Social media is a big deal. Online networking sites and apps are an undeniable world phenomenon, currently bending humanity in new directions. A third or more of the global population is on it; Facebook alone has more than two billion users. Nearly 90 percent of Internet users in the Middle East are on social media; as are more than 80 percent of South Americans and more than three-quarters of the people living in Africa. On average, we now use social media at a rate that equates to more time than what a typical person will spend eating and drinking, socializing in person or grooming. Teens devote as much as nine hours per day to their online social interactions. That’s more than they sleep, and more time than they spend with their parents and teachers. Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 check their phones on average 82 times per day. Americans in total check their screens about eight billion times per day. Thirty-nine percent of girls between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four identify themselves as Facebook addicts and the average Internet user now has about eight social media accounts, up from just three in 2012.
We are way beyond being able to dismiss Facebook, Instagram and the rest as high-tech delivery systems for cat videos. Gone are the days when we could mock them as nothing more than Kardashian promotion vehicles and sad photo galleries of what our friends are eating for lunch. Social media sites are the primary and trusted news source for hundreds of millions of people. They are the fountains of social change, conspiracy theory factories and propaganda super-cannons. And all the while, unseen people behind the screens write algorithms that harvest every possible detail of users’ lives. You are not the sum of your Google searches, Amazon purchases, tweets and Facebook likes. Your online activities shouldn’t define you as an individual. But, increasingly they do. Silent, unseen programs are busy digitizing and commodifying humanity. The secret dossiers they compile and sell to marketers can be so probing and detailed that they would make the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover blush. Most people still don’t know that the primary product in the social media universe is the user. Think of social media as a vast army of digital Trojan horses. While the glow of smartphone screens lulls or excites our minds—whatever it takes to keep us swiping, poking, and clicking—tiny hoplites in the form of algorithmic spies spill out from the belly of the beasts to conduct endless espionage missions.
Sometimes the results of all this constant tracking and surveillance are trivial. Maybe an ad for the book you almost bought haunts you for a day or two online. But it can also be devastating. For example, now, or in the near future, your activities on social media will influence whether or not you get the loan you need, rent the apartment you want or get the call to come in and interview for your dream job. Human resources managers and rental property owners may not be able to ask you about your sexuality, political loyalties, positions on gun control and abortion, but in today’s world they don’t have to. Thanks to social media, they already know.
Loss of privacy and the behind-the-scenes bartering and selling of social media user data are becoming cause for public concern. A Pew Research Center study found that 91 percent agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies. Eighty-eight percent of adults agree or strongly agree that it is very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them from the internet, and 80 percent are concerned about third parties, like advertisers or businesses, accessing the information they share on social media sites.
The quick answer to social media surveillance is to be more thoughtful about what we share. We don’t have to show and comment on everything we do. Hold some things back and be mindful that a Facebook page or Instagram account is going to serve as your resume in some real-world situations. Opting out might seem like a good option but social media is so deeply entrenched in modern culture that having no presence on it can be viewed as a red flag by potential employers, landlords and even romantic interests. Some of the things we can do to reduce our risk are easy, others are more difficult. Be aware that everything is hackable now. It doesn’t take a computer savant or at least a competent coder to figure out a way to get into your account. Cheap or free password-breaking programs are available to anyone online. The security experts I’ve spoken with are in unanimous agreement about making your accounts relatively secure so that hackers are more likely to pass you up for easier, less-prepared prey.
For minimal defense these days it is necessary to use long and complex passwords of ten to twenty-five letters, symbols and numbers. Don’t use common words or phrases. Use different passwords for multiple accounts and activate two-step authentication whenever possible. Avoid using public Wi-Fi and be cautious of USB drives because they are common carriers of malware. Don’t say yes to every app. Many “free” apps exist primarily to spy on you and sell your data; you should delete those you don’t need or use. Update your software so that you get new security features and never fill out online questionnaires—most of them are only there to get your data and sell it. Give some thought to who you connect with on your social media sites; it’s not only your social media behavior that might come back to haunt you but theirs as well. Some experts predict, for example, that a person’s network of cyber-friends will become a critical, standard factor in determining credit ratings and making hiring decisions one day soon. Keep in mind that your online life, for better or worse, will play an increasing role in your offline life in the coming years. Thinking of social media activity in this way may not be fun or pleasant, but this is the reality—ignorance or indifference will not serve you well.
The cause of the problem is that the rise of social media has been so swift we haven’t had much of a chance to adapt; we’re all playing catchup. The good news is that we don’t have to swear off social media completely, but we do need to learn about the dangers and adjust our behavior accordingly. A crucial first step toward smarter social media use is to accept who and what you are. As a human being you possess a high-powered but problematic brain. You are influenced every moment of your life by a shadow mind that is largely a confounding jumble of shortcuts and irrational processes. Many of these subconscious operations, meant to make our lives more efficient, are easily exploited on social media where lies, fearmongering and sincere but flawed reasoning run rampant.
