SOCIAL MEDIA: What every user needs to know.
Let’s talk about Social Media. It’s pervasive, personal and persistent.
Yet, despite its ubiquity, and the copious amounts of time and attention spent on Social Media applications and services, very few people pause to think about why it exists, how it works, or the motivations of companies behind it.
What follows is a look at what every user of social media needs to know.
There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to Social Media: Persuasion and Influence.
For our purposes, persuasion, is the act of convincing someone to do or believe something. Its effects are thought to be relatively short-term.
Influence is the ability to shape a person’s decision-making framework and is often manifested by long-term effects on someone’s actions, development, beliefs or behavior.
The better you are at PERSUASION, the more INFLUENCE you have. The ability to INFLUENCE A LOT OF PEOPLE is a powerful force in our hyper-connected world.
So, just how big is social media?
This is a screen capture from an iPhone in early 2018 showing the most downloaded applications in the Apple App store. There are 3 notable things about this list:
- These are ALL Social Media apps.
- ALL of these apps are FREE. Not a single person has paid for any of the hundreds of millions of downloads represented in this list.
- It’s not obvious, but 4 of these 7 apps are owned by FACEBOOK.
This chart shows the WORLD WIDE UNIQUE MONTHLY USERS of the major social media applications.
The number of monthly FACEBOOK users is more than the total world-wide followers of Islam. The SUM of the monthly users from the 4 apps owned by FACEBOOK is more than 2 TIMES the total number of Christians. The SUM of ALL social media users on this chart EXCEEDS the number of people on earth by nearly 1.5 billion – because many people use more than 1 social media app.
Another way to look at the ubiquity of mobile devices and social media is the 2013 UN report revealing there are more people with mobile devices than people with access to toilets in their homes.
So, the scale of the social media industry is truly immense. The interesting question, therefore, is this:
HOW MUCH POWER WOULD THESE COMPANIES HAVE IF THEY COULD INFLUENCE THIS MANY PEOPLE?
< Tristan Harris TED Video >
This is the home page of the lab Tristan referred to in his TED talk – the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The lab was founded 10 years before Facebook started – by BJ Fogg – who realized that psychology could be used to design computer applications to get people to do or believe things they might not otherwise do or otherwise believe.
The lab has spent the last 24 years hacking how the human brain works to find effective ways to use technology to PERSUADE and INFLUENCE people.
Professor Fogg explains some of these mechanisms.
<BJ Fogg video>
PERSUASION PROFILES are highly personalized analysis of so called “susceptibility dimensions” or “persuasion strategies” in Professor Fogg’s terms.
They are created from two primary components:
The first is data collection. Those apps that we all downloaded for free, and the servers in the cloud they talk to, work together to observe and collect information about everything we do:
- They track everything we post, watch, click, share, and forward.
- They track which pictures and videos we view.
- They track our likes, pins, comments, snapstreaks and hashtags.
- They track who is in our social group and those we interact with the most.
- They collaborate across sites to track our search history, our purchase behavior, the ads we click on, and the websites we visit.
- If granted access to the GPS in our phones, social media apps track where we go and when.
The more obvious things, like Facebook posts, messages, photos, likes and shares, pile up at the rate of MORE THAN THREE MILLION per minute.
Keep in mind this information is tracked for EACH INDIVIDUAL USER.
The SECOND component is DATA ANALYSIS.
The collected data is collated and analyzed using a range of mathematical and analytical techniques.
Some techniques are relatively straightforward.
Here’s an example:
In 2002, Target began analyzing credit card receipts from customers who shopped in their stores. Their in-house statistician determined that when women started buying a specific mix of 25 or so products, they were likely pregnant. In fact, they were able to reasonably predict the specific trimester of the pregnancy.
Target then used this information to print pregnancy-related coupon books which they then mailed to the identified customer homes.
This New York Times article chronicles an irate father berating a local Target manager demanding to know why they were sending his teenage daughter coupons for baby clothes, cribs and other pregnancy-related items.
