Why social media can be harmful – with Get Rich of Lie Trying author Symeon Brown

Social media has proliferated worldwide—Facebook has 2.85 billion users— and so too have concerns over how the platforms are affecting individual and collective wellbeing. A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook was aware of mental health risks linked to the use of its Instagram app but kept those findings secret. And internet watchdogs have found so many other issues across different networking platforms.

So why is social media potentially harmful and are we aware about it?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Symeon Brown is a reporter and journalist at Channel 4 News. He was shortlisted for an Orwell Prize in 2019 and shortlisted at the 2018 British Journalism Awards. He has written for a range of media including Vice, the Guardian, Huffington Post, CNN, New Statesman and The Voice. Exposing the fraud, exploitation, bribery, and dishonesty at the core of the influencer model, Get Rich or Lie Trying asks if our digital rat race is costing us too much.

Business owner at CJB Productions, journalist, author and speaker Catherine Bosley

Licensed Master Social Worker, and Founder and CEO at Best D Life – Helping You Find the Bliss in Your Busy, Daniela Wolfe

Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja

Social media consultant, digital wellbeing coach and author of the Social Media For A New Age books Katie Brockhurst

Senior Partner at Roberson Duran Law, Jaclyn Roberson

President of proprietary-AI powered cybersecurity platform Hush Lynn Raynault

Here are some of the resources from the show:

The Social Dilemma is a powerful exploration of the disproportionate impact that a relatively small number of engineers in Silicon Valley have over the way we think, act, and live our lives. The film deftly tackles an underlying cause of our viral conspiracy theories, teenage mental health issues, rampant misinformation and political polarization, and makes these issues visceral, understandable, and urgent.

Jaron Lanier, the Silicon Valley ‘computer philosopher’, thinks social media is ruining your life.

Books looked at this week:

Symeon Brown: Get Rich Or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy

Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

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Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to season 2 episode 66 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky topics and skills by reading through the best books out there.

Our world is constantly scrolling on phones, especially on social media. In today’s world, many of us rely on these platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram to find and connect with each other. While each has its benefits, it’s important to remember that social media can never be a replacement for real-world human connection. According to Datareportal, 4.6 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, use it – and we’re spending an average of two and a half hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms. 

But is it really good for us and how do we safeguard the potential harmful effects of it?

Here is business owner at CJB Productions, journalist, author and speaker Catherine Bosley, and Licensed Master Social Worker, and Founder and CEO at Best D Life – Helping You Find the Bliss in Your Busy, Daniela Wolfe on their thoughts.

CATHERINE BOSLEY: The reality is, no one, no business, no organization is immune from the potential harm of social media. As a TV news anchor, I’m a prime example. My story of online humiliation got me invited to shows like Good Morning America, Oprah and Inside Edition. I went viral globally. But all it takes is going viral in your own circle for life to become a living hell. Luckily, faith, family and friends to the rescue for me to help me survive and thrive. But the ordeal taught me something everyone should know the best way to protect yourself from social media damage? It’s simple. Listen to that voice inside your head when it tells you not to do something. With cameras all around us all the time, there’s little room for a what was I thinking? Moment before it could become what I call your forever and for all to see. We need self discipline like never before, including with what you post. As much as you hope privacy settings will protect you, only you can protect you with mindfulness. So instead of living in regret, you can shine online the way you should.

DANIELA WOLFE: 

Well, there are many benefits of social media. As with all good things, you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve worked with many individuals who have not only lost hours of their life on social media, not even realizing it, but over time throughout the day, but also experience negative consequences, such as not meeting their responsibilities at work, school or at home because they’ve forgotten to do things or not been focused when they should have been. They’ve also had maybe some negative self concept and depressed feelings from whether comparing themselves to others or social exclusion and seeing events that were happening. There weren’t a part of in extreme cases, there’s even been some cyberbullying. So some keys to safeguarding yourself are to limit your time on social media, as well as have other social outlets to counteract those negative effects.

(Back to host) 

Our first book is from Symeon Brown, who is a reporter and journalist at Channel 4 News. He was shortlisted for an Orwell Prize in 2019 and shortlisted at the 2018 British Journalism Awards. He has written for a range of media including Vice, the Guardian, Huffington Post, CNN, New Statesman and The Voice. His debut book is Get Rich Or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy. He was kind enough to speak to me, hence here is a short portion of the interview, but find the full chat on http://www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.

