Social Media: The New American Gods

Please pardon my shameless borrowing of the name of one of the more interesting streaming TV shows for this headline but it just seemed so much the perfect headline for this post. The Hollywood Reporter has an excellent guest column article by Jeff Orlowski, the filmmaker behind Netflix’s The Social Dilemma.

Orlowski’s thesis is that we are all unwitting Trumans, each starring in our individual versions of The Truman Show, unaware of how social media algorithms are programming us for their profit-at-any-cost advertising platforms. He notes, “While we think these platforms are connecting us to the world, they’re actually separating us from reality.” He then goes on to include this bombshell:

“When Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, was asked in our film what he was most worried about, he replied, ‘civil war.’ At the time that seemed alarmist, but today it feels prescient.”

The ring of truth. Still more: “The experts and tech insiders we interviewed in the film warned us about the dire consequences of letting Big Social play God.”

Orlowski concludes his column thus: “Our social media puppeteers also have a choice [reform or continue doing what they are doing]. Will they complacently watch their creation destroy democracies, or will they take responsibility for fixing the hate-filled mess they’ve made?”

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/social-media-put-us-all-in-our-own-truman-shows-threatening-our-democracy-guest-column


Schumpeter Predicted This 70 Years Ago

As a former student of Peter Drucker long before I came to study psychology, I would like to contribute the wisdom and prescience of probably Drucker’s greatest influencer, Joseph Schumpeter, from his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. (3rd ed., 1950)

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“…the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective. And this entails two further consequences of ominous significance.

“First, even if there were no political groups trying to influence him, the typical citizen would in political matters tend to yield to extra- rational or irrational prejudice and impulse….

“….Second, however, the weaker the logical element in the processes of the public mind and the more complete the absence of rational criticism and of the rationalizing influence of personal experience and responsibility, the greater are the opportunities for groups with an ax to grind. These groups may consist of professional politicians or of exponents of an economic interest or of idealists of one kind or another or of people simply interested in staging and managing political shows. The sociology of such groups is immaterial to the argument in hand. The only point that matters here is that, Human Nature in Politics being what it is, they are able to fashion and, within very wide limits, even to create the will of the people.”  (pp. 264-265)

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This comes from part 3 of the book, the section on democracy, wherein he dissects the construct of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” and “the common good.” He points out the fundamental flaws of these ideas and it is amazing to me that 70 years later his writing sounds like it was done yesterday.

I would suggest that a more heterodox, less inflamed consideration of current events is called for.


Time for a Reckoning

Selena Gomez has come out with a strong critique of social media and big tech. One might say that she sees social media as anti-social.

I note as well that Facebook critic Roger McNamee, an early Facebook mentor and facilitator who has turned against Zuckerberg & Co., has recently blamed the Washington meltdown on Facebook and its bottom-line-focus-at-all-cost business model for facilitating it. I agree with McNamee and think his idea of focusing on the social media firms’ business models that rely on algorithms designed to increase viewers’ time on site so as to justify advertisers buying time on the platforms is what needs to be addressed. In this CNBC interview he also implicates social media for violence perpetrated by the far left.

https://www.cnbc.com/video/2021/01/07/banning-trumps-facebook-account-is-a-small-move-roger-mcnamee.html

McNamee says he doesn’t think censorship is the answer as he is a strong first amendment advocate. But business models are another issue altogether. I commend him for his take on this issue.


Do Social Media Fuel Insurrection?

Given the events of the past 24 hours in Washington, D.C., what are we to make of what’s happened? Is there something about social media use that allows its messages to get past our built-in censors and sense of rationality? There has always been a conflict between emotion or affect and rationality or reason. And history has shown that affect tends to trump reason. “Feelings” overpower reasoning; they take some kind of intracranial short cut (or, perhaps, detour would be a better descriptor), bypassing the left side of the brain overall and the cerebral cortex in particular, putting hormonal responses into overdrive while driving out any prior disposition to thinking before acting.

Social media are clearly being weaponized. Whether it’s ISIS recruitment or QAnon and other conspiracy theories, bad results are being propagated through the use of otherwise benign media. Congress seems intent on reining in the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets. Perhaps the time has come when they should be held to the same standards as the print media, who can be held liable for messages that they disseminate.