Not realizing what was happening, the Target manager profusely apologized to the father. The manager followed up a few days later and again called the father to apologize. But it was the father who apologized saying that he’d talked with his daughter and that “she was due in August.”
Another statistical method is MACHINE LEARNING.
In classical programming, programmers specify – or ‘teach’ a computer, if you will – everything it needs to do in a very detailed and literal way: bugs notwithstanding, the computer can’t do anything the programmer doesn’t tell it to do.
In contrast, MACHINE LEARNING programmers ‘teach’ computers how to learn for themselves. These systems “learn” by ingesting massive amounts of data and identifying correlations and inferences which are then used as predictive models in a variety of applications. These models go far beyond human capability to assimilate and decipher copious amounts of complex and diverse data.
MACHINE LEARNING is behind the advances we see in voice assistants powered by natural language processing, and self-driving cars which use machine vision to “see” the physical environment around them. It is also is the rocket fuel that moves PERSUASION PROFILES – and social media generally – far beyond the previous Target example.
In fact, using MACHINE LEARNING, SOCIAL MEDIA systems can do things we wouldn’t expect like extracting semantics from the text in our posts; identify people, places and things in our pictures; identifying our emotions, moods and mental states; use GPS data to determine where we live, work, go to school or prefer to shop; and, of course, determine our vulnerabilities across a broad and growing list of susceptibility dimensions mentioned by Professor Fogg.
The various systems that generate our individual persuasion profiles have become incredibly powerful and effective. Part of their power is that the results are highly personalized – these systems profile each user individually.
So, once these persuasion profiles are created, what are they used for?
Professor Fogg explains…
< BJ Fogg Video 2 >
If persuasion profiles can be bought and sold, who buys them? I certainly have never purchased a persuasion profile. Odds are, you haven’t either – and neither has anyone else you know.
That’s because we are not the customer.
Social Media sites and apps are extensive advertising platforms: their customers are advertisers. Facebook has 6 million active advertisers that use their system monthly.
So, if we are not the customer, what are we?
Whenever we get something of value for free, odds are, WE are the product.
We are packaged up as bundles of persuasion profiles and sold to advertisers and others. Some of these bundles can be very specific – a feature known as microtargeting may include as few as 20 individuals.
All social media websites have extensive functionality where advertisers can create, target, manage and measure their advertising campaigns. Billions of dollars earned by social media companies have been poured into these backend advertising systems.
Facebook alone delivers more than 517 million ads per hour.
The ability to reach most of the people on the planet is unique in the history of the world.
More significantly, Social Media is not mass media in which everyone sees the same advertisement. Unlike a newspaper, magazine or television ad, each person gets a customized message tailored specifically to them based on their persuasion profile.
Although originally intended to improve advertising results, behavior design and persuasion profiles are now being used in two other areas.
The first is app and website design to make them more attractive and compelling to users. These article titles are some of the 5,000,000 results for the Google search for ‘addictive app development.’
A primary goal of social media companies is to get people to use their apps and websites more frequently and for longer periods of time. The more time people spend in their apps and on their websites, the more ads they can serve and, therefore, the more money they make. Persuasion science and behavior design are used to make these apps and websites “sticky” – that is, more interesting, more compelling, and even addictive.
It isn’t a coincidence that social media apps feel addictive:
< Sean Parker AXIOS Interview >
< Common Sense Media Video - Will Ferrell video >
This isn’t just about children: we are ALL vulnerable. The addictions are real as evidenced by the emergence of internet addiction rehab facilities around the country.
The second non-advertising use of behavior design and persuasion profiles – and perhaps the largest area of concern – is the weaponization of this technology to drive agendas.
There are organizations and individuals who leverage this technology to persuade and influence opinions and beliefs rather than target ads or make compelling applications or services. Example organizations include political action committees (PACs), social action groups and even nation-states per the events in our recent elections. There have also been instances of hijacking by social justice warriors and corporate activism is an emerging concern.
The attention on this issue highlighted by recent events now in the news has resulted in significant concern about the “misuse” of this technology.
