Designed to attract: Social media has turned users into products

Designed to attract: Social media has turned users into products

Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE

While corporations have unfulfilled responsibilities to their users, we can cultivate a healthier digital space

For many of us, our phone is the first thing we look at in the morning and the last at night. Filled with bright colors, responsive vibrations and countless friends during an increasingly lonely time, it’s obvious why we spend so much time on social media––it’s designed to attract. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased our reliance on social media and digital platforms as a major form of entertainment and information. 

Our reliance on social media for information can be dangerous, and with more information available to us than ever, misinformation has run rampant. A 2019 study found that misinformation and falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster. 

With our polarized political climate, thanks in part to social media and the echo chamber it provides, many users are weaponizing false claims of voter fraud, fake photos and misinformation in an attempt to undermine our country’s democracy. With the increased reliance on digital campaigning in our recent election, the information we get online has become much more valuable––misinformation coming from and directed by the White House has no place in our country or our feeds.

For massive companies, users are the product, boiled down to an infographic of how we can be sold to and bought. Surveillance capitalism is the newest form of control for companies like Facebook and Google who use it to exploit our personal data for profit. The things that feel good about social media can make us docile and keep us wired-in so that these massive tech companies have access to our personal data. 

These companies are chasing profit and we are the currency. Shareholders measure the success of these apps by how long they can keep us engaged. Push notifications, infinite scrolling based on algorithms, autoplayed videos, gamification of our lives and pull-to-refresh gestures all play a part in keeping us hooked. 

These apps we use are intentionally addictive and potentially harmful. Positive intermittent reinforcement through comments, alerts and likes keep users refreshing and coming back for more. But the more interaction we get, the more addicted we become. Social media companies use addictive features to keep teenagers and college students on the hook for years, embedding them into the fabric of our social lives. 

The Editorial Board is not immune to these problems. An internal survey of The Aggie’s Editorial Board found that our average daily screen time was approximately 5.6 hours per editor, 2.5 hours of which was on social media. 

It is important to remember that social media is a tool used to share, connect and scroll. But how we use that tool is up to us. From posts to protests, social media can be used to organize and inform users across the world. 

A study by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans think social media is important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues and that about two-thirds of Americans think social media helps give a voice to underrepresented groups. In the last decade, massive movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street have utilized social media to raise awareness, facilitate supplies and increase funds in the hope of change. 

Since the onset of COVID-19, online activism has fueled many activist efforts in response to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has organized on social media since its origins in 2013 and continues to be a positive voice for change. Exposing the horrors of police brutality and systemic injustice are some of the many ways the BLM movement has used social media as a force for good. 

According to a survey from July, 23% of adult social media users say their views changed about an issue because of something they saw online, with many citing the BLM movement as an example. 

These movements and studies clearly demonstrate the ability of social media to be used for good. The Editorial Board recognizes the value that social media brings to us at this unprecedented time, but warns against the dangers of misinformation and loneliness the online world poses. Although corporations must assume the ultimate responsibility of fostering a healthy online culture, it’s up to us to fact-check information in our feeds, be proactive in recognizing bias and think critically about the content we repost. 

It’s important that we all take steps to make our engagement and relationship with social media healthier. We can all do this: It’s as simple as turning off our notifications, setting time limits on social apps or just finding time to go outside. Don’t limit yourself to mindless scrolling of social media for entertainment––substitute your time so that you are healthier, happier and more varied in your activities.

Written by: The Editorial Board