Senators Charge Addiction Drives Social Media Platforms’ Business Models

April 28, 2021 by Victoria Turner
(Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Even after the call-to-arms of the Kenosha Guard militia group had been flagged on Facebook 450 times, it was not taken down because it did not “meet the standards” for removal, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. This led to the deaths of two protestors shot with an AR-15 by Kyle Rittenhouse, who drove from Illinois to Wisconsin to answer the call last August.

According to Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the “consequences” – from Kenosha to January’s Capitol storming – of the algorithms embedded into social media platforms “have never been clearer.” These algorithms have not only changed the way people engage and what they watch, buy and read, but “can drive people to a self-reinforcing echo chamber of extremism,” he said at a subcommittee hearing on the impact the platforms have in shaping the choices, opinions and actions of everyday Americans. 

Even though witnesses from social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube listed their efforts to mitigate the spread of disinformation or harmful content, the lawmakers slammed their business models, which they charged are primarily based on addiction.

“The business model is addiction. Money is directly correlated to the amount of time that people spend on the site,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. 

The “power” of these algorithms “to manipulate social media addiction,” especially of teenagers, is “something that should terrify each of us,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. 

This is not the first time the platforms have testified before Congress on how the algorithms embedded in their sites affect their users, with lawmakers questioning whether the platforms can properly police themselves absent federal regulation. 

Yet, as the world transitions into a digital economy, “existential threats” are growing exponentially quicker than the country’s’ ability to “mitigate or respond” to them, said Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and now president of Center for Humane Technology. For every 200 billion daily posts in Facebook’s WhatsApp, he noted, fact-checkers review only 100. 

One particular threat he mentioned was China’s rise in the world’s transition into a “digital society.” China, he explained, has a “digital closed society” of surveillance, censorship, thought-control, behavior modification and the like. 

On the other hand, he said, the U.S. has a digital “open” society that has turned Americans into a culture that is “constantly immersed in distractions” and “unable to focus on our real problems” like increasing suicide rates from cyberbullying, pandemic mis- and disinformation, civil rights and national security. If China were to fly a fighter jet above the U.S., the Defense Department would shoot it down. “But if they try to fly an information bomb, they are met with a white-gloved algorithm” by one of the platforms asking them which ZIP code they’d want to target, he claimed. 

The U.S. values free speech more than most other values, he said, but this comes at a cost when free speech is used as “a Frankenstein monster that spins out blocks of attention virally” in personalized ways to different people to “outrage” them. Harris explained that this personalization just leads a user into their own “rabbit hole of reality.”

The problem, he said, is not just the business model based on engagement, but the actual design model of the platforms themselves, which have created “yellow journalists” out of their users to generate “attention production” for letting loose our “five minutes of moral outrage,” which the users then share with each other, he said. By using algorithms in their editorial strategy instead of a human sorting the content for the user, he added, they have created a “values-blind process” that then allows harms to pop up “in all the blindspots.” 

And “value blindness destroys our democracy faster than people are essentially raising the alarms,” he said. 

This is not to say that the platforms have not been trying their best to curtail these issues, he said, but they are “trapped” by their algorithms and end up favoring content that is “addicted, outraged, polarized, narcissistic and disinformed.” 

The more “extreme” the content, the more “likes” and “follows” a user will get, and the more the user will continue to engage in this “attention treadmill,” he explained, because “if it bleeds, it leads.” 

In The News

Health

Voting

Social Media

Journalists Demanding More Action Against Online Harassment
Media
Journalists Demanding More Action Against Online Harassment

NEW YORK (AP) — The Associated Press' recent firing of a young reporter for what she said on Twitter has somewhat unexpectedly turned company and industry attention to the flip side of social media engagement — the online abuse that many journalists face routinely. During internal... Read More

Trump Suspended From Facebook, Instagram for Two Years
Social Media
Trump Suspended From Facebook, Instagram for Two Years
June 4, 2021
by Dan McCue

Donald Trump’s accounts on two of the world’s biggest social media platforms will be suspended for at least two years and will only be reinstated “if” conditions permit. The announcement from Facebook, which also applies to Instagram, comes just weeks after the independent Facebook Oversight Board... Read More

Reports: Facebook to End Rule Exemptions for Politicians
Social Media
Reports: Facebook to End Rule Exemptions for Politicians

Facebook plans to end a contentious policy championed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg that exempted politicians from certain moderation rules on its site, according to several news reports. The company's rationale for that policy held that the speech of political leaders is inherently newsworthy and in the... Read More

Facebook Releases Renewable Energy Impact Study
Social Media
Facebook Releases Renewable Energy Impact Study
May 26, 2021
by Reece Nations

MENLO PARK, Calif. — In an economic analysis of the company’s solar and wind projects that support its data centers across the nation, Facebook iterated its adherence to broader sustainability initiatives.  As of last year, Facebook’s fleet of energy-intensive data centers are powered entirely by renewable... Read More

Oversight Board Upholds Facebook Ban on Trump, With Caveat
Social Media
Oversight Board Upholds Facebook Ban on Trump, With Caveat
May 5, 2021
by Dan McCue

Facebook’s Oversight Board has upheld the social media platform’s suspension of former President Donald Trump’s Facebook account, but in doing so, it said the company failed to impose the penalty properly. “It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an... Read More

Senators Charge Addiction Drives Social Media Platforms’ Business Models
Social Media
Senators Charge Addiction Drives Social Media Platforms’ Business Models
April 28, 2021
by Victoria Turner

WASHINGTON - Even after the call-to-arms of the Kenosha Guard militia group had been flagged on Facebook 450 times, it was not taken down because it did not “meet the standards” for removal, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. This led... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top