Social Media Have Us Just Where They Want Us.

April 29th, 2022

It’s still hovering around freezing in the mornings, but temperatures rise by early afternoon to hover around the 10 to 15˚C range. I usually get up around 7:30. By then the birds are well into their daily routine. The robins are pulling up moss to get at juicy grubs and worms. It’s great to see so many golden crowned sparrows and hummingbirds in the yard competing for access to the feeders. My recliner is in a position in the living room where I have a great view of bird activity in the front yard. 

Years ago, Carolyn and I would get up, get ready for work, have breakfast and listen to the CBC morning program. Now we open our computers or other devices and immerse ourselves in the problems of the day as expressed by MSNBC, CBC News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, et cetera. Do this every morning and the only result will be a profound depression. I’m not suggesting that we should not check out internet news sources, but it’s imperative to keep their offerings in the right perspective. After all, they are all in the business of making money and that one characteristic of their existence should give up plenty of pause. Same goes for Facebook and its offspring Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. 

This morning in my Pocket email (check it out) I got notice of an article in The Atlantic, a liberal magazine I’ve been reading on and off for many years. The article is called WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID: It’s not just a phase.* The author is Jonathan Haidt.The (very long) article does a great job of dissecting the way social media have driven us into a number of hard social positions that make it increasingly difficult to engage with people we would not normally have anything to do with. I posted this paragraph from the article on Facebook: 

“Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”

Then I wrote: 

“Yes, indeed. But I’m not sure I would hang out with a lot of people in any case, ones who still have Canadian flags on their pickups and shout ‘Freedom’ at us at every turn.”

I was being slightly provocative, wondering if the article was going to be right. It was, in spades. On my computer, there was no further comment from Facebook, but on my phone I get several follow up suggestions: Totally agree!!! You got that right!!! I know right!! And Most definitely. 

These ‘suggestions’ for follow up comments make it easy to agree with me with very little effort. This, according to the article fosters a sense of us versus them, hardening social positions and creating even more division than already exists in our lives. Facebook could easily have provided comment suggestions like: Are you sure?!!! Is this what you really think?!! Maybe we should do a bit more investigating!!! Or something along those lines. 

It’s obvious that Facebook’s design is conducive to producing, over the past ten years, a decline in social consensus and civility. It seems we are having a more difficult time than every just being civil to each other…on the roads, in the grocery stores, and online. I’m picking on Facebook, but other platforms are just as guilty as Facebook of undermining our sense of democracy and encouraging an increasing acceptance of autocracy and oligarchy. 

Haidt argues that there is no malice in what social media are doing except that they are following the drive for profit. The article argues that: “ Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best ‘engaged’ its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a ‘like’ or some other interaction, eventually including the ‘share’ as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.” And the more shares, the more money for Facebook. 

I think it’s time we got a lot more savvy about how easily we can be manipulated into producing exactly the kinds of inputs on Facebook that make people increasingly impatient, angry and intolerant, precisely those kinds of emotions that create an environment where money can be most easily accumulated for Facebook itself. 

I strongly recommend the Haidt article. You can read it on The Atlantic website. I think you can read up to five articles before having to pay…but don’t quote me on that. If Haidt is right we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years. 

Before wrapping up this post, I do want to tell you that in the proper spirit of sociological research I’ve been watching several YouTube channels of people doing things like boat building, auto repair and restoration, industrial mechanics, woodworking, and that sort of thing. I suspect given the many clues they give me that they are most likely Trump supporters or the equivalent. Yet none of them talk politics, at least not directly, and they all offer interesting content that is unrelated to politics. My point is that people are multidimensional. We need to remind ourselves all the time that there is always a point of potential contact between people if we look for it. Still, I worry about Haidt’s findings. I reckon that he’s probably correct and that saddens me no end. 

* (Illustrations by Nicolás Ortega.)

12 thoughts on “Social Media Have Us Just Where They Want Us.

  1. This was an extremely fine post from a sociological perspective. I always read your posts and reflect upon them. This one was exceptionally inspiring. Please keep writing. I am listening.


