Mark Buchanan cites tech engineer Jaron Lanier's caution about paranoia-optimized advertising algorithms.

Congress Is Clueless About Google's Biggest Problem

… the internet and social media … technology may be acting as a vast optimized engine of social degradation. That’s the argument of a recent book by former tech engineer Jaron Lanier, …
Facebook, for example, makes money by helping advertisers target messages — including lies and conspiracies — to the people most likely to be persuaded. The algorithms looking for the best ways to engage users have no conscience, and will simply exploit anything that works. Lanier believes that the algos have learned that we’re more energized if we’re made to feel negative emotions, such as hatred, suspicion or rage.
Social media is biased not to the left or the right,” as he puts it, “but downward,” toward an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs. In learning how to best to manipulate people, tech algorithms may inadvertently be causing mass violence and progressive social degradation.
… studies looking at how different kinds of emotions affect the engagement of online viewers find that messages designed to stir negative emotions including fear or anger tend to work better.
paranoid messaging taps into deep human emotions and instincts, and therefore tends to get the most attention. Get rid of the advertising model, Lanier notes, and anyone will still be completely free to pay to see poisonous propaganda. It’s just that no one will be able to pay in secret to have poison directed at someone else. That would make a big difference. [emphasis mine]

image sources: White Guy, Smaller Figures text mine

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In his blog Media Democratization and the Rise of Trump, Nicholas Carr discusses Silicon Valley's illusions in this regard.

  • The democratization of media produced not harmony and pluralism but fractiousness and extremism, and the political energies it unleashed felt more autocratic than democratic. Silicon Valley ideology was revealed as naive and self-serving, and the leaders of the major social media platforms, taken by surprise, stumbled from cluelessness to denial to befuddlement. Turner is blunt in his own assessment:
  •    " the faith of a generation of twentieth-century liberal theorists — as well as their digital descendants — was misplaced: decentralization does not necessarily increase democracy in the public sphere or in the state. On the contrary, the technologies of decentralized communication can be coupled very tightly to the charismatic, personality-centered modes of authoritarianism long associated with mass media and mass society."

He wrote an excellent review of Lanier's Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

  • Lanier sees social media as a manipulative system that demeans everyone it ensnares. The more information about ourselves we feed into it, the better it gets at steering our thoughts and opinions. The essential business of a company like Facebook, he argues, is behavior modification. Not only does it harvest incredibly detailed data about individuals’ habits and preferences, but it also runs myriad experiments aimed at determining which messages and other stimuli are most likely to grab attention, elicit strong reactions and trigger compulsive consumption of information. Needless to say, these kinds of sophisticated techniques for psychological engineering are extremely valuable to advertisers that want to sell us goods. They’re equally valuable to political operatives, legitimate or otherwise, who want to shape our views.

    . . . Although given to windiness, Lanier is an astute critic, able to see things others miss. But his analysis is distorted by a flawed assumption. He views the problems of social media as “blessedly specific,” resulting from Facebook’s and Google’s reliance on personalized advertising to make money. By closing our social media accounts, he contends, we’ll give Silicon Valley an opportunity “to improve itself” — to retool its business in a socially responsible way. That’s a cheery notion, but it’s naive to think that, if we just hit the reset button, Silicon Valley will reform itself and right its wrongs.

  • Missing from social media, Lanier suggests, are the “public spaces” of the physical world, where the presence of others reveals similarities that transcend differences. That sense of shared humanity, essential to a decent society, is lost when people are reduced to streams of messages and images. Even when we go out into public spaces today, Lanier observes, we are often gazing at our screens, not our surroundings.
  • . . . And the very design of smartphones and apps, research shows, saps us of the patience and attentiveness we need to evaluate the meaning and worth of the information pulsing through our screens.


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