Ariel why she signed up, and her reasons are quite like mine: loneliness and declining connection. “It was just starting to take a lot of time to plan and connect and see people on a regular basis,” she says. “I had friends who were married and settled down with kids, and that wasn’t me — I was married, but no kids, and it was becoming harder and harder to see those people. My friends in my situation or single were starting to leave the city. I felt like I was kind of in the middle of these two groups. I was feeling disconnected overall, and was looking for real-life opportunities for social interaction. Social media helped me feel connected in a broader sense, in the world, but it was lacking the more local opportunities to get out. But it pointed me in the direction of what I wanted.”
More recently, post-breakup, I’ve signed up for a few sites that are essentially Tinder for female friendship. On Bumble, a dating site started by an ex-Tinder employee, users can turn on BumbleBFF, a setting that lets them find friends in the same way they find dates — swiping on pictures and short profiles. Hey!Vina has a similar swiping concept, but is for female friendship only, and has more extensive profile materials — you can take quizzes that identify your friendship language and aura colour, and can identify communities you belong to. I select DIY enthusiasts, Lit Lovers, Entrepreneurs, SciFi Sisters, and Volunteers.
I spoke with Olivia June, CEO and Founder of Hey!Vina about when she knew that she had a hit on her hands. “We had $10,000 and it was two of us in our living room. It took off like crazy. The first week we had 100,000 women sign up to join the platform. We did that with no marketing budget. Every person I would tell what I was working on, their response was “Oh my god, I need this.” Since their global launch in October 2016, they’ve built Hey!Vina communities in 158 countries around the world. While 75 per cent of their users fall between 22-39, they have very strong communities in younger college demographics, and women in their 60s in Orlando, Florida.
Carmelina, 28, had used Bumble for dating, but when she moved to St. Catharines, Ont. a friend suggested Bumble BFF. She purposely reads profiles first, and then looks at a few pictures if the profile jives with her. The women who say “they just want to have girls’ night in with wine, and like yoga and going on hikes” are not for her. “Tell me what you’re about,“ she says. She’s met three people in a month through this method. “I find it almost easier to choose people to be my friends. I’m not trying to make as many friends as possible, I’m trying to make better friends.”
Using Hey!Vina, I realize that I am just as picky swiping through friends as I am swiping for dates. While the use of only one photo, most of them shots of users’ faces, don’t allow you to glean much from a user, I look for those who’ve used a unique photo, or have a clever or fulsome description — anything that indicates quirkiness or effort. I try to set aside any biases I have, for example, my tendency to judge anyone who hasn’t filled in their description yet, but I still make quick judgments. I match with Valentina, whose face is obscured with a cool background. She is a glass blower in her early 30s who describes herself as “an artsy woman.” I have learned from my dating experiences not to communicate with too many people at one time, so I send off a quick hello, and stop swiping. But, much like a dating site, our conversation is lacking and peters off. I also find the user base younger and small; the same users pop up repeatedly.
I also take the plunge into Bumble BFF. I describe myself as a reformed lawyer, researcher and journalist looking to meet feminist folks who value logic and whimsy, and include a photo of myself dressed as a Rubiks Cube to show that I am fun. I note that I sport occasionally, dabble in cryptic crosswords, and try to contribute at least three answers a week to my trivia team. Bumble BFF uses the same pictures from your Bumble dating profile, if you have one, so I swipe left on a lot of pursed lips, selfies, cleavage and duck faces. People with nothing in their bio also get a pass — I’m serious about this friendship business. I swipe right on a user named Ren, who has a smiling face, cool her antics with a lion statue at the Great Wall, and is into what she describes as urban hiking. We match, and she opens with a compliment about my Rubiks Cube costume. I like her already. Our first friend date goes swimmingly — she is hilarious, has great hair tips, and we have a lot of similarities. We make plans to meet again the next week after the weekend, and head to the Guillermo Del Toro exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Our next adventure will be a screening of Black Panther.
