Viewpoint: The Ethics of Social

Over the weekend, I had one of those intense two-hour arguments that you can really only have late in the evening, against the soundtrack of bottles clinking against one another in the recycling. The topic of this argument: is social media evil?

Given how often I grumble about Facebook and Twitter – in particular the increasing neediness of their notifications, and their aversion to showing posts in chronological order – it was strange to find myself in the position of defender.

My opponent is a staunch non-user of social media, as his Twitter account will attest – since its creation in 2012, it has been blessed with two tweets, one of which is just his own name, Ed Balls style. So, never able to resist a bit of the old Devil’s Advocate (you know, that sticky custard-flavoured spirit that people only really buy at Christmas), it was only natural that I took the opposing position.

But as I argued the case, I realised that, in spite of all the cynicism you naturally build up in this job, I actually do value these services. Before we get to that, though, let’s examine some of the (admittedly valid) concerns that my friend was putting forwards.

Politically incorrect?
First off, he was concerned that social media had contributed to the political landscape that has brought us such smash hits as Brexit, Trump, and a Conservative-DUP coalition. There’s no doubt that Facebook and Twitter have been the delivery mechanism that helped fake news become such a phenomenon, but surely it works both ways?

Social media can act as an educational tool, and – if we manage to escape our own bubble – introduce us to new voices. Take the growing awareness about trans issues, which has, at least in my experience, largely been spread across platforms like Twitter.

The best statistical test I could figure out was comparing demographic data. If you look at CNN’s exit polls from the US election, for example, the only age groups where Trump voters were the majority were 45-64 year olds, and 65 and older (both at 52 per cent).

Despite the much-reported rise in users getting friend requests from their mum, these age groups are still significantly less likely to use Facebook. According to Pew’s 2016 Social Media Update report, 72 per cent of 50-64s and 62 per cent of over-65s used Facebook. By comparison, 88 per cent of 18-29s were on Facebook – and just 36 per cent of this age group voted for Trump.

It’s not an exact science, but it’s enough to help me hold onto my optimism, and think of all the times I’ve had an opinion swayed by a tweet or Tumblr post, for the better.

Dopamine by design
The other concern, and one that’s harder to dismiss, is the mechanism that makes social networks so compelling. “How technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities,” as Tristan Harris, formerly a ‘design ethicist’ at Google, puts it in his fascinating blog post on the topic.

Harris points out that checking our phones for notifications and refreshing a social media feed both work on the same basis as slot machines – using ‘intermittent variable rewards’. Combined with a number of other factors, such as social approval and fear of missing out, he concludes that social apps are designed, intentionally or otherwise, to impinge on our freedom of thinking.

Variable rewards exploit our brains’ production of dopamine, a neurochemical that gives us a sense of pleasure when released. It acts as a reward, helping to reinforce certain behaviours. But, as influential psychologist B.F. Skinner found with his experiments on mice, back in the 1950s, the amount of dopamine diminishes when performing a task that always has the same results. If you vary those results – whether it’s pulling a lever that releases cheese randomly, or posting a photo which could get many likes or none at all – dopamine release stays consistent, and behaviour is strongly and quickly reinforced. In other words, a habit forms.

This is harder to argue with. In this industry, we often brag about how often people check their phones – 80 times a day, according to Apple; nearly 5,500, according to Dscout. Whichever statistic you choose, it’s testament to the power of dopamine.

I confess to absent-mindedly typing ‘fa…’ or ‘tw…’ into my browser’s address bar between tasks, without any actual intent of looking at them. To looking blankly at my phone screen while I pull down at the top of a Twitter feed, ignoring what’s going on around me in favour of that spinning blue circle. Chances are you can think of examples of your own behaviour which fit the same mould.

Before we get carried away on the ‘pleasure drug’ bandwagon, it’s worth noting that dopamine can be released by plenty of other things, from exercise to chocolate, meditation to sex. In fact, if you frame it right, completing just about any task can give you a hit of dopamine.

And while it does have a role in addiction, dopamine is a lot more complex than that. It isn’t always tied to pleasurable experiences – traumatised war veterans show a surge in dopamine when they are reminded of battle sounds, for example – and low dopamine levels are associated with conditions like Parkinson’s and ADHD.

Hook, line and sinker?
So, dopamine itself isn’t evil. But what about exploiting the human appetite for the stuff, in order to make more people use your app?

That’s a genuine question I’m asking there, and one you’ll have to answer for yourself.

For what it’s worth, my conclusion is that it’s fine, as long as everyone involved us aware of the tricks being used to hook them. Going back to Tristan Harris, he compares technology to stage magic, in the way that both exploit the vulnerabilities and blind spots of people’s brains. The key thing with magic is that it’s a contract. We understand that it’s a trick and – unless you’ve been cornered at an event – it’s one we agree to take part in.

As someone who plays a lot of games, I’m very familiar with the dopamine design loop that powers most social media.

I’ve recently picked Pokémon Go back up, for example. When you’ve spent nine months away from it, the game is pretty explicitly an intermittent variable reward system, appealingly dressed up in a theme of adorable pocket monsters – but it’s still enjoyable. At the end of the day, there’s not a huge distinction between dopamine and what we normally call ‘fun’.

Besides, social media brings with it a lot of genuine benefits, the kind that you can’t really get from a mobile game. It’s an enabler for creativity, planning social events and discovering new things, and the world’s greatest resource of those all-important lols.

But the awareness that I mentioned earlier – the thing that makes these design practices palatable to me – isn’t necessarily evenly distributed. It’s similar to the fake news problem, where the people most affected are also the least likely to be aware that it is a problem.

This isn’t the end of civilisation. (At least I hope not – how red would my face be?) But it’s certainly something to think about when we’re cheering the next Facebook announcement of how many easily-targetable users it has coming back on a daily basis to see our ads, or when we catch ourselves habitually drifting towards one of those blue app icons on the homescreen.