SYMEON BROWN: Aspiration in itself isn’t new. I think what has happened now is that certainly in the UK, the UK has always had a very rigid kind of class system. Up until a certain point recently, social mobility was not really a thing. People died in the class they were born in, and their expectation for their lives is very much step by those terms. Uh, America of course, is very different as the idea of America dreams that anybody can make this work hard. Uh, despite the obvious pitfalls of that, there are cases of America not being quite a class society as much as I think they are. There are certainly more of a sense of movement and bullshit, dominance and luck being able to play a big part in people’s kind of success. And I guess the big comparison is The Gold Rush, which I kind of wrote a bit about where people were just turning up in California and there’s thousands from all across the world hoping to strike you gold, uh, basically make something on this about needing family backgrounds or connections or wealth or any of these things. So I think that certainly in the UK in recent years, specifically, I guess with the main kind of financial services and globalisation in which the kind of work that has grown in this country has been arguably middle class type work, the working, uh, class became more kind of a global phenomenon. Lots of working class work, sported abroad and being done by other people. That nature. And so I think the possibilities for our lives have shifted, the political emphasis has changed. So obviously you have governments like Labour saying that 50% of people used to go to university, which obviously changes people’s sense of self and expectations for their life. So you did have a big push towards kind of so called social mobility, towards diversity in the broadest sense, uh, class, gender, a little bit of race throwing in there as well, and I guess questioning the perceived wisdom of the upper classes. They still have power, but not absolute power. So I think this is a very much a part of this kind of way that generations grow up thinking they can make it. And this is, I guess, to some extent a positive development. But the same manner, there uh, are still major inequalities that have taken shape and are shaping the way that we live our lives on the internet. And actually. The people that I focus on in my book. Who bought into the belief we used to work hard to kind of make it. The reality is that there are still invisible barriers to the very top.Um. Ability that actually if we want to improve the lot for the month of masses. Actually the only way to do that is not necessarily by collective based politics of collective bargaining. Is by individual hustle. And individual hustle alone. It means that fundamentally real inequalities never really they lose  their lack of imagination trying to shift people. If people can’t make it, then they thought, well, you know what? I’ve got to do anything I can to get rich or lightweight.  And um, then my book, it kind of looks at how that can escalate in the digital world from kind of my name is representation  to wholesale fraud. But then at the same time, the other thing is taking place as well. The rise of these kind of technology platforms make promise you that you describe your following, you can make it, you can make it in this new world. But actually you have two platforms owned by a few shareholders who are billionaire investors, billionaire founders. Whilst everybody now is effectively engaging in  work, which there is no kind of guarantee, but um, they follow the kind of idea effectively it’s the expansion of the gig economy. And so that is the kind of context of a lot of the way we live our life on the internet, where business and work has become conversed the world that we live in now. I guess people who are my age, they always talk about the fact that we’re the first generation who grew up without the internet, but also grew up on the internet  because, um, we had that crossover period where it became a big part of our life and we remember being like a teenager, being an Emerson, all these things. So I think that it’s like  what it is. The world is so vastly different with these platforms in terms of them becoming a primary site of both human culture but also labour. So   you were a bit of a weirder if you met your partner on the internet or your friends on the internet, or spend all your time on the internet, all these kind of things. But now it’s just like this is just normal where we are.  If you think about when Coburn happened, it was like that was the only kind of game in town. And it’s still a significant part of our lives. Most people who do certain forms of work, a lot of times they get to connect via LinkedIn, if you’re in a kind of white color work. So I think that it’s like  our entire way of life is centred around  internet and internet based platforms. And that social media too, certainly how we get our information.  But it’s really what I was looking at was what happens when this becomes a primary industry of work and labour. Certainly in the creation of content.  Which everybody.