Finally, I sit back and take stock of how I can use my phone to improve my existing friendships. I remind myself that we are all busy, and how much I like it when my friends call and suggest things to do. I decide to just be that person for them, to use my powers of organization to our mutual benefit. I start calling my best friend more often, and it has the added effect that she starts calling me more as well. I get Siri to remind me to call and see certain friends regularly. I block off certain evenings in my calendar with a new colour-coded block labeled, Friend Hang, with the same repeating feature I use for my Sunday Frisbee games, and make sure that I fill those slots. I turn Twitter friends into real live ones, planning coffees and lunches. I use Facebook to find events that my friends are interested in or attending and make plans to meet them there. I use the myriad scheduling and planning features available to me, not just for work, but for friendship. I combine existing activities, like going to the gym, with friendship. I start attending the gym with my friend Sarah, which increases the time we spend together and talk, both at the gym and outside of it. I feel closer to her in the three months that we’ve been doing so than I ever have before. By making and planning for friendship maintenance, my expectations more closely mirror my reality.
Even after a few months experimenting in what social media offers to cure loneliness, I don’t have the answers, and I can’t tell you that you or I won’t ever be lonely. But I no longer see my phone as an evil loneliness machine. I have been able to use my phone and social media to do more of the things that increase my connection to other humans – meet them, see them, talk with them, and interact with them. It has to be a conscious choice not to let your phone take you down the path of passive engagement and superficial communication. But when loneliness is described as being worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it’s a choice that’s necessary, not only for your own health, but for our collective benefit. In a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented and polarized, we need each other, and connection, more than ever.
Hadiya Roderique is a lawyer currently completing her PhD at the Rotman School of Management. This piece was part of her Massey College Internship with the National Post.
Eric Pickersgill on his series of photographs, used throughout this piece: Removed is a series of large format black and white photographs that are of individuals performing as if they are using their devices although their phones and tablets have been physically removed from their hands moments prior to the exposure. The work is striking when seen online however it becomes transformational when experienced in person as exhibition prints. The photographs operate as mirrors that help viewers question their own use of technology. The smartphone and the internet will be known as the industrial revolution of our time and these photographs represent the worldwide digital transition.
When the little girl pointed at the sweets at the checkout, her mother said: ‘No, they’re bad for your teeth.’ So her daughter, who was no more than two, did what small children often do at such times. She threw a tantrum.
What happened next horrified me. The embarrassed mother found her iPad in her bag and thrust it into her daughter’s hands. Peace was restored immediately.
This incident, which happened three years ago, was the first time I saw a tablet computer used as a pacifier. It certainly wasn’t the last. Since then, I’ve seen many tiny children barely able to toddle yet expertly swiping an iPad – not to mention countless teenagers, smartphone in hand, lost to the real world as they tap out texts.
It’s ten years since the publication of my book, Toxic Childhood, which warned of the dangers of too much screen-time on young people’s physical and mental health. My fears have been realised. Though I was one of the first to foresee how insidiously technology would penetrate youngsters’ lives, even I’ve been stunned at how quickly even the tiniest have become slaves to screens – and how utterly older ones are defined by their virtual personas.
Indeed, when my book came out, Facebook had just hit our shores and we were more concerned with violent video games and children watching too much TV. Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it? Today, on average, children spend five to six hours a day staring at screens. And they’re often on two or more screens at once – for example, watching TV while playing on an iPad.
Because technology moves so fast, and children have embraced it so quickly, it’s been difficult for parents to control it. And when it comes to spending a childhood in front of a screen, this generation are like lab rats. The long-term impact is not known.
Even before iPads hit the market in 2010, experts were warning that 80 per cent of children arrived at school with poor co-ordination, due to a sedentary lifestyle.
Sue Palmer, above, believes that excessive screen time can lead to obesity, sleep disorders and aggression
Along with colleagues in the field of child development, I’d seen a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade. And we’d collected a mass of research showing links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic under-achievement.
It’s little wonder, then, that the boom in iPads and smartphones has coincided with further deterioration in the physical and mental health of children of all ages. Sadly, we’re seeing the rise of the ‘techno-tot’ for whom iPads have become the modern-day equivalent of a comfort blanket.
Recent research found 10 per cent of children under four are put to bed with a tablet computer to play with as they fall asleep. One study of families owning them found a third of children under three had their own tablets. Baby shops even sell ‘apptivity seats’ into which a tablet can be slotted to keep toddlers entertained.