  2. We are slowly losing our rights and our social safety net. Things look good on paper in black and white unless you end up in the trenches and then you are at the mercy of the system designed for failure trying to escape its grasp. Those looking in read about a system that looks good on paper but don’t delve deeply enough to learn about the system’s pitfalls from those in the trenches. This form the basis of our divide and social media perpetuates the problem.


    1. Yes, Mama Bear. We are slowly losing our rights and social safety net. However, I don’t think that the solution to this dilemma is to listen to Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives. They are clearly and unabashedly lined up with the Canadian Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association to continue to fill the coffers of private business with public money. I’m writing about this in my upcoming blog post.


      1. At this point in time I feel like nobody is doing enough, nobody cares, and this is now part of our culture.


      2. I’m afraid you’re correct in your intuition about the situation. As we get more and more wrapped up in what C.B. Macpherson calls possessive individualism the outcome is more ‘self-centredness, less altruism, greater impulse to aggression and violence, and much less sharing. The concentration of wealth is evidence enough of these trends but so is the political and open far right populism that has infected our governments.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Roger,
    I keep taxing my mind and spirit while trying very hard to see a social path out of this fast approaching train wreck. I’ve always known about the life-affirming energy created by keeping a hopeful, “can-do” attitude. Sometimes I lapse into negativity for a bit of despairing darkness, but then I immerse myself in a bit of garden, dog-dad or house work. That often brings me back to a calmer mind and body.
    Last evening. I was walking Emmett on his leash on a sidewalk in my neighbourhood when I briefly chatted with my neighbour who was walking his yappily unfriendly little hairy pup on a leash. Since there was little peace for an actual human conversation, and after we’d already done our initial hi and longtimenosee greetings, I asked him why he had a tall antenna in his yard. He quickly stated that he was a ham radio operator.
    I responded to my neighbour with, “well that will be useful when Armageddon arrives”.
    He replied with a “won’t be long now”.
    I responded while walking away, “a few weeks”.
    It appears that I believe this battle is already well underway, this battle between good and evil mentioned in the Bible.
    Many Christians believe the good guys will win, and some of these people will even resort to evil acts (like murder) to pave the way to their win.
    Social media sites may be forcing this war to a head.
    Maybe weather chaos will pierce the head and allow it to drain.
    The battle is not likely winnable by either side anyway. Think Ying versus Yang.
    Why did I feel hopeless for a few seconds after that strange interaction with my new neighbour?
    I’m human.


    1. Why didn’t I respond to this earlier? I just missed it, that’s why. Every once in a while I miss things. I’m human too. In any case,
      it’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic to your neighbour. Armageddon, if it happens, will be a slow boil. The U.S. right now is seething. I have a niece who lives in Oregon but she’s moving back to BC because she can’t stand the politics, even in Oregon which is much more progressive than many other parts of the country.
      They may be able to turn things around in the U.S. but it’s unlikely in the short term. The country is being split more and more on geographic and political grounds. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Very strange.
      We have our own little train wreck in Canada. His name is Pierre Poilievre. He wants to make Canada the freest country on earth. By free, I’m assuming he means every one for him/herself. No more interfering social programs. Wide open gun laws, et cetera.
      I’d never vote for the little prick, but he seems to have a following…although it may be more ephemeral than real. We’ll see. Hang on to your hat.


  4. Hello Roger this is a great article that will require a second read for me

    will I see you at Bunny’s celebration of life tomorrow? cheers John


  5. Disturbing post to say the least. I agree, people are many faceted. I have to keep reminding myself that they mean no harm with their repost spiteful memes. I too watch YouTube videos of said things to get away from the sadness of war and aggressions.


    1. Thanks, Grant. I’m certain that there’s a fair degree of cynicism in the management of social media. There’s a lot of money involved
      and that will always taint anything they do. Their algorithm don’t care about what they encourage and the idiots that believe the crap they get fed, well, they don’t care either. They’re angry and stupid: not a good combination. Anyway, how are you doing? I’m pretty messed up. But I walked a couple of kilometres today without dying. It was close, but I made it and remained standing!

      Liked by 1 person

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