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Facebook’s Desperate Smoke Screen

February 9th, 2018 · 34 comments

Soros vs. Facebook

One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.

Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.

As John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker, Soros suggested that these “tech giants”, in addition to “making excessive profits and stifling innovation,” were “causing larger social and political problems.”

Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”

He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.

This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)

The Smoke Screen

In my opinion, the first problem — the engineered addiction — is the more pressing issue surrounding social media. These services relentlessly sap time and attention from peoples’ personal and professional lives that could be directed toward more meaningful and productive pursuits, and instead package it for resale to advertisers so the value can be crystalized for a small number of major investors.  (See Douglas Rushkoff for more on these economic dynamics.)

And we don’t even know yet the harm it’s causing young people, though some suggest it might be worse than we suspect.

It’s important to recognize that the public discussion of this issue is a serious problem for attention economy companies whose entire business model depends on getting people to use their services as much as possible.

Facebook’s revenue, for example, is almost entirely a function of the number of minutes the average user spends per week engaging with the service. Reducing this by even 5 to 10% — by tamping down or eliminating some of Facebook’s most addictive features — would have a disastrous impact on the quarterly earnings of this $500 billion company.

As Jeff Bercovi wrote in Inc. last month:

“[A]t Facebook, engagement is and has always been the primary success metric. For the company to move away from it onto some new standard would be a tectonic shift affecting every part of the business, from product design to ad sales.”

To ask Facebook to make their service less addictive would be like asking Exxon Mobile to switch to less efficient oil pumps: it would be a body blow to their bottom line, and investors wouldn’t tolerate it.

With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that Facebook’s reaction to the Soros speech ignored the social issues and instead focused like a laser on the significantly more tractable alternative of the political issues.

In more detail, a few days after this speech, Facebook initiated a series of posts on their company blog about Facebook’s potential to harm democracy. This series includes essays from outsiders who have been publicly critical about Facebook’s impact on the political process.

As Facebook explains: “We did this because serious discussion of these issues cannot occur without robust debate.”

Yeah right.

This move is not purely an effort to confront Facebook’s problems, it is, I suspect, in large part a desperate attempt to distract the media and public from the social issues that Facebook knows it cannot resolve without inflecting serious self-harm.

Outrage-provoking political content might have been good business for Facebook, but in its absence, this company’s attention engineers can tap into any number of other distraction wells to keep users compulsively tapping the little blue icon on their phone.

In other words, fixing Facebook’s negative impacts on democracy won’t necessarily hurt their bottom line, while admitting that their business relies on a foundation of addiction and exploitation definitely would.

It’s no surprise then that we’re hearing so much about the former and only silence on the latter.

Making Facebook good for democracy is not entirely altruistic. It is, in many ways, also a smoke screen meant to obscure the fundamental reality that this service, like many social media products, depends for its very survival on its ability to exploit its users’ time and