Has been kind of drawn into. Especially the kind of younger people who see it as being the most visible means to well paying work. At a time when work is certainly in real terms. Real wages have kind of stagnated. Certainly if you think at this moment in time of inflation pressure on wages. And then when you think about the fact that there is a generation that raises so much ambition, where they expect to have a middle class life, but things like property ownership is collapsed by under 40. And these basic monitors of that success,    or certainly earning online by social media platforms and various guys, e commerce and influencing the content production of some form of vehicle,  it has stepped in to kind of fill that gap in that promise.   So  I guess it’s like  when you say better or worse,   it almost  depends on the way that you see it. Certainly the boom, uh, is not without a kind of bust or implications for the way that we behave online in the way that it’s kind of changing us. And also about the fact that there are a few people getting very affluent from our lives and convergence on their platform  that they tell us are instrumental to the success of our lives. So if Twitter says that you have to be on Twitter, if you’re a journalist,   you have to be on Instagram or LinkedIn, because that’s the way that you make some bread.  These are the people who suddenly control a lot. But even before we look at kind of the political implications about  the role of reporting on the role that Facebook played in various elections. So instead of information,  it’s more about the fact that there is a concentration of power and influence in a few people’s hands, and the rest of us are becoming kind of reluctant and have workers on their digital plantations, and then how that can change our behaviour as a result.  And I write about a little bit about the impact of certain Twitter, and about the fact that the platform that thrives us with kind of outrage and descent and then how for that airport entered all of us to basically act like  the front cover of the sun and try and have things up to our audiences, this then changes so much about how we perceive the world. So  to editorialise it and say what’s good and what’s bad, I mean,  there uh, are obviously pros to being able for people to talk like, you know what, I can express myself. I do have a voice. These media barons, they don’t control everything that we talk about. These things you can say are positive, there’s a democratic impact on that. But at the same time, there’s also an intranspital power in a few people’s hands as well. Let alone the kind of wider implications of what are the values of these platforms and how do we then solve them out and reproduce them. So    whether it’s good or bad, it really depends on your perspective. But certainly I think about question it is worrying when we see this  centralisation of power in a few rich people’s hands.  Maybe the thing about my book, right, is that my book is about  the influencer economy and the various influencer economies. And it does a comparison in how it functions like a pyramid scheme.  And to prove that, look at how the pyramid scheme has been reinvented in various guidance online.  Probably the best example would probably be that of crypto and NFC, which has collapsed of late because they followed the logic of a positive scheme where the only value driven by speculation and the belief that you can grow up more in the future supplier today, so you can sell somebody else. And actually if you can’t get more people involved in it, then the value is worth nothing.   And so, um, it makes this argument that this is the uh, logic of these platforms. But fundamentally,   the real critique is basically of an economic model. The values, uh, the late safety individualism, the fact that people are kind of becoming reluctant workers on platform.  If you tweet, if you post videos or pictures of instagram or stories,  you are making content for these platforms. Therefore,  inadvertently, you are making these platforms money. So you work for them in a flexible capacity, but without any guarantee to pay,  without any power, um, because they can change the algorithm when they want, but you’re entirely beholden to them.  Workers movements are what kind of workers to have rights, receipts, being able to have stay in the workplace, a lot of things, and these things don’t apply.  It’s almost  a perfect model, kind of neoliberal worth of peak flexibility, no guarantee of income unless you can generate yourself and you can prove that you have value and all these kind of things. So it’s like,  I guess, where people turn into this as  their main form of income.  It carries some real kind of  problems and challenges and as even before we look at the scams and the ponding schemes and the fraud. But my view was that largely  the only reason why this is worrying is because of the lack of real security  in the real world offline if people have that, people have tenure that is secure.  If people have  secure, uh, income, people have all these things. And what they do on the platforms does not really matter because they’ve got security.  It’s not their primary  space of labour, but it’s the precarity offline that drives it online. And so it was very much like the book is about influence the economy, but really the critique of our real economy and how basically  it reveals something about this particular moment in time and the values that we have  in the UK.

(Back to host)

In the UK, Brown explains that at the beginning, much of this recent aspiration can be linked to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government’s policy to raise the number of adult graduates. It went from from 3.4 per cent in 1950 to 19.8 per cent in 1990 following the growth in polytechnics and the Open University aimed at the aspirational working classes.

However, when there were outbreaks of violence in urban communities, the government blamed this on a lack of drive, and in 2006, it launched the Reach Mentoring Scheme, with the focus on ‘raising the aspirations and achievement among Black boys and young Black men, enabling them to achieve their potential’. Ten years later, white working-class young men from post-industrial towns were diagnosed as being severely under-represented in higher education, and an ex-Conservative education secretary told universities that they needed to help ‘raise the aspiration’ of ‘white British disadvantaged children’, believing that aspiration was the only thing an underdog needed to succeed.

Brown says  that the drug trade is notoriously violent but it still manages to recruit a conveyor belt of young men desperate to be someone only to find themselves trapped after falling for the promise of a loyal family and an easy income. Such benefits rarely materialise, but the trade is nevertheless a rational choice for teenagers who have often failed in education when it is exalted as the only route to a good job. The pressure to dress for success and fake it till you make it is overwhelming. While social media has accelerated this trend, it did not create it.

The growing desire for fame and wealth among the old working class was part of the political landscape defined by Blair’s era, where the might of the financial markets had been unleashed, manufacturing was in decline and inequality had spiralled. New Labour’s pitch was taken from the US and Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, built on an ease with the wealthy but a discomfort with a workforce unequipped for the new millennium. Whilst Blair’s New Labour had abandoned the traditional collectivism of its trade union roots in favour of the individual.

The hysteria was represented by the new holy trinity of fame: high society such as Princess Diana, ostentatious celebrities like designer Versace, and the self-made famous with a story to sell like US rapper Notorious B.I.G. And Apple has been transformed from a company selling computers into a way of life for millennials, with Brown stating that it has as much brand loyalty as some religions. The impact of the iPhone alone is proof that this is no exaggeration. The value of the company has increased by a staggering 127,647 per cent since 1997. By 2019, Apple’s revenues were larger than the entire GDP of Portugal.

