Social Media is Manipulating Us
+ the engineering of consent
Digital networks and tools amplify human frailties and magnify malign human intent.
According to a 2021 report from Pew Research and Elon University, humans are “self-centered and shortsighted, making them easy to manipulate.”
(Their words, not mine) 👀
The report says that social media stimulates peoples’ emotions, playing to their survival instincts and stoking their fears.
Social media companies know everything about you. They can sell that information to anyone who wants to buy it, making it easy for bad actors to weaponize your emotions and mislead you to meet political or commercial goals.
Big data and social media are literally stifling our free will.
This line pierced me in the gut:
“Smart money armed with big data continually searches for opportunities to exploit dumb money—increasingly, individuals, swing voters, and even democracy itself.”
Reading this six years later feels dark and ominous.
But elites have been emotionally manipulating us for more than a century
I worked in PR for over a decade, so this topic is near and dear to my heart...
The first person you learn about in any public relations class is Edward Bernays. He was the granddaddy of PR & propaganda and was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew.
During the time of industrialization, output increased and capitalists worried that there wouldn’t be a big enough demand to move the surplus product.
So they turned to Bernays. He used his understanding of Freud’s psychology to help corporations make more money by tapping into peoples’ subconscious desires. He connected products to desired feelings.
The goal was to get people to buy what they wanted, rather than what they needed.
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” — Paul Mazur, Harvard Business Review, 1927
Bernays was also familiar with the use of symbols and their impact on the subconscious mind. For example, he convinced Betty Crocker to create an instant cake mix that required the customer to add an egg. He thought this would subconsciously appeal to women & housewives because of its fertility connotation.
It worked. Instant cake mix sales spiked.
In short, Bernays learned how to subconsciously manipulate the masses into parting with their dollars. He even called it the “engineering of consent.”
Bernays also believed that the common person wasn’t smart enough to be entrusted with the levers of democracy. He knew that consumption distracts people, keeping them docile. When you’re busy consuming, you don’t worry about politics or the government.
So if he could keep common people consuming, not only would that make his clients happy, but it would keep the task of governing squarely under the purview of a select Elite. That worked in his favor too, because he also consulted on their political campaigns.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of this country.” — Edward Bernays, Propaganda
Then, a 1954 book How To Lie With Statistics taught marketers how to mislead and manipulate people into believing just about anything with the right graphic and a well-placed statistic.
Today, big data and social media are turbocharging that manipulation
First, social media platforms know more about you than you do
A vast amount of data is being constantly collected about you: your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you go, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to different attempts at persuasion. This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your ‘engagement’ and increase the effectiveness of advertisements.
Second, algorithms favor posts with highly charged verbiage
If it makes you feel anger or fear, you’re more likely to click or react to it, either favorably or not.
Experts have found that YouTube, for example, is algorithmically programmed to direct users toward opinions more radical than the ones they seemed to hold.
A 2017 study by William J. Brady and other researchers at NYU measured the reach of half a million tweets and found that each moral or emotional word used in a tweet increased its virality by an average of 20 percent.
Another study, by the Pew Research Center, showed that posts exhibiting “indignant disagreement” received nearly twice as much engagement—including likes and shares— as other types of content on Facebook.
Third, these platforms are loaded with bots and fake accounts that are pushing fake news
This can happen cross-border too. Brexit is a prime example.
According to historian Timothy Snyder in his book The Road to Unfreedom, about 1/3 of the discussion of Brexit on Twitter was generated by bots — and more than 90% of the bots tweeting political material were not located in the UK. Britons who considered their choices had no idea at the time that they were reading material disseminated by bots, nor that the bots were part of a Russian foreign policy to weaken their country. The margin of the vote was 52% for leaving and 48% for staying.
Facebook’s early mission was “to make the world more open and connected.” But the political discourse on Facebook and other social networks is angrier and less civil than in real life, networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme, disinformation flourishes, and violent ideologies recruit fresh meat.
I don’t know what the solution is. Because humans can’t keep up with the speed and complexity of digital change, the only plausible remedy would be for us all to delete our social media accounts and go back to consuming news the old-fashioned way. But many of us rely on social networks for work and most of us are so addicted that a massive social media blackout seems unlikely.
So I think the best thing individuals can do is to be mindful of their consumption. Get to know your digital privacy settings. Resist the temptation to intellectual and emotional shallowness that defines our popular culture. Sharpen your media literacy. Question what you read. Question your own biases. Are they actually even yours? Keep your mind open. And please, be kind.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.