Few know that the late Apple boss Steve Jobs didn’t let his own children have iPads. I wish he had gone public on this as other parents might have followed suit.
Because the earlier children are hooked on screens, the more difficult it is to wean them off.
This is not the only worry. It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world. Today’s children have far fewer opportunities for what I call ‘real play’. They are no longer learning through first-hand experiences how to be human and are much less likely to play or socialize outdoors or with others.
One of the most depressing examples of a totally screen-based childhood involved a ten-year-old in London. The overweight, pasty-faced little lad told me: ‘I sit in my room and I watch my telly and play on my computer . . . and if I get hungry I text down to my mum and she brings me up a pizza.’ The change in children’s play has happened in little more than a couple of decades. While many parents feel uneasy about all that screen-time, they haven’t tackled it as they’ve been so busy keeping up with changes in their own lives.
And anyway, it’s happening to children everywhere – so surely it can’t be bad for them?
But real play is a biological necessity. One psychologist told me it was ‘as vital for healthy development as food or sleep’.
If the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses aren’t developed in early childhood, it’s difficult to revive them later. A whole generation could grow up without the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships – all because of endless screen-time.
It’s getting out and about – running, climbing, making dens and so on – that allows little children to gain physical skills. Playing ‘let’s pretend’ is a creative process requiring lots of personal input.
Real play develops initiative, problem-solving skills and many other positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience. It’s vital for social skills, too. By playing together, youngsters learn to get along with other people. They discover how others’ minds work, developing empathy. And, as real play is driven by an innate desire to understand how the world works, it provides the foundation for academic learning. Real play is evolution’s way of helping children develop minds of their own – curious, problem- solving, adaptable, human minds.
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen-time for children under two and a maximum two hours a day there-after. This is not just due to a proven link between screen-time and attention disorders, but because it eliminates other activities essential for building healthy bodies and brains.
Babies are born with an intense desire to learn about their world, so they’re highly motivated to interact with people and objects around them – the beginning of real play. That’s why they love it when we play silly games with them, such as peekaboo, or they manage to grasp some household object. This is what helps them develop physical co-ordination and social skills.
But when little ones can get instant rewards from high-tech devices, they don’t need to bother with real play. Images on a screen can be just as fascinating as the real world, and even a very small child can learn to control the images with a clumsy swish of podgy fingers.
Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort?
Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield says: ‘We cannot park our children in front of screens and expect them to develop a long attention span.’
She also worries about the effects of technology on literacy. ‘Learning to read helps children learn to put ideas into logical order,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, staring at a screen puts their brains into suspended animation.’
Dr Aric Sigman, who has amassed a huge database of research linking children’s screen-time to ADHD, autism and emotional and behavioural disorders, also points to the conflict between screen-based activity and reading.
‘Unlike screen images, words don’t move, make noises, sing or dance. Ultimately, screen images render the printed word simply boring at a crucial phase when the child’s mind is developing,’ he says.
Yet another problem with too much screen-gazing is that it doesn’t develop resilience.
Real play gives children opportunities to learn how to cope with challenges for themselves. Finding how to learn from their mistakes, picking themselves up when they take a tumble and sorting out squabbles with playmates all help develop the self-confidence that makes children more emotionally resilient.
This is vital for mental health, especially in our high-pressure world. So I wasn’t surprised when this month Childline warned Britain is producing deeply unhappy youngsters – sad, lonely, with low self-esteem and an increasing predilection to self-harm. The charity painted a bleak portrait of our children’s emotional state, blaming their unhappiness on social networking and cyber-bullying.
It’s understandable parents feel unable to tackle their children’s social media use. After all, it has spread like a virus. In 2012, just six years after Facebook arrived here, it was the favourite website of ten-year-old girls.
That year I interviewed three 15-year-old girls in Yorkshire who have been on Facebook since the age of ten. They said they didn’t enjoy it as much as ‘when we were young’ because ‘running our own PR campaigns’ – as they wittily described the constant need to make their lives sound glamorous and exciting – was exhausting and they often felt miserable when others seemed to be having more fun.
But they couldn’t give up the social media site as it would put them out of the social loop. ‘There’s lots of cyber-bullying,’ one said. ‘So you’ve got to try to be like everyone else.’