In this globalised world order, money was power, and for Blair what mattered was ensuring individuals were equipped to make it. Today, all they need is a smartphone and access to Instagram or TikTok.

Brown adds that our internet habits have slowly morphed from congregating around a desktop to keeping a more powerful mobile computer in our palms 24/7. With it, new avenues of seemingly limitless riches presented themselves. No single invention has created more wealth than the internet. Today, the drug cartels have been drowned out by the wealth of internet kingpins like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

As millions of us clicked to take a voyeuristic interest in the mundane affairs of ordinary people, we wrested power away from the mass media that had once had a monopoly on our attention. In the process, we generated a new global currency: influence. Apparently, the highest-earning influencer, Kylie Jenner, can earn up to $1.2m from a single post on Instagram, yet not all influencers want cash or are even selling products.

The problem is that social media encourages us to glamorise ourselves and misrepresent our reality as it introduces a profit motive into our social lives, with a profound impact on the way we behave just for more likes.

In real terms, 30-year-olds today in the US and UK earn less than they did 20 years ago, and the cost of living has increased to such an extent that it is common in many Western countries to house-share deep into our thirties. Home ownership for the under-forties has collapsed, yet advertising has never been more aggressive. Our consumer spending is higher and personal debt has rocketed. 

It is in this climate that ‘influencing’ seems a viable career, providing a potentially luxury lifestyle with a low entry threshold. For influencers, deception is lucrative and unfortunately becoming increasingly extreme.

Brown says that in recent years influencers have sold laxatives as health drinks, promoted disastrous music festivals that never happened and been caught up in serious fraud and multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes. Companies that sell regulated products like cosmetic surgery procedures and financial services have increasingly turned to morally ambivalent influencers to market their goods to vulnerable consumers, away from the watchful eye of the authorities. On closer inspection, influencing looks like a giant pyramid scheme. 

Brown then turns to some very extreme examples of influencing and manipulation. He interviews Ebenezer, a Cameroonian migrant who is paid to be racially abused by viewers in a livestream as part of the “In Real Life” or “IRL” culture. He maintains that this is better than the Uber driving job he had before. Similarly, a woman encouraged to perform a sex act on a robot during a live-stream says coolly: “If you don’t have haters, you ain’t poppin’.”

He also examines the workings of the US fast-fashion group Fashion Nova, whose business model is driven by social media. There are aspiring influencers, Brown points out, who spend huge sums on the brand in the hope of reaching an adequate influencer level to receive gifted hauls. In the process, an army of micro-influencers provides the firm with “free labour as promo girls”.

But at the bottom of the industry are garment workers such as Virginia, a mother-of-four who left her family in Guatemala to seek a better life, but instead works in appalling conditions and is unlawfully underpaid by multiple fast-fashion employers. Collectively, the industry earns hundreds of millions of dollars, but it apparently has no qualms about exploiting its labour force.

The book’s strength is its forensic examination of power and economic structures, including the women endorsing dubious plastic surgeons, who offer them aggressive discounts in response. Many are hiding their botched results, and concealing these transactions from fans in hopes of the companies correcting them in private. He even mentions Aga, who had claimed to be black but in fact was not a black woman at all. She was born in Poland and would become one of the many white influencers accused of ‘blackfishing’.

One BBC investigation even found that a trio of high-profile influencers appeared happy to promote a diet drink laced with cyanide. The drink did not really exist, but the influencers thought it did. When confronted, they claimed they were just doing their job. There is a notable abdication of responsibility by many influencers when it comes to the brands they are paid to not only promote but often reinvent. 

And companies such as It Works! had made its money signing up desperate young women and keeping them paying into the platform as long as possible even as they took home nothing. Many who had signed up were oblivious to the hustle, only to realise later that they had been scammed. It was a form of pyramid scheme. As such, it is easy to see why consultants were pressed on the importance of recruitment. That was where the real money was made. The new promise of an income from social media has reinvigorated an old, exploitative and discredited model of wealth acquisition, targeting the most precarious. This is network marketing, a pyramid scheme in all but name.

In an age of winners and losers, being a loser has become a moral failure, yet as more people turn to social media for their self-worth and livelihood, the biggest beneficiaries are the platforms who sell our attention. The only certain winners are the tech companies.

Tech giants have been popular purveyors of dishonesty and moneyed influence apparently. Google has a rap sheet that stretches back well over a decade. In 2009, as the authorities began to crack down on the illegal mining of our data, Google was fined €1.49bn by the EU for advertising violations. In 2019, YouTube, owned by Google, was fined a record $170m by the US Federal Trade Commission for violating children’s privacy laws and collecting the data of under-13s without parental consent.