Here is Roger McNamee, a major early venture capital investor in both Facebook and Google – and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg – expressing his concerns:
But, much of this should seem familiar to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: although Social Media is a relatively new entrant in the war of ideas, the war itself is not new.
The War in Heaven was not fought with arrows, swords and helmets, but ideas.
There are two additional dimensions to the data that powers social media that every user of Social Media needs to understand: You should assume that everything on the internet is PERMANENT and that it is (or may become) PUBLIC.
To the very core of its commercial foundation, social media is anathema to privacy.
Some social media apps claim to only keep data for a short period of time before deleting it. Such promises should be viewed with considerable skepticism. In reality, there are a number of reasons why these companies want and need to retain your data. “Deleting data” sometimes means removing it from public view but not necessarily from their systems.
Further, there have been numerous instances of so-called “private” data becoming public thru hacks, accidental or willful employee disclosures, legal discovery proceedings, or inadvertent releases thru datasets provided for academic research. Of course, acquaintances, friends, and friends of friends can capture and repost private information to other sites where it is both discoverable and retrievable.
The PUBLIC nature of this data – our data – has other implications that fall under the Miranda Rights phrase “anything you say can and will be used against you.” Some examples:
- In the summer of 2017, Harvard University reported withdrawing the admission offers from at least 10 freshmen after reviewing their social media posts.
- Hours before the 2018 NFL draft, the status of expected number 1 draft pick was jeopardized after several questionable tweets surfaced in the press from 6 years earlier when he was 15.
- A 2015 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, found 43 percent of commercial organizations use social media to screen job applicants.
- The Transportation Security Administration (or TSA) has proposed including social media as part of the pre-screening process for the Pre-Check travel program.
- In my family, a daughter applied to be an officer in a major metropolitan police force. As part of the screening process, she was required to log in to her Facebook page with an interviewing officer, at which point the he methodically printed her entire Facebook history. They were interested in not just what was publicly available, but her private activity as well.
Every user of social media should assume every online post, like, photo, tweet, share and comment will be reviewed by future dating prospects, college admission and scholarship boards, employers, bank and mortgage loan officers, government agencies, and others.
So, what does all of this mean for you and for your family?
Clearly, there are many benefits to social media including the ability to stay in touch with family and friends, share experiences, capture moments to remember, and many others.
Like the Internet itself, social media isn’t inherently good or bad – it’s virtue or vice comes from how it is used. Social Media’s potential for good is every bit as great as its potential for misuse.
< Common Sense Media - Will Ferrell Video>
Social media has become is an inescapable part of modern life – it’s pervasive, personal and persistent. But, there’s a lot more going on underneath social media than connecting family and friends, sharing photos and funny cat videos.
The ability to persuade and influence has been deliberately researched and thoroughly refined for many years – and Social Media systems represent the state of the art. Their ability to reach billions of people is unprecedented in the history of the world.
All of us are susceptible to both persuasion and influence. Children are particularly susceptible to manipulation. Talk to your children about the contents of this video.
Children and adolescents need to be taught how to self-regulate their usage and to be introspectively critical – if not suspicious – of what they see and experience on social media. Young children are generally not capable of such critical thinking on their own, and most teenagers – and many young adults – mistakenly believe they are impervious to manipulation by the sophisticated systems behind these applications and services.
In advice particularly relevant to parents, Elder Bednar counseled against being overly controlling and restrictive:
“Be careful to not regiment excessively the use of technology or proliferate endless rules and restrictions. Desired attitudes and righteous behavior cannot flourish in the soil of constantly constraining control and coercion.”
(David A. Bednar, “They Should Proclaim These Things unto the World”, 2016 Seminar for New Mission Presidents)
Nothing these social media scientists, systems or companies are doing impede our agency to choose. A basic understanding of the material in this video dramatically reduces the potency of these systems to persuade and influence.
And finally, think before you post – permanent is a long time and public is irreversible.
There are several resources available at the website address shown which build on the information in this video with practical and specific tips for individuals and parents, lists of additional resources, and references for the statistics, articles, and other material found in the video.
If you have comments or suggestions, please send email to the address shown.