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Updated: Aug 22, 2022

(Originally published on Marketing Interactive.)

John Lydon once sang, “Anger is an energy”. Maybe that explains why I’m so tired all the time. I’m always angry and it’s exhausting; it requires so much energy. But why should I feel this way? I’m healthy, employed and living in one of the few countries that seems to have a handle on this whole Covid situation (unless you’re a migrant worker living in a dorm of course).

My sister has a theory. I send her a lot of rants about things I find on Facebook and Twitter. I send them to her instead of ranting on Facebook and Twitter because I don’t wanna be that guy. But my sister, who isn’t on social, always responds by asking me the same question, “Why do you do this to yourself?”, meaning why do I continue to scroll through content that I know will wind me up? I really didn’t know…until now. You see I recently watched the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

If you’ve not seen it The Social Dilemma is a feature length documentary starring the so-called “conscience of Silicon Valley” Tristan Harris, a Stanford computer science grad who spent three years as Google’s Design Ethicist. According to his personal website, in 2013 Tristan created a slide deck within Google that went viral, warning about the technology industry’s arms race to capture human attention and the moral responsibility companies have for the ways they restructure society. As you can tell from the harmonious state of the world in 2020, it was very effective!

The film’s objective is to open our eyes to the many and varied ways tech companies, particularly social media networks, manipulate our attention and emotions for commercial gain, with scant regard for the societal consequences. To do this it gathers a gaggle of remorseful geeks to tell us about the heinous technology they invented — infinite scroll, pull-down-refresh, the ‘like’ button — and how awful they feel about it now they have made “f**k you” money.

The irony of the film of course is that it attempts to manipulate the viewer into being outraged about the outrage being caused by the tech companies, which made me so outraged that I immediately took to social media to out my rage. I’m starting to feel tired again.

As a content and communications consultant, my job could be described as one in which I manipulate audiences through words, pictures and video to feel a certain way about people and organisations (WARNING: I’m doing it right now!). The difference, according to Tristan, is that I don’t do it on an industrial scale backed by billions of dollars of computing power running algorithms specifically designed to addict people, which brings me back to my sister’s question: “Why do you do this to yourself?”. Well, Tristan argues that I don’t, they do it to me.

Addiction is a contentious argument that always boils down to two opposing sides; those that blame the drug, in this case social media, and those that blame the user, so whose responsibility is it? Well, whilst Tristan continues to campaign for a more ethical Internet via his nonprofit entity The Centre for Humane Technology, he urges individuals to take personal responsibility, repeating the same old advice; monitor your screen time, turn off notifications for apps and make your phone monochrome so you don’t get distracted by all the pretty colours. But there is a third dog in this fight. A slavering beast with an equally insatiable appetite for user engagement and data. One that funds these companies to keep buying bigger computers to drive smarter algorithms to plunge us deeper into our addiction. Advertising!

According to Zenith’s 2019 Advertising Expenditure Forecasts, brands spent US$84 billion on social media networks last year, a 20% increase on 2018 (not to mention US$107 billion on search). That’s higher than the GDP of 135 countries and about equal with Sri Lanka. It seems they are every bit as addicted to social networks as the users, but is it right? In an age of purposeful brands that claim to stand with the climate and Black Lives Matter, is it unethical for them to spend money on the very platforms that spread fake news, protect hate speech and stoke division?

One way to show social media networks that we’re not okay (in every sense) is for users to delete their accounts, a faster and more effective way would be for brands to stop spending money with them. If Big Tech is really conspiring to addict us to their platforms at the expense of society’s health, then they are no better than Big Tobacco who conspired to turn us into nicotine addicts for over 50 years until 2006 when a US court found them guilty of racketeering. When that happens will you, dear marketer, be on the right side of history?


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