Facebook has also been besieged by scandal in recent years. In 2019, it paid $5bn to resolve an investigation with the US Federal Trade Commission, which alleged that it ‘used deceptive disclosures and settings’ and had obtained personal phone numbers for security but repurposed them to target advertisements.

The surveillance of the internet by the Big Tech companies has been for one purpose: to know our thoughts before we do, so they can personalise adverts and sell our attention to the highest bidder. This industry has helped make California the fifth-ranked economy on the planet, at $3.1tn.

The book does a good job of highlighting just how perilous living a life designed to go viral can be – and how quickly the thing that made you famous can become passé. It raises important questions about the value we place on superficial appearances, and how social media all too often encourages us to sacrifice thinking deeply in favour of a neat sound bite. It is about being aware of what is behind the airbrushed images and get-rich-quick schemes.

With that in mind, it makes sense to look at the Netflix documentary film The Social Dilemma. Here are a number of ex big tech senior employees including Jeff Seibert, who was a former senior executive of Twitter.

THE SOCIAL DILEMMA

The final book is from one of the founding fathers of virtual reality Jaron Lanier. TIME magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010. His previous books, Who Owns the Future? and You Are Not a Gadget, were both international bestsellers. Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now: Regain your autonomy online, offers ten distinct arguments, an all but irrefutable case for deleting your social media accounts. Whilst he is staunchly against it and has no social media presence, he posts his thoughts in a bid to help others critically think about their usage. Here he is speaking to Channel 4 News in the UK.

JARON LANIER

Lanier’s first argument is that social media can manipulate your behaviour, putting your free will under threat because algorithms are watching your moves.

The data on you compiled by these algorithms – when you log in, how long you stay logged in for, what you buy – is then compared with the data of millions of other people. This enables the algorithms to make predictions about how you will act. It basically compares a shed load of data and makes statistical decisions based on likelihood. 

So for example, if it finds that people who eat the foods you eat tend to find a particular political candidate less appealing when their picture is bordered in yellow than when it’s bordered in green. And then this politician’s campaign team gets its hands on that information, they may send you campaign ads featuring her green-bordered likeness. Hence the probability is that you would be more likely to vote for her. Because humans can be predictable. 

And social media companies have no qualms about selling your information. After all, you’re not their client; you’re their product. Their clients are advertisers – the companies that buy the data about you and then use it to convince you to do certain things. In the author’s view, this amounts to direct manipulation of your behaviour.

Sure, advertising has always been manipulative, but it’s only recently that ads could be tailored based on your personal preferences and online actions. Of course, this tailoring only has a statistical effect – that is, it’s not 100-percent accurate. However, over an entire population, statistical effects are reliable. Therefore, it’s more likely than not that you are being manipulated.

Social media is also designed to be addictive. For example, behaviourists discovered that moderately unreliable feedback is more often engaging than perfectly reliable feedback. So social media use this knowledge to their advantage. 

Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, referred to this as the “social validation loop.” Sometimes someone likes a photo and sometimes they don’t. This randomness can get addicting. 

Furthermore, social media algorithms are usually designed to incorporate a bit of randomness, too. These algorithms are called adaptive algorithms, and they’re constantly adjusting themselves in order to be as engaging as possible. They will continuously show ads at different times of a video you are watching to see when you may be more likely to engage with it.

And just like random social feedback, algorithmic unpredictability also contributes to social media’s addictiveness. Indeed, social media are so addictive that many parents in Silicon Valley send their children to Waldorf schools, where electronics usually aren’t allowed. Even Parker said “God only knows what it is doing to our children’s brains”. 

The second argument is that the social media business model is shady and downright dangerous. Lanier argues that we don’t need to rid the world of smartphones or online socialisation to fix the problem, we need to rid the world of social media’s business model. He refers to it as BUMMER, and it stands for Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. Think of it as a machine that modifies our behaviour, compiles data about people and then sells it to advertisers for profit.

The author lists the six components that make up the BUMMER machine: 

1. Attention Acquisition leading to A**hole supremacy. This means that the way social media is designed ensures that the loudest and most unpleasant people are the ones who get the most attention. 

2. Butting into everyone’s lives. This refers to how these companies butt into people’s lives by recording their online activity.

3. Cramming content down people’s throats. Personalised content bombards us whenever we use social media.  

4. Directing people’s behaviours in sneaky ways. As I said before, algorithms are used to encourage you to buy things or support political candidates. 

5. Earning money by letting the worst a**holes secretly screw with everyone else. BUMMER companies get rich selling users’ data to advertisers and other companies. This information is used to manipulate people. 

6. Fake mobs and Faker society. There are hordes of bots online pretending to be people that contribute to the superficiality of society.

In the United States, there are only two companies that rely entirely on the BUMMER business model, and therefore contain all six of its components: Facebook and Google. Other companies, such as Reddit and 4chan, may contain some of these components, but not all of them.