But we can’t go on letting our children ‘be like everyone else’ when it’s damaging them. If the next generation is to grow up bright, balanced and healthy enough to use technology wisely, parents need to take action. And that means limiting screen-time, spending time together as a family and making sure get children out to play.Some say children need to use technology because that’s the way the world is going. But there’s no need to give little children high-tech devices.
Modern technology develops at a phenomenal rate – any IT skills that children learn before the age of seven will be long past their sell-by date by the time they reach their teens.But self-confidence, emotional resilience, creative thinking, social skills and the capacity for focused thought will stand them in good stead whatever the future brings.
Social media is a big deal. Online networking sites and apps are an undeniable world phenomenon, currently bending humanity in new directions. A third or more of the global population is on it; Facebook alone has more than two billion users. Nearly 90 percent of Internet users in the Middle East are on social media; as are more than 80 percent of South Americans and more than three-quarters of the people living in Africa. On average, we now use social media at a rate that equates to more time than what a typical person will spend eating and drinking, socializing in person or grooming. Teens devote as much as nine hours per day to their online social interactions. That’s more than they sleep, and more time than they spend with their parents and teachers. Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 check their phones on average 82 times per day. Americans in total check their screens about eight billion times per day. Thirty-nine percent of girls between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four identify themselves as Facebook addicts and the average Internet user now has about eight social media accounts, up from just three in 2012.
We are way beyond being able to dismiss Facebook, Instagram and the rest as high-tech delivery systems for cat videos. Gone are the days when we could mock them as nothing more than Kardashian promotion vehicles and sad photo galleries of what our friends are eating for lunch. Social media sites are the primary and trusted news source for hundreds of millions of people. They are the fountains of social change, conspiracy theory factories and propaganda super-cannons. And all the while, unseen people behind the screens write algorithms that harvest every possible detail of users’ lives. You are not the sum of your Google searches, Amazon purchases, tweets and Facebook likes. Your online activities shouldn’t define you as an individual. But, increasingly they do. Silent, unseen programs are busy digitizing and commodifying humanity. The secret dossiers they compile and sell to marketers can be so probing and detailed that they would make the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover blush. Most people still don’t know that the primary product in the social media universe is the user. Think of social media as a vast army of digital Trojan horses. While the glow of smartphone screens lulls or excites our minds—whatever it takes to keep us swiping, poking, and clicking—tiny hoplites in the form of algorithmic spies spill out from the belly of the beasts to conduct endless espionage missions.
Sometimes the results of all this constant tracking and surveillance are trivial. Maybe an ad for the book you almost bought haunts you for a day or two online. But it can also be devastating. For example, now, or in the near future, your activities on social media will influence whether or not you get the loan you need, rent the apartment you want or get the call to come in and interview for your dream job. Human resources managers and rental property owners may not be able to ask you about your sexuality, political loyalties, positions on gun control and abortion, but in today’s world they don’t have to. Thanks to social media, they already know.
Loss of privacy and the behind-the-scenes bartering and selling of social media user data are becoming cause for public concern. A Pew Research Center study found that 91 percent agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies. Eighty-eight percent of adults agree or strongly agree that it is very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them from the internet, and 80 percent are concerned about third parties, like advertisers or businesses, accessing the information they share on social media sites.
The quick answer to social media surveillance is to be more thoughtful about what we share. We don’t have to show and comment on everything we do. Hold some things back and be mindful that a Facebook page or Instagram account is going to serve as your resume in some real-world situations. Opting out might seem like a good option but social media is so deeply entrenched in modern culture that having no presence on it can be viewed as a red flag by potential employers, landlords and even romantic interests. Some of the things we can do to reduce our risk are easy, others are more difficult. Be aware that everything is hackable now. It doesn’t take a computer savant or at least a competent coder to figure out a way to get into your account. Cheap or free password-breaking programs are available to anyone online. The security experts I’ve spoken with are in unanimous agreement about making your accounts relatively secure so that hackers are more likely to pass you up for easier, less-prepared prey.
