Social media manipulation has become an existential threat to both individuals and societies.Learning how to spot and avoid the perils of online life has never been more important.
Until fairly recently, most of us laughed off the idea of social media manipulation either as something that didn’t exist or that only happened to other people. Today, it’s open knowledge that algorithms can predict our behaviour better than our spouses and closest family with just a few hundred data points (likes, shares, clicks, etc).
Whistleblowers, scandals such as Cambridge-Analytica and documentaries like The Social Dilemma have blown the Pandora’s box wide open. We now know that social media platforms are utilizing cutting edge technology, artificial intelligence and psychology to commodify our attention spans and lure us ever further into their grasp. We’ve also learned that social media is not just used to entice us to buy products. It’s also used to manipulate elections, change public opinion about sensitive topics such as the environment and, in at least one case so far, help to facilitate genocide.
Here are 7 ways we can take back control:
1) Don't rely on social media for news
If this wasn’t already obvious before the Covid-19 pandemic, it certainly is now. Bad information literally costs lives and there is plenty of the stuff floating around on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. There is no denying that social media has given us instant access to news and in many ways empowered us to create it ourselves. But this is a double-edged sword.
There is an open door for bad actors that have the means and motivation to manipulate the system. Algorithms on the big platforms are also not generally designed to give more weight to well researched and factual content. They promulgate whatever people like and share. This often leads to the the proliferation of the most extreme viewpoints and herds Sheeple into ideological pens. Talking of which, the second way to avoid social media manipulation is…
2) Don't get caught in echo-chambers
If this is the first time you’ve heard the term, an ‘echo chamber‘ is a place where you encounter only beliefs or opinions that coincide with your own and where existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered. This phenomenon is explained by a simple psychological principle – confirmation bias.
We all tend to gravitate towards what we already presume to be true or whatever best fits into our worldview. The algorithms used on social media platforms are designed to take advantage of this and have become unbelievably good at doing so.
So good, in fact, that they’ve managed to separate us into warring digital tribes that know as much about each other as an ancient Roman would know about a Maya citizen living on the other side of the world.
3) Turn off push notifications
Another downright diabolical aspect of social media that also takes advantage of human psychology is push notifications. Everyone knows the feeling. It’s the dopamine rush (dopamine activates the reward pathways in the brain) that comes after a perceived successful social interaction.
Someone noticed you or wants to talk to you and it’s natural that you feel good about that. But this short term high doesn’t last long. What it does do, however, is reinforce the behaviour that led to it. This is the textbook description of how an addiction forms. Turning off all social media push notifications on your devices is one of the best ways to take back your attention and give it to what’s actually happening around you.
4) Limit your time spent on social media
This one may seem obvious, but not many of us actually do it. Limiting the amount of time you spend on your favourite platforms doesn’t only help you to avoid the many forms of social media manipulation, it also gives you more time to dedicate to the people and things that are actually important in your life.
If you can’t do this through strength of will and self-discipline, you might want to consider using an app that offers a helping hand. There are plenty of options out there, from simple blockers and time management apps to top-rate productivity tools such as FocusMe that empower you to take back control of your time and attention.
5) Don't click on ads
Another great method to avoid social media manipulation is to avoid clicking on ads whenever possible. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, on a personal level this will help you to avoid spending money on frivolous things that you’ll probably regret buying later. In general, it’s better to make a purchase after some proper consideration. When you see something you want to buy, avoid the impulse to make an immediate purchase and make a note of it. Once some hours or days have passed, ask yourself again if you really need that thing? Perhaps the money might be better spent on something more important or saved to help make a big dream come true one day?
The second reason not to click on ads is a communal one. The commercial model that drives most social media platforms is largely based on advertising. If enough of us clicked through less on ads, the big platforms would need to find ways to diversify their revenue streams and design services that were more beneficial to us, the users. If we take collective action, the way we use these platforms can allow us to shape them as much as they shape us. This idea brings us to our next important point.
6) Play your part
There is no doubt that governments around the world need to get tougher on social media platforms and put better regulations in place. But we also can’t sit around and wait for that to happen. There are a number of ways that each of us can do our bit. If you’re really passionate about this cause, you can petition politicians in your jurisdiction to introduce or vote for laws that aim to regulate social media. You could also create or join a grassroots movement and try to create change from the bottom up.
It’s also important to remember that each click you make matters. When you like and share content that is ethical, tolerant and generally good spirited, you influence social media to value these things more as well. You can also help to make social media platforms less divisive places by trying to engage with different viewpoints in a constructive way. Look to build consensus rather than prove a point.
7) Delete your social media accounts
There is always the nuclear option. If you’re truly addicted, it may be difficult to limit yourself. In most cases, the best way to kick a habit is to go cold turkey and ask family or friends to help you if necessary. You can always reconnect later if you feel that you’re ready to maintain a healthy relationship with social media. While it may be difficult to ‘lose’ some of the connections you have made, you can also use it as an opportunity to be honest about who you really want in your life. If someone is important to you, get their email or phone number! You can also back up any photos and videos you’d like to keep before you say goodbye.
Deleting your account can be a form of protest as well. Like any individual action, it may seem pointless on its own, but if enough people join a movement it will have a real effect. After all, what is a social media platform without any users?