The troubling question is, however, who would be the censors? Is it conceivably possible to obtain an unbiased, objective evaluation of media content? I would argue, not at this time. Perhaps we turn the job over to AI? But then, we already have seen critiques that point out programmers’ own biases tend to manifest in their AI-driven constructs. Given the current state of Americans’ distrust of print or “mainstream” media, could we expect anything better in the electronic media?

This is the defining conundrum of our time.


Does Social Media Use Fuel Depression?

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine says this seems to be the case. The study recruited over 1,300 people between 18 and 30. They were screened at the start for symptoms of depression. Demographic, biographical, and behavioral data were also collected.

According to a review of the study published in Medium (https://elemental.medium.com/a-new-study-strengthens-the-case-that-social-media-use-fuels-depression-5eabf51b2918), after six months the researchers found “…that among those who were not depressed at the start of the study, heavy social media use was robustly associated with the emergence of depression. The more time a nondepressed person spent on social media at the start of the study, the greater the odds that person would go on to develop depression” (para. 5).

Study subjects who were on social media for five hours or more per day were nearly three times as likely to develop depressive symptoms as those who used social media two hours or less per day.

“Among the roughly 300 people who fell into the lightest tier of social media use, about 6% developed depression during the study. Among the roughly 150 people who fell into the heaviest-use tier, that figures jumped to 17%…” per the Medium review (para. 7).

The study also looked at those who were already exhibiting depressive symptoms at the start of the study and found that they were averaging about three hours a day on social media. Their use of social media did not increase during the six-month study period.

The research article itself is in press at the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The title is “Temporal Associations Between Social Media Use and Depression.” Authors are Primack, B.A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J.E., Escobar-Viera, C.G., and Fine, M.J. The Science Direct database has the full text.


Elon Musk Owes It All to Playing Video Games

So he says in this article in Inc. magazine. Apparently, he got interested in programming after starting to play video games. He thought he could make his own games. He started on a Commodore computer with the Basic language—remember?

He sold his first video game for $500 at the age of 12. Read more here:

https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/elon-musk-programming-coding-video-games-tesla.html


Media Psychology Theory

My former dissertation chair, Dr. Bernard Luskin, has made a very nice video presentation about media psychology and his own “3s” (three-S) theory of how media psychology works and how it can be used for good. Here’s the link.


Multitasking and Memory

I have posted several times in this blog about the downsides of multitasking and now here is one more: It seems that engaging with multiple media platforms at the same time may diminish one’s ability to remember things. This article in Scientific American cites a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

“The research suggests that ‘media multitasking’—or engaging with multiple forms of digital or screen-based media simultaneously, whether they are television, texting or Instagram—may impair attention in young adults, worsening their ability to later recall specific situations or experiences.”

Younger Millennials and all Gen Z’ers should take note. Here’s the link:

https://bit.ly/2HMlG2m


Screen Time v. Bed Time

Today’s Wall Street Journal provides a nice summary of some recent research about screen time. The gist is that what is on the screen is more important than the screen being on or not.

For parents with school-age children, there is sound advice for how to manage screen viewing for their youngsters, particularly for households that are now impacted by the stay-at-home mandates imposed by pandemic responses.

Here’s the link:

https://on.wsj.com/34kCNBb


Enola Holmes Rocks!

The Netflix movie Enola Holmes is well worth watching. This fanciful tale of a precocious 16-year-old, the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, is an odd hybrid that nicely bridges the gap between two audiences: young adults and those of us on the older side. The appeal is truly universal.

Ms. Holmes proves to be every bit as witty, observant, and persistent as her famous brother, played here to perfection by Henry Cavill (aka Superman). Enola is most fetchingly portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown and she is clearly the star of this show, outwitting everyone, including Sherlock. Helena Bonham Carter plays a very likable rebel mother to her three offspring. When she abruptly departs the household without saying goodbye, “the game is afoot.”

The writing is excellent, the cinematography superb. The psychological profiles of the Holmeses and certain other important characters makes for an interesting study in its own right. But rather than analyze these characters, it’s much better to just enjoy them! Sit back, relax, and enjoy 123 minutes of really fine filmmaking.


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