For minimal defense these days it is necessary to use long and complex passwords of ten to twenty-five letters, symbols and numbers. Don’t use common words or phrases. Use different passwords for multiple accounts and activate two-step authentication whenever possible. Avoid using public Wi-Fi and be cautious of USB drives because they are common carriers of malware. Don’t say yes to every app. Many “free” apps exist primarily to spy on you and sell your data; you should delete those you don’t need or use. Update your software so that you get new security features and never fill out online questionnaires—most of them are only there to get your data and sell it. Give some thought to who you connect with on your social media sites; it’s not only your social media behavior that might come back to haunt you but theirs as well. Some experts predict, for example, that a person’s network of cyber-friends will become a critical, standard factor in determining credit ratings and making hiring decisions one day soon. Keep in mind that your online life, for better or worse, will play an increasing role in your offline life in the coming years. Thinking of social media activity in this way may not be fun or pleasant, but this is the reality—ignorance or indifference will not serve you well.
The cause of the problem is that the rise of social media has been so swift we haven’t had much of a chance to adapt; we’re all playing catchup. The good news is that we don’t have to swear off social media completely, but we do need to learn about the dangers and adjust our behavior accordingly. A crucial first step toward smarter social media use is to accept who and what you are. As a human being you possess a high-powered but problematic brain. You are influenced every moment of your life by a shadow mind that is largely a confounding jumble of shortcuts and irrational processes. Many of these subconscious operations, meant to make our lives more efficient, are easily exploited on social media where lies, fearmongering and sincere but flawed reasoning run rampant.
When you encounter news stories, comments, images, videos and ideas on social media, your subconscious mind has already decided whether to trust, believe, accept or reject long before your conscious mind gets out of bed and put its shoes on. Your usual role in the process is to then attempt to make sense of, or justify, whatever the subconscious mind has fed you. This is standard operating procedure for a human brain and most people give it little, if any, thought while using social media. As a result, fake news, deceptive marketing, crazy conspiracy theories and other cognitive snares pose serious problems both for the individual and society. So how can we best defend against them?
We could sit back and trust the social media company owners to save us by cleaning up the tangled and treacherous jungles they created. Or we might place our faith in government to protect us with regulation. But why not just take responsibility for own minds? We all can police our own perceptions, thoughts and decisions online. Ultimately, I suspect, this is the way forward. Private reform and some government regulation may be necessary and helpful, but alone it won’t be enough. Social media users must wake up, grow up and start taking care of themselves. It falls upon us to question what we believe and share on social media. It’s our responsibility to do better at spotting lies and rejecting irrational claims. The following are some of the most problematic subconscious processes and biases that trip up millions of people every moment on social media. Make sure you aren’t one of them.
The mere exposure effect
Simply encountering an idea can make you more agreeable to believing it later—even if your initial conscious reaction to it was that it was wrong or untrue. Keep this in mind as you encounter all those “meaningless” comments, photos and viral memes every day on social media. We may dismiss them as silly and inconsequential in the moment, but beneath our conscious awareness we can be falling in love with them or at least leaning toward acceptance because of mere exposure. The similar illusion-of-truth effect is another big problem on social media. Repeat reading, hearing or viewing of a claim can lead us to believe that it must be true. Think of this as the cognitive version of being beaten into submission.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
Ignorance of our ignorance is a huge problem on social media where pseudo-experts, liars and blowhards abound. Unfortunately, we are terrible at recognizing the limitations of our knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play online when we happily consume or share bad information about a subject with unjustified confidence merely because we know so little about it. You might think ignorance would prompt us to be more cautious and humble but often it does not. It is a common human reaction to effortlessly slide into arrogant expert mode about things we know little or nothing about. Be humble and always second guess yourself about things you don’t know much about.
Humans love to go along to get along. Few people are willing to rock the boat, even if the boat is sinking. One reason for this is because maintaining social networks has been one of our species’ greatest survival strengths. We endured the brutal gauntlet of our long prehistoric past in large part because we lived together in tight social units, shared knowledge and worked toward common goals. But groupthink can be a problem when people fall in line and agree when we should know better. We often do this even as our moral compass points in a different direction. Keep this in mind while on social media. Ask yourself if you might be surrendering your ability to reason or compromising on an important moral position to accommodate a natural desire to keep your digital tribe members happy in the moment.
