Stepping off social media: Countering big tech’s effects

Think for a moment about your daily feed on any given platform. What “side” of TikTok are you on? Whose posts do you always see at the top of your Instagram feed? Do advertisements online always seem to be what you were just talking about? 

Those familiar with these platforms know that personalized feeds and ads are no accident. Each medium is tailored manually and through algorithms to give us exactly what we want when we open the app. Although this makes for an enjoyable scrolling experience, this design is dangerous for numerous reasons: it creates echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs, it’s addictive, it uses artificial intelligence that reinforces social inequalities, and it drives consumerism and materialism.

Over the summer of 2020, I wondered how conservatives didn’t see the same videos of the Black Lives Matter protests that confirmed my beliefs about police brutality. Simply answered, they just didn’t. They were getting their own curated posts confirming their beliefs about looting and rioting. 

This is because each of our clicks, likes, reposts, saves, or even extra two seconds of viewing time on any content is monitored and used to show us only the content we want to see. Coming to terms with this meant I had to re-evaluate my sources of information and look critically at how these echo chambers were influencing my world view. Although I still have a similar perspective on politics as I did before I deleted, I had to recognize how entrenched social media made me in the division between left and right, simply through the algorithms’ decisions about what to show me.

This precisely curated system also means that we will always receive what we want from social media, which is distraction, entertainment, and validation. 

During these challenging times in the pandemic, our collective reliance on social media for connectivity and distraction has become more prominent. Some of us might use social media as a distraction or escape from real life, which is sometimes necessary for daily survival. 

 “Every notification…has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx,” wrote Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes. 

These dopamine hits can create similar effects to addiction in our brains. The more entertainment, distraction, and validation we receive the more frequently, the more dopamine our brain becomes used to and reliant upon, and the more we will need as our daily tolerance increases.

The political echo chambers validate our beliefs, and even our hatred or our fear. I must admit I gained a lot of insight and new awareness about many issues on social media, but I also enjoyed seeing posts that told me whatever I already believed, giving me some sense of self-righteousness that I realized I actually didn’t need or want.

 Another validating aspect of social media is sheer popularity—posting online becomes a gambit of seeing how many likes and comments you can possibly get. I had to step back and ask myself exactly what 89 hearts next to my post meant for my identity and my own self-worth. 

Our perceived worth also unfortunately is now reliant upon artificial intelligence’s determination of us. AI systems have been created by a society that already exists with structural racism, classism, and sexism, and does not only have no way of checking for these inherent biases, but also is designed to get better at replicating those existing structures. After doing some investigating into how these AI algorithms were created and affect society, I became aware of the need to extract them from my life as much as possible.

 If you are interested in learning more, I recommend watching the documentary “Coded Bias” for a more in-depth look at the social inequalities underpinning and being reproduced by our digital world.

Another unfortunate consequence with social media is its driving of consumerism through comparison and targeted advertising. I know I have been scrolling through social media countless times and seen a product I just had to have, just to have bought it and instantly had buyer’s remorse. I also remember seeing beautiful girls on TikTok and thinking how I needed to buy the exact makeup they use and the types of clothes they have in order to look trendy like them. 

Industries that profit off our comparisons and insecurities use social media and targeted ads to make sure we see a constant flow of products that appeal to us and beg for our money. This only gives more power and control to others rather than allowing us to keep our own financial power.

The puppeteers behind all of this are intentional in their manipulation of us through social media. Big Tech, which is the five largest tech companies in the United States: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, are the main driving force behind our use of screens and social media.

 They have monopolized and streamlined our daily consumption and have no plans to hit the brakes. If you are interested in further learning about the people behind the screen, I recommend watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix to get a better idea of your own social media habits.

All these ideas about social media culminated for me in deleting my accounts permanently, but that doesn’t have to be the case for everyone. Taking a closer look at the effects social media has on your life can hopefully help you understand more about your own beliefs, views, addictions, and daily habits.

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