It’s important to remember that no single technology is to blame for society’s current ills. The issue is the BUMMER business model and its reliance on the manipulation of people who use technology. The author stresses that you don’t need to throw out your smartphone or quit every website you’re on. You just need to stop contributing to BUMMER services. 

The third argument is that social media can turn people into a-holes. You don’t have to look very hard to find insults, mean comments, and trolling on social media. People tend to act worse and exhibit less empathy when they are on social media.

When algorithm customization creates personalised feeds for everyone, this means everyone is seeing different content, making us less able to understand the point of view of other people. 

And on social media, people often get caught up in the jostle for status and social recognition. Unfortunately, the biggest jerks usually attract the most attention, which has a trickle-down effect: more people are tempted to start acting more like this more of the time.

Why does this happen? The author’s personal hypothesis is that there’s a switch within us all, and it can be set to one of two modes: solitary or pack. When in solitary mode, people, though more cautious, are freer and more creative. They also tend to be nicer, because they aren’t so preoccupied with where they fit within a social hierarchy.

When we are in a situation where social status trumps all other concerns, pack mode rules. An example of this is the powerful business people and leaders who deny important issues. They are so concerned with their own power that they stay with their pack and say it’s a hoax. 

Social media encourages this mentality. Society as a whole has statistically shifted toward meaner behaviours because more hateful posts tend to get more attention. But Lanier says LinkedIn is better because professional advancement trumps social posturing apparently.

Argument four is that social media contributes to the mass production of misinformation. Fake people are ubiquitous online, and while their accounts might look real at first glance, they’re in fact bots controlled by fake-people factories – companies that sell fake followers for profit.

For instance, in early 2018, an article in the New York Times reported that the standard price for 25,000 fake followers on Twitter was $225. The Ashley Madison story for example showed that men, who were willing to have affairs, were paying this dating site thousands of dollars for what ended up being a bunch of fake women.

This is where component F – Fake mobs and Faker society – comes in, because fakeness isn’t only an issue for people who use BUMMER services; it warps the truth elsewhere, too. For instance, BUMMER often breeds the wildest conspiracy theories. This happens because disseminating paranoia and crackpot ideas is an excellent way to get attention, and attention is what BUMMER platforms are all about. 

Conspiracy theories are spread in many ways, including fake stories, clickbait and memes. And, in the echo chambers of BUMMER, these stories, links and memes are picked up by the bots behind the fake accounts and amplified to a deafening degree.

Arguments five and six suggests that social media pit people against each other and destroy our capacity for empathy. 

Context matters. It not only determines the consequences of a given utterance; it’s also what makes that utterance meaningful. We’re constantly adjusting what we say and how we say it based on context. 

BUMMER destroys context – or, rather, it puts people in its own context. The context of BUMMER is all about numbers that measure what you’ve given to the BUMMER machine. How many likes have your posts gotten? How many followers do you have? Such metrics come to represent who you are on BUMMER platforms.

Because of this, people will do almost anything to improve their numbers, including taking things others have said and putting them in absurd contexts. And remember: many of these “people” are not actually people at all. This not only makes what you say online meaningless; it also makes culture shallow.

And as mentioned before, lack of context also erodes empathy. After all, if you can’t understand another person, you can’t feel for them, either.

This is where component C – Cramming content down people’s throats – comes in. Because of algorithmic customization, everyone’s personal feed on BUMMER platforms looks different. We’re each being fed content that’s been tailored just for us. This, in turn, makes it impossible to understand others, who have seen different content. The model shows we are deprived of a single common experience.

The seventh argument is that negative emotions are the likelihood of social media. Social media platforms inevitably establish unreasonably high standards for physical beauty and social standing. After all, online, you can compare yourself to the whole world and not your immediate surroundings. 

In fact, Facebook researchers all but boasted about their ability to make people unhappy, without the targeted individuals even realising it. If Facebook users are the product, it means the ability to manipulate users, will naturally appeal to Facebook’s real clients, the advertisers whose goal is to manipulate potential customers into buying their product. And if Facebook was really doing good in the world by connecting people, why not just let them without the algorithmic manipulation?

One reason is that BUMMER is the only game in town. We may know that social media is making us unhappy, but, as competitive beings, we log on and play the game anyway, trying to post the most fascinating content or to gain the most followers. After all, everyone else seems to be doing it, too.

But competing against everyone else – and it really is almost everyone – is a surefire way to lose, and feeling like a loser is yet another reason to feel unhappy. If you were really content and simply spending time with friends in real life, you’d have no reason to engage with BUMMER. If you’re constantly feeling anxious and inadequate, however, you’ll be more likely to contribute to the BUMMER machine – logging on to check how many likes your picture has generated, for example. This keeps you addicted and enables BUMMER companies to rake in ever-higher profits.

