The gaming of social media platforms

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I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics and technology, and drawing some initial conclusions about what the future holds (Spoiler: we’re screwed! Ha! Well, hopefully not, but probably we are). In my idle consumption research I came across a three-part video series (linked at the bottom of this post) about how the main social media platforms are being manipulated for profit and/or ideological change and found them fascinating. They’re not the usual hyperbolic, over-the-top, or sensationalist-type videos you typically see online1, and so I found them compelling. Strike that: they blew my mind!

For an example as to why I have a fatalistic view of social media and many other online “communities”, consider this excerpt from the about Twitter and how manipulation can get fake or ridiculous stories into the mainstream media to gain legitimacy and exposure:

“And it’s hard, because for a long time, especially through 2016, stuff would just trend, just show up in the algorithm, and then if the press wrote about it it was giving it more attention, if they were debunking it they were still giving it attention, and if you didn’t write about it you’d have this next wave of accounts speculating about why the mainstream media were ignoring it. So there was really no winning.”

Any action to agree with, disagree with, or even lack of acknowledgement spreads the message further. To the algorithms the message doesn’t matter, its popularity does.

As an individual who’s actively trying to avoid using social media, at least for idle/mindless consumption2, these three videos make me want to further distance myself from the big social platforms. But I see myself — probably naïvely — as someone who’s reasonably tech and advertising savvy enough to avoid or at least detect the manipulation.

But what about my folks? They don’t understand the cutting-edge computer science that goes into gaming the algorithms and rules these platforms have set up, which in themselves are at the cutting-edge of computer science. I’ve tried to explain simpler concepts to my dad for example, and there’s often a moment when disbelief kicks in: “that sounds like an immense amount of effort”, which turns to dismissal or denial: “I don’t think that’s happening because nobody would go to those lengths”. People not involved in “computers” generally have a hard time comprehending the sheer scale of the issues and events talked about in these videos.

One particularly good and potentially useful nugget is the explanation of what an attack on you, i.e., the regular Joe would look like, and a simple way to potentially identify something as fake or manipulative. The host calls it “the nudge”:

“It’s gonna come in the form of a retweet from a friend, it’s gonna be something funny that you resonate with. There’s a single moment you need to be looking for because you’re not going to detect these [fake] accounts … The moment you’re looking for is “a nudge”, the nudge to think a negative thought against a group of other people. … And you see someone saying something like “they always think that, we don’t do that“. That’s it: that nudge to think something against “them”. That’s what you’re looking for.”

This little bit of useful advice could have far-reaching effects. If the retweet/facebook meme in question does resonate strongly with something you believe in, ask: Why has this been shared this with me? Is it meant for me to just to retweet/share further?, and also, more importantly and holistically, ask yourself why are you willing to pass it on to others?

This is why I’m compelled to link to these videos. They do an incredible job of putting the seriousness, and most importantly the scale, of the issue into terms most people can understand. I think also, at least for me, the videos made me realise how much effort and resources the platforms are putting in to combat deliberate manipulation. For example, Facebook removes more than a million fake accounts per day. Per day. It’s literally warfare.

Check them out!
They are long at ~30 mins each but really fascinating and 100% worth your time!

Part 1 – YouTube:

Part 2 – Twitter:

Part 3 – Facebook:

  1. Although anything can be spun that way if you try hard enough.
  2. …and yes, I get the irony/contradiction that I’m posting links to YouTube videos that I’ve idly consumed.