The anchoring effect
Be very careful where you drop anchor in the social media ocean. A human mind hungers for information, but this is the case even if the information is not germane to the current task or topic. If no good, accurate or useful information is available, the subconscious mind doesn’t give up on its mission to serve you. For better or worse, it will seize upon the first thing available to work with. Whatever bit of information hits your knowledge vacuum early, when considering any topic at hand, matters. That input, no matter how wrong or irrelevant, can then become the anchor around which your thinking and decision-making flows. For example, a brief encounter on Twitter with a big number about traffic accidents or the national debt can set you up to grossly overestimate the fair value of a surfboard for sale on Craig’s List. Had you encountered smaller numbers just before shopping around on Craig’s List you would have been more likely to grossly underestimate the value. This may seem crazy, but numerous experiments have revealed the anchoring effect. This is one more reason to consistently question and challenge your thoughts and decisions on social media.
Don’t stumble on social media while looking up. We are highly vulnerable to trusting and falling in line behind anyone or any information perceived to be authoritative. This is a not a problem for weak people; it’s a problem for all people. Just about anything can seem more credible online if it is presented to us inside a warm, magnetic glow of authority. Do not allow a uniform, lab coat, fancy title or dominant posture hoodwink you into believing nonsense or buying a junk product. Separate claims and ideas from the delivery person or packaging so that you might better analyze and assess them.
The blind spot bias
One of the most important things to remember while on social media is that your subconscious mind works hard to keep you feeling secure and comfortable. It is relentless in trying to convince you that you are rational and logical, that it’s all those other people who are emotional, gullible and silly enough to believe and do dumb things on social media. Reject these lies. It is essential for every social media user to consciously work at being humble and staying grounded because of the blind spot bias.
Everyone can enjoy and benefit from social media use, but it is essential to be aware of various problems and pitfalls that await the unexpecting and unprepared mind. Before you let any news story, comment, image, or idea set up camp inside your head, ask yourself how it might be pushing your emotional buttons at the expense of reasoning. Challenge yourself, note the source, consider the motivations behind the information, think before you believe and stay humble. Around the world right now, governments, corporations, criminals, and dictators are investing time and money into figuring out ways to more effectively pierce the minds and private lives of their constituents, customers, or victims. A few billion people need to clean up their thinking processes and online behaviors fast. Those who tune in, open their eyes, and maintain a sharp, activated mind will win far more battles than they lose.
Hours after the Las Vegas massacre, Travis McKinney’s Facebook feed was hit with a scattershot of conspiracy theories. The police were lying. There were multiple shooters in the hotel, not just one. The sheriff was covering for casino owners to preserve their business.
The political rumors sprouted soon after, like digital weeds. The killer was anti-Trump, an “antifa” activist, said some; others made the opposite claim, that he was an alt-right terrorist. The two unsupported narratives ran into the usual stream of chatter, news and selfies.
“This stuff was coming in from all over my network of 300 to 400” friends and followers, said Mr. McKinney, 52, of Suffolk, Va., and some posts were from his inner circle.
But he knew there was only one shooter; a handgun instructor and defense contractor, he had been listening to the police scanner in Las Vegas with an app. “I jumped online and tried to counter some of this nonsense,” he said.
In the coming weeks, executives from Facebook and Twitter will appear before congressional committees to answer questions about the use of their platforms by Russian hackers and others to spread misinformation and skew elections. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook sold more than $100,000 worth of ads to a Kremlin-linked company, and Google sold more than $4,500 worth to accounts thought to be connected to the Russian government.
Agents with links to the Russian government set up an endless array of fake accounts and websites and purchased a slew of advertisements on Google and Facebook, spreading dubious claims that seemed intended to sow division all along the political spectrum — “a cultural hack,” in the words of one expert.
Yet the psychology behind social media platforms — the dynamics that make them such powerful vectors of misinformation in the first place — is at least as important, experts say, especially for those who think they’re immune to being duped. For all the suspicions about social media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that makes so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.
Skepticism of online “news” serves as a decent filter much of the time, but our innate biases allow it to be bypassed, researchers have found — especially when presented with the right kind of algorithmically selected “meme.”