The eighth argument is that social media companies make a lot of money from what you give up for free. Just take translators, for instance. Today, rather than employing a professional translator, people often use free translation software such as Google Translate. Though such software is often referred to as “intelligent,” it actually relies entirely on information that Google takes from users.

Every day, millions and millions of translations, made by real people, are compiled by Google’s algorithms. Any information you provide on a BUMMER service is fair game, so Google can use any translation you upload to optimise its own software.

In other words, even as these companies are warning that people will soon be replaced by robots, they’re failing to remunerate them for the contributions they make, not to mention the data they provide. Put more bluntly, the  machine is contributing to people becoming financially insecure. The most obvious solution would be to change the BUMMER business model.

In the 1960s, pioneering information technologist Ted Nelson proposed a model where people would make and receive mini-payments for content on a digital network. However, this model was rejected by the people who contributed most to the design of the internet. These people insisted that software should be free and open, which, eventually, led to BUMMER’s ad-based business model.

People were initially attracted to Gmail and Facebook because they were free, enabling these companies to grow so rapidly. But, by getting a Facebook or a Google account, we agreed to be spied on, and we relinquished our claim to the content we produce while using their services, which wasn’t a smart trade.

The best way, Lanier says to reverse the damage would be to have people pay a small fee every month for the content they consume. People wouldn’t only be paying; they’d be able to make money for contributions, too. Though this wouldn’t work for everyone of course.

The penultimate argument is that social media platforms have a negative impact on our political sphere. The first people to start using a new social media platform are usually young, educated and cool, and they sincerely want to improve the world. But, even as they’re trying to effect positive change, BUMMER is cataloguing their habits and actions, their preferences and dislikes. 

This puts these young idealists in an unfavourable position. It corrals them together, making it possible to barrage them with messages that, statistically speaking, make them a bit less tolerant or a bit more irritable.

In other words, it sections them off, encouraging tribalism.

In the years leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, there were some major LGBTQ wins in the United States. Trans people gained wider acceptance and could more comfortably come out, while same-sex marriage became legal. Social media was no doubt partially to thank for these gains.

But when the trolls themselves figured out that social media was helping the cause, they began targeting LGBTQ people with derogatory messages and generally encouraging bigotry and hatred online.

Suddenly, these attitudes became more acceptable than they had been in decades. And now, in the United States, people the author refers to as “astonishingly extreme anti-LGBTQ figures” have been elected to the country’s highest public offices. As long as this model is around, this process will continue to play out in politics, because this idealistic, hopeful demographic is transformed through manipulation. 

Finally, number 10 says that social media constitute a new spiritual framework that turns human beings into something that can be hacked. The author says that BUMMER can be seen as a religion because it affects society as a whole and not just an individual. It’s an organised system that is influencing and guiding, in ways both subtle and overt, a huge swath of the world’s population. Therefore, using BUMMER essentially amounts to adopting, in Lanier’s words, a “new spiritual framework.”

Google’s mission statement is, in part, “to organise the world’s information.” In Silicon Valley, this translates to “organise all reality,” since information, in tech terms, is reality. Meanwhile, social media users are in a constant struggle to optimise their presence by ranking higher in searches or making their videos optimally viewable. Lanier believes this ethos leaves no room for spirituality, no possibility for ineffable mystery.

The body is simply something that will eventually be hacked, and the same goes for the mind. Thus, the old spiritual framework is being replaced by a new one – the framework of optimization proposed by BUMMER.

This framework undermines society’s faith in the special nature of human beings. It puts them on a level with everything else – computer programs, robots and all the other optimizable gadgets under the sun. The model  is reportedly depriving you of the ensouled experience that is personhood. In the BUMMER world, you’re nothing more than a set of algorithm-determined actions and behaviours, a sum of likes on your posts and the followers you have. Hence he says if you want your soul back, delete your accounts.

So to sum up:

Brown says in Get Rich Or Lie Trying that in the past decade, the internet has gone from a millennial salvation to our financial damnation. Pyramid schemes disguised as employment have blossomed thanks to the immeasurable pressure to be rich, especially among young men and working-class racial minorities. The saturation of unobtainable wealth and luxury goods online has put a burden on young adults and teenagers to keep up with their peers. As our way of life resumes post-pandemic, we have to ask ourselves what constitutes a good life and an economy that delivers happiness and security for the greatest number of people. 

In Lanier’s book Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts that using social media is like living in a behaviourist’s cage – you are constantly being watched, analysed and manipulated. Rather than any particular technology, BUMMER, the business model of the social media companies that are watching you, is the underlying problem. This business model relies on selling your data to advertisers that want to change the way you act and convince you to buy; it also encourages trolling behaviour, deprives people of their economic dignity, hampers the democratic process and undermines our experience of humanity. The solution to these problems is to delete your social media accounts until a better model emerges. But for now take a vacation from BUMMER – say, two weeks or a month – and see how you feel afterward. It may not become obvious how addicted you’ve become to social media, or the adverse effects it’s having on you, until you take a break from it.

