Networks set up to make life more interactive also operate in a more insidious way by harming your peace of mind, writes David Quinn
In George Orwell’s 1984 it was ‘Big Brother’ who was constantly watching us. ‘Big Brother’ was the totalitarian state – it wanted to control every aspect of our lives, shaping our thoughts, our days, what we love, and what we hate, constantly keeping us under surveillance. Step out of line, and you would face serious consequences.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, everyone is still under tight control, but the yoke is lighter. If you step out of line you are ‘merely’ exiled to a faraway island. You do not suffer death or imprisonment and in general people do not feel oppressed. They are encouraged to seek pleasure and genetically programmed to accept their place in life.
Around two billion people use Facebook every single day”
In Brave New World the state is not in charge. This time it is a giant corporation. Huxley wrote in the 1930s, and even though totalitarianism existed, it was something like Ford Motors that controlled every aspect of our lives.
Can there be any doubt that if Huxley was writing his book today, the corporation he would have in mind would be Facebook, or one of the other social media giants?
Around two billion people use Facebook every single day. The numbers would be much higher were it not for the fact that China, with its 1.4 billion people, bans it, and large parts of Africa still have unreliable internet connection.
But if we are not on Facebook, we are very likely to be on something else, whether it be TikTok (mainly used by young people) or Snapchat, or Instagram or Twitter.
China has its own versions of these social media giants. In fact, TikTok is a Chinese company.
I can’t pretend to be exempt from all of this. I use Facebook once a day or so, but Twitter much more. Twitter tends to be favoured by journalists who obviously want to be read and Twitter is a great way of attracting readers.
But what is happening is that we are inviting these companies into our lives in very significant ways. These corporations are unlike anything that has existed ever before.
The closest comparison might be television. Once these became widespread, we suddenly spent hours in front of them. But there is a vast difference between a television set and being connected to the internet and sharing so much of your life on social media.
You could watch TV, but TV could never watch you. Your smartphone can. It can literally listen to you unless you know how to ensure it doesn’t.
But even when it isn’t listening, it knows what you are looking up on the internet. Facebook knows what you are interested in and then it will begin to put your interests in front of you through advertising and other means.
Therefore, if you have looked up a particular product, it will start to suggest other, similar products to you. If you have read a given article, it will suggest similar articles to you.
The social media giants know a great deal about you. They often know where you are at any given moment, right down to the restaurant you might be in and where you are holidaying. This isn’t only because you might share a picture of yourself while you are out having a meal or on a beach somewhere. It also knows that you have looked up a restaurant or holiday online, and booked them.
In addition, the locator on your phone will transmit where you are, unless you have turned it off. Google Maps can pinpoint you with total accuracy.
Maybe this is all harmless? Does it really matter if Facebook knows what you are up to at any given moment, or what you are interested in?
Yes, it does. For one thing, Facebook, like all companies, is chiefly interested in making money and therefore wants you to spend as much as possible because then advertisers will place more ads on Facebook. This is how the business model works.
But is also operates in more insidious ways by harming your peace of mind. You post something about yourself, and then you wonder how many ‘likes’ you have received. You are likely to be disappointed if you have few or none, and friends are receiving plenty. You might wonder why your life isn’t measuring up to theirs.
Young people seem more prone to having their mental health damaged by social media than older people”
You will be constantly tempted to pick up your phone to see what reaction your posts are receiving and what other people are up to. (I now place my phone out of reach if I’m watching or reading something because the habit of picking up the phone is so great).
Young people seem more prone to having their mental health damaged by social media than older people. They have grown up with smartphones and social networking and are more likely to care about popularity and what other people think of them. Social media has been called a ‘comparison cauldron’. It’s easy for a young person to become convinced by being on social media all the time that their lives don’t measure up and to become extremely anxious and even depressed as a result.
Researchers like Mary Aiken in Ireland and Jean Twenge in America are convinced about the link between social media usage and mental ill-health.
Recently, a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, appeared before Congress to condemn the company. She told America’s politicians: “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”
How does it stoke division and weaken democracy? It does so by polarising opinion. It will constantly feed you what you are most interested in, and you will no longer see opinions that differ from your own. The bias of the mainstream media exacerbates this problem, of course.
Politicians are now promising to introduce measures to weaken the grip of the social media giants on young people in particular, and to reduce its polarising effects.
Whether they can succeed or not is another question. These companies have become all-pervasive and we have already surrendered a great deal of our lives to them. Do we even wish to be liberated?