Anti-Social Media Part II — The Quest for Likes

In my first column, I raised the impact of social media on news and public discourse, by exploring the decline of the traditional forms of media and the rise of social media as a source for news alongside the inherent problems with a social media echo chamber effect. People follow or connect with people on social media who they generally already share views with, so getting your news and discussing views on the platform only creates a self-affirming loop. This leads to a lack of knowledge of the views of others and, increasingly, a lack of respect for the views of others.

There is another central element to social media design that accelerates the echo chamber effect; the ubiquitous ‘Like’. Social media platforms like Facebook are operated by their computer algorithm, which uses Likes to learn about the user in order to tailor the design of their user experience. The curation of the Facebook platform by the algorithm is invisible to the user. Facebook wants your time on the platform to be engaging, so that the revenue-generating advertising is seamless. When you scroll through your news feed on your phone, you do not see posts based on popularity or recency. Users see a ranked sampling from the categories the algorithm has placed you in. Facebook categorizes every user and groups people together based on factors like political leanings, cultural background, personal interests and a range of other “affinities”. The algorithm creates a detailed profile of each user and those categories dictate what posts you will see. This results in a further compounding of the echo chamber effect. You already select a relatively small group to follow and now the platform only lets you see a selection of posts from people aligned with you. Is it any wonder why people online have trouble understanding how it is possible to have a viewpoint different from theirs? The platform makes people with other views seem like aliens.

Most people have no idea that this detailed categorization and targeting of posts is happening on social media, nor do they recognize how powerful these algorithms are. A recent Pew Centre study showed that 74% of Americans did not know that Facebook made such categorizations of users and over half of those surveyed were not comfortable with this process. I think the numbers would be quite similar in Canada.

Read: Facebook Algorithms and Personal Data

Listen: How Powerful is Facebook’s Algorithm?

While categorization manages the exchange of views on social media, the currency for that exchange is the clicking of the ‘Like’ icon. Clicking ‘Like’ powers the algorithm to rank and categorize the post and provides yet another data point for the profile of the user who did the clicking. Social media is not designed for nuance. You either “Like” a post, or you ignore it and scroll on by. There are two billion Likes on Facebook every day, so it has become the fuel for all social media algorithms. Like any other currency, the ‘Like’ has grown to be coveted by users of the social media platform. Many people are motivated to relentlessly pursue ‘Likes’ on the platform as they are a form of positive feedback and help reinforce their life or their views. Researchers have found that social media ‘Likes’ stimulate dopamine in the brain providing feelings of pleasure similar to stimulants like drugs or gambling. The Likes keep you coming back and like other stimulants, the social media feedback loop can be addictive.

Read: Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time

In my view, the pursuit of ‘Likes’ in the echo chamber setting of social media leads to two negative developments for political discourse and society more broadly. First, ‘Likes’ allows a group of people to simply reinforce their own views repeatedly without reference to other views. Since you trust your “friends”, you won’t be skeptical about news articles they share and you will generally support their posts on most things by clicking Like. Second, if you want to get that dopamine response and get attention to your posts, you will only post things that you know will get validation with a lot of Likes. I have seen this firsthand as an MP. On my Facebook page if I share a post about an amazing volunteer in Durham, that post may get a few dozen likes. If I post hard-hitting criticism on Justin Trudeau on the deficit, his trip to India or buying used jets from Australia, I will receive hundreds or even thousands of ‘Likes’. For politicians hoping to grow their social media following this is hard to pass up. Should I post more positive stories that attract scant attention, or should I become permanently “hard-hitting” to get the reward of hundreds of ‘Likes’? I can admit that I struggle with this dilemma every week and I see politicians on all sides succumb completely and simply broadcast to their own following. The trend is even worse on Twitter, where many users are only there to agitate (or troll) one side or the other to the delight of their following. In some instances, the worst agitators don’t even use their own name and appear to simply exist to critique or enrage others. Discourse is virtually impossible on Twitter.

The relentless pursuit of Likes on social media and the design of these ever-present platforms in our lives is changing our society. It is changing family dynamics, causing pressure in the schoolyard and changing politics. Even some former executives from these companies are beginning to identify some of these risks. With the problems with social media identified, my last column on the topic will explore a few solutions to help improve discourse.

Read: Former Facebook VP says social media is destroying society with ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’