At a time when political misinformation is in ready supply, and in demand, “Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College (and occasional contributor to The Times’s Upshot column).
For starters, said Colleen Seifert, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “People have a benevolent view of Facebook, for instance, as a curator, but in fact it does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site. It’s curating news and information that will keep you watching.”
That kind of curating acts as a fertile host for falsehoods by simultaneously engaging two predigital social-science standbys: the urban myth as “meme,” or viral idea; and individual biases, the automatic, subconscious presumptions that color belief.
The first process is largely data-driven, experts said, and built into social media algorithms. The wide circulation of bizarre, easily debunked rumors — so-called Pizzagate, for example, the canard that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from a Washington-area pizza parlor — is not entirely dependent on partisan fever (though that was its origin).
For one, the common wisdom that these rumors gain circulation because most people conduct their digital lives in echo chambers or “information cocoons” is exaggerated, Dr. Nyhan said.
In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Nyhan and colleagues review the relevant research, including analyses of partisan online news sites and Nielsen data, and find the opposite. Most people are more omnivorous than presumed; they are not confined in warm bubbles containing only agreeable outrage.
But they don’t have to be for fake news to spread fast, research also suggests. Social media algorithms function at one level like evolutionary selection: Most lies and false rumors go nowhere, but the rare ones with appealing urban-myth “mutations” find psychological traction, then go viral.
There is no precise formula for such digital catnip. The point, experts said, is that the very absurdity of the Pizzagate lie could have boosted its early prominence, no matter the politics of those who shared it.
“My experience is that once this stuff gets going, people just pass these stories on without even necessarily stopping to read them,” Mr. McKinney said. “They’re just participating in the conversation without stopping to look hard” at the source.
Digital social networks are “dangerously effective at identifying memes that are well adapted to surviving, and these also tend to be the rumors and conspiracy theories that are hardest to correct,” Dr. Nyhan said.
One reason is the raw pace of digital information sharing, he said: “The networks make information run so fast that it outruns fact-checkers’ ability to check it. Misinformation spreads widely before it can be downgraded in the algorithms.”
The extent to which Facebook and other platforms function as “marketers” of misinformation, similar to the way they market shoes and makeup, is contentious. In 2015, a trio of behavior scientists working at Facebook inflamed the debate in a paper published in the prominent journal Science.
The authors analyzed the news feeds of some 10 million users in the United States who posted their political views, and concluded that “individuals’ choices played a stronger role in limiting exposure” to contrary news and commentary than Facebook’s own algorithmic ranking — which gauges how interesting stories are likely to be to individual users, based on data they have provided.
Outside critics lashed the study as self-serving, while other researchers said the analysis was solid and without apparent bias.
The other dynamic that works in favor of proliferating misinformation is not embedded in the software but in the biological hardware: the cognitive biases of the human brain.
Purely from a psychological point of view, subtle individual biases are at least as important as rankings and choice when it comes to spreading bogus news or Russian hoaxes — like a false report of Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives.
Merely understanding what a news report or commentary is saying requires a temporary suspension of disbelief. Mentally, the reader must temporarily accept the stated “facts” as possibly true. A cognitive connection is made automatically: Clinton-sex offender, Trump-Nazi, Muslim men-welfare.
And refuting those false claims requires a person to first mentally articulate them, reinforcing a subconscious connection that lingers far longer than people presume.
Over time, for many people, it is that false initial connection that stays the strongest, not the retractions or corrections: “Was Obama a Muslim? I seem to remember that….”
In a recent analysis of the biases that help spread misinformation, Dr. Seifert and co-authors named this and several other automatic cognitive connections that can buttress false information.
Another is repetition: Merely seeing a news headline multiple times in a news feed makes it seem more credible before it is ever read carefully, even if it’s a fake item being whipped around by friends as a joke.
And, as salespeople have known forever, people tend to value the information and judgments offered by good friends over all other sources. It’s a psychological tendency with significant consequences now that nearly two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.
“Your social alliances affect how you weight information,” said Dr. Seifert. “We overweight information from people we know.”
The casual, social, wisecracking nature of thumbing through and participating in the digital exchanges allows these biases to operate all but unchecked, Dr. Seifert said.