I used to travel with a old brick Nokia phone, which I still have and is probably going to survive an apocalypse. The battery lasts for two weeks and you can still text and call. The feeling of utter joy when being detached from social media is amazing. And guess what, you’re still speaking to people, just meeting them face to face! Please join in on the conversation by following @howtobe247 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and subscribe on the podcast, which can be found via http://www.howtobe247.com. 

Please do leave a review if you found this helpful! Thank you to Head of Brand, Communications and Digital for Hema Vyas, Tina El-hage for your lovely comments saying the podcast is “courageous and kind.”

Just before we go, we get to hear from Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja, social media consultant, digital wellbeing coach and author of the Social Media For A New Age books Katie Brockhurst, Senior Partner at Roberson Duran Law Jaclyn Roberson, and president of proprietary-AI powered cybersecurity platform Hush Lynn Raynault on their expertise in the area. See you in two week’s time!  

ANGELA KARANJA: 

Social media in and of itself is not harmful. Now, to say that it’s harmful would be equivalent to saying that electricity is harmful. And you and I know that we can use electricity to warm a room or cook a delicious meal, or we can use electricity to kill a person. So, just like electricity, how we use social media, or indeed allow it to use us, is what makes it harmful or not. And what do I mean? If you’re using social media to compare yourself up or down, then it’s harmful to you as a person, because, uh, the only results we get from comparing ourselves with others is loss. When you compare yourself down, you look down on others, you lose humility and your ability to authentically give. Now, when you compare yourself up, on the other hand, this can leave you feeling naughty enough and affect self esteem. So let’s not use social media to compare ourselves up or down, but let’s use it intentionally to contribute, uh, positively to our own wellness and that of others. And now this is a process that requires an intentional, continuous personal assessment. Continuously asking ourselves, is social media using me or am I using it positively? Is it helping me or is it killing me?

KATIE BROCKHURST:

One of the harms of social media that worries me is our ability to focus, to do deep thinking, to be creative. They’ve shown now in studies that this high information load that we receive through social media and the multitasking that we’re doing every time we get a notification is blocking up our brains, and it’s stopping us from being able to focus for very long. So there’s a neuroscientist called Moshe Barr who says we need space in order to be creative. So one way to safeguard against this is to take space from social media. Your mobile device, it’s to go out for a walk in nature, actually going into nature, resets the executive attention. Uh, so, um, how can you create more space from it? Putting it into do not disturb mode, switching it into aeroplane mode, and sticking, um, it in a drawer, creating pockets of space every day that allow you to retrain your brain?

JACLYN ROBERSON:

As a family law attorney, I have a unique perspective on social media and its harms. Social media posts are often used as evidence in court proceedings. Taking the social media and airing your frustrations about your legal matter may seem cathartic, but those posts could find their way in the hands of a judge or jury. Ranting about the judge’s ruling may not endear you to the court in future hearings. One thing to remember is that once you post something, if you’re involved in a court case, you can’t delete it. Deleting social media posts during a court case is generally considered destruction of evidence, which could get you in big trouble. My advice, talk to your lawyer before you post that risky status update or comment. Even better, curb your social media activity until your case is finished. 

LYNN RAYNAULT:

Social media, at its core, is a great thing. It allows us to connect with others, reconnect with old friends and colleagues, stay in touch with people from far away. But there are dangers to it as well. Where once our parents warned us not to talk to strangers or get in a stranger’s car, • so too, does that rule apply in our digital lives. Most kids won’t know 50% of their so called friends on social media. So, in essence, they’re talking to strangers. Or if an account, a social media account, is not locked down and made private, anyone can see your posts. And then again, you’re talking to strangers. Many of those strangers are looking to take the information you share and use it against you. They will impersonate you. They’ll ask your network for favours or money, or otherwise hack into their accounts, get access to bank information, credit card information.  They’ll create dummy accounts, lookalike accounts, take your image, take your name, um, take all the information that you share on social media and replicate it, and create dummy accounts and act as if they were you. With those accounts, they’ll use your information to scam relatives. This happens quite often. And they will steal your identity. At the end of the day, they can use all of this information and create real financial harm for you. This is identity theft. Um, at its core. They use social media to build a profile around you, get answers to things like bank challenge, uh, questions that helps them to steal identities. Social, um, media is a tool that criminals use today in the same way that once they sat out your house and staked out a house in a car, they are staking out social media and trolling it and looking at for open accounts or making friends with innocent folks that they’re I can prey upon.

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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