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Wanted: Moral choices on social media

Friday October 23 2020
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Dion Forster

Recently a South African radio show asked, “If you had to choose between your mobile phone and your pet, which would choose?” Think about that for a moment. Many callers responded they would choose their phone. I was shocked… But to be honest, I give more attention to my phone than to my beloved dogs!

Throughout history there have been discoveries that have changed society in unimaginable ways. Written language made it possible to communicate over space and time. The printing press, say historians, helped shape societies through the mass dissemination of ideas. New modes of transport radically transformed social norms by bringing people into contact with new cultures.

Yet these pale in comparison to how the internet is shaping, and misshaping, our individual and social identities. I remember the first time I heard a teenager speaking with an American accent and discovered she’d never been out of South Africa but picked up her accent from watching YouTube. We shape our technologies, but they also shape us.

The potentially negative impacts of social media have again been highlighted by The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The documentary, which Facebook has slammed as sensational and unfair, shows how dominant and largely unregulated social media companies manipulate users by harvesting personal data, while using algorithms to push information and ads that can lead to social media addiction – and dangerous anti-social behaviour. Among others, the show makes an example of the conspiracy theory QAnon, which is increasingly targeting Africans.

Despite its flaws, the doccie got me wondering what our relationship should be to social media? As an ethics professor, I’ve come to realise that we must make moral choices about how we relate to our technologies. This requires an honest evaluation of our needs and weaknesses, and a clear understanding of the intentions of these platforms.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, contends it’s our ability to inhabit “fiction” that differentiates humans. He claims you “could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven”. Humans have a capacity to believe in things we cannot see – which changes things that do exist. Ideas like prejudice and hatred, for example, are powerful enough to cause wars that displace thousands.

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The wall between Israel and Palestine was conceived in people’s minds before being transformed into bricks and barbed wire. Philosopher Oliver Razac’s book Barbed Wire: A political history traces how this razor-sharp technology has been deployed from farms that displaced indigenous peoples to the trenches of World War I and the prisons of contemporary democracies.

Technology is in a constant psychological, political and economic tug-of-war with humanity. Yet, some of today’s technologies are much more subtle than barbed wire. They are deeply integrated into our lives – they know us better than we know ourselves.

I have thousands of ‘friends’ on social media – far too many to relate to meaningfully. Yet, at times I can be more present to people that I have never met than I am to my family. This is not by chance – social media platforms are designed to seek and hold our attention. They are businesses, intent on making money. Harvard University professor Shoshana Zuboff, who features in the documentary, explains in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that social media “trades exclusively in human futures”.

We are the product

Zuboff says that social media platforms exploit our emotions and pre-cognate needs like belonging, recognition, acceptance and pleasure that are ‘hard wired’ into us to secure our survival.

Recognition relates to two of the primary functions of the brain, avoiding danger and finding ways to meet our basic survival needs (such as food or a mate to perpetuate our gene pool). These corporations, she says, are hiring the smartest engineers, social psychologists, behavioural economists and artists to hold our attention, while interspersing adverts between our videos, photos and status updates. They make money by offering a future that their advertisers will sell you.

Or, as former Google and Facebook employee Justin Rosenstein, says in The Social Dilemma:

Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.

If our adult brains are so susceptible to this kind of manipulation, what effects are they having on the developing minds of children?

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The author is head of depart-ment, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Stellenbosch University