Stopping to drill down and determine the true source of a foul-smelling story can be tricky, even for the motivated skeptic, and mentally it’s hard work. Ideological leanings and viewing choices are conscious, downstream factors that come into play only after automatic cognitive biases have already had their way, abetted by the algorithms and social nature of digital interactions.
“If I didn’t have direct evidence that all these theories were wrong” from the scanner, Mr. McKinney said, “I might have taken them a little more seriously.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 24, 2017, on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media
We live in an era of previously unimaginable luxury. Without leaving our sofas, we can conjure almost any book or film on our phone and enjoy it with exotic cuisine delivered right to our doorstep via an app. But there is a cost to this convenience that doesn’t appear on your credit-card statement. Our indoor, sedentary and socially isolated lives leave us vulnerable to depression. The U.S., the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, is also the most depressed: Three in 10 Americans will battle depressive illness at some point in their lives, an estimated tenfold increase since World War II.
Although antidepressant use in the U.S. has risen 400% since 1990, so has the rate of depression—and not just in America. The World Health Organization says depression is the leading cause of disability around the world.
Labor-saving inventions, from the Roomba to Netflix, spare us the arduous tasks of our grandparents’ generation. But small actions like vacuuming and returning videotapes can have a positive impact on our well-being. Even modest physical activity can mitigate stress and stimulate the brain’s release of dopamine and serotonin—powerful neurotransmitters that help spark motivation and regulate emotions. Remove physical exertion, and our brain’s pleasure centers can go dormant. As AI renders the need for human activity increasingly superfluous, rates of depressive illness will likely get worse.
In theory, labor-saving apps and automation create free time that we could use to hit the beach or join a kickball league. But that isn’t what tends to happen. We’re wired, like our ancestors to conserve energy whenever possible—to be lazy when no exertion is required—an evolutionary explanation for your tendency to sit around after work. Excessive screen time lulls us ever deeper into habitual inactivity, overstimulates the nervous system and increases production of the stress hormone cortisol. In the short term, cortisol helps us react to high-pressure situations, but when chronically activated, it triggers the brain’s toxic runaway stress response, which researchers have identified as an ultimate driver of depressive illness.
At first blush, it seems as if our smartphones should keep us better connected than ever through an endless stream of texts, instant messages, voice calls and social-media interactions. But as smartphones have become ubiquitous over the past decade, the proportion of Americans who report feelings of chronic loneliness has surged to 40%, from 15% 30 years ago. The psychological burden is particularly pronounced for those who don’t balance screen time with in-person interactions. Face-to-face conversations immerse us in a continuous multichannel sensory experience—only a fraction of which can be transferred via text or video message. Communicating solely through technology robs us of the richer neurological effects of in-person interactions and their potential to alleviate feelings of loneliness and depression.
A few generations ago, people spent most of their waking hours outdoors. Direct sunlight boosts the brain’s serotonin circuitry, protects against seasonal affective disorder and triggers the eyes’ light receptors, which regulate the body’s internal clock and sleep patterns—yet we spend 93% of our time inside. Our mood suffers, and our body loses the ability to find restorative sleep. And bathing our eyes in artificial lighting—especially the blueshifted hues of flat screens—stalls the body’s nightly release of melatonin, the drowsiness-inducing hormone, until 45 minutes after we power down. The resulting sleep deprivation can both trigger and compound depression.
But perhaps the most telling evidence of technology’s effect on our well-being comes from the so-called unplugged study from 2010, in which about 1,000 students at 19 universities around the world pledged to give up all screens for 24 hours. Most students dropped out of the study in a matter of hours, and many reported symptoms of withdrawal associated with substance addiction. But those who pushed through the initial discomfort and completed the experiment discovered a surprising array of benefits: greater calm, less fragmented attention, more meaningful conversations, deeper connections with friends and a greater sense of mindfulness.
This isn’t a Luddite manifesto. Personal tech is here to stay, and a mass unplugging is about as likely as the discovery of Atlantis. Luckily for us, the same technology that’s wrecking our emotional well-being can, when smartly employed, reduce and even reverse the symptoms of depressive illness. Sometimes the problem contains the solution.
Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas and the author of ‘The Depression Cure.’