When you encounter news stories, comments, images, videos and ideas on social media, your subconscious mind has already decided whether to trust, believe, accept or reject long before your conscious mind gets out of bed and put its shoes on. Your usual role in the process is to then attempt to make sense of, or justify, whatever the subconscious mind has fed you. This is standard operating procedure for a human brain and most people give it little, if any, thought while using social media. As a result, fake news, deceptive marketing, crazy conspiracy theories and other cognitive snares pose serious problems both for the individual and society. So how can we best defend against them?
We could sit back and trust the social media company owners to save us by cleaning up the tangled and treacherous jungles they created. Or we might place our faith in government to protect us with regulation. But why not just take responsibility for own minds? We all can police our own perceptions, thoughts and decisions online. Ultimately, I suspect, this is the way forward. Private reform and some government regulation may be necessary and helpful, but alone it won’t be enough. Social media users must wake up, grow up and start taking care of themselves. It falls upon us to question what we believe and share on social media. It’s our responsibility to do better at spotting lies and rejecting irrational claims. The following are some of the most problematic subconscious processes and biases that trip up millions of people every moment on social media. Make sure you aren’t one of them.
The mere exposure effect
Simply encountering an idea can make you more agreeable to believing it later—even if your initial conscious reaction to it was that it was wrong or untrue. Keep this in mind as you encounter all those “meaningless” comments, photos and viral memes every day on social media. We may dismiss them as silly and inconsequential in the moment, but beneath our conscious awareness we can be falling in love with them or at least leaning toward acceptance because of mere exposure. The similar illusion-of-truth effect is another big problem on social media. Repeat reading, hearing or viewing of a claim can lead us to believe that it must be true. Think of this as the cognitive version of being beaten into submission.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
Ignorance of our ignorance is a huge problem on social media where pseudo-experts, liars and blowhards abound. Unfortunately, we are terrible at recognizing the limitations of our knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play online when we happily consume or share bad information about a subject with unjustified confidence merely because we know so little about it. You might think ignorance would prompt us to be more cautious and humble but often it does not. It is a common human reaction to effortlessly slide into arrogant expert mode about things we know little or nothing about. Be humble and always second guess yourself about things you don’t know much about.
Humans love to go along to get along. Few people are willing to rock the boat, even if the boat is sinking. One reason for this is because maintaining social networks has been one of our species’ greatest survival strengths. We endured the brutal gauntlet of our long prehistoric past in large part because we lived together in tight social units, shared knowledge and worked toward common goals. But groupthink can be a problem when people fall in line and agree when we should know better. We often do this even as our moral compass points in a different direction. Keep this in mind while on social media. Ask yourself if you might be surrendering your ability to reason or compromising on an important moral position to accommodate a natural desire to keep your digital tribe members happy in the moment.
The anchoring effect
Be very careful where you drop anchor in the social media ocean. A human mind hungers for information, but this is the case even if the information is not germane to the current task or topic. If no good, accurate or useful information is available, the subconscious mind doesn’t give up on its mission to serve you. For better or worse, it will seize upon the first thing available to work with. Whatever bit of information hits your knowledge vacuum early, when considering any topic at hand, matters. That input, no matter how wrong or irrelevant, can then become the anchor around which your thinking and decision-making flows. For example, a brief encounter on Twitter with a big number about traffic accidents or the national debt can set you up to grossly overestimate the fair value of a surfboard for sale on Craig’s List. Had you encountered smaller numbers just before shopping around on Craig’s List you would have been more likely to grossly underestimate the value. This may seem crazy, but numerous experiments have revealed the anchoring effect. This is one more reason to consistently question and challenge your thoughts and decisions on social media.
Don’t stumble on social media while looking up. We are highly vulnerable to trusting and falling in line behind anyone or any information perceived to be authoritative. This is a not a problem for weak people; it’s a problem for all people. Just about anything can seem more credible online if it is presented to us inside a warm, magnetic glow of authority. Do not allow a uniform, lab coat, fancy title or dominant posture hoodwink you into believing nonsense or buying a junk product. Separate claims and ideas from the delivery person or packaging so that you might better analyze and assess them.
The blind spot bias
One of the most important things to remember while on social media is that your subconscious mind works hard to keep you feeling secure and comfortable. It is relentless in trying to convince you that you are rational and logical, that it’s all those other people who are emotional, gullible and silly enough to believe and do dumb things on social media. Reject these lies. It is essential for every social media user to consciously work at being humble and staying grounded because of the blind spot bias.
Everyone can enjoy and benefit from social media use, but it is essential to be aware of various problems and pitfalls that await the unexpecting and unprepared mind. Before you let any news story, comment, image, or idea set up camp inside your head, ask yourself how it might be pushing your emotional buttons at the expense of reasoning. Challenge yourself, note the source, consider the motivations behind the information, think before you believe and stay humble. Around the world right now, governments, corporations, criminals, and dictators are investing time and money into figuring out ways to more effectively pierce the minds and private lives of their constituents, customers, or victims. A few billion people need to clean up their thinking processes and online behaviors fast. Those who tune in, open their eyes, and maintain a sharp, activated mind will win far more battles than they lose.
Guy P. Harrison is the author of seven non-fiction books. His latest is Think Before You Like: Social Media’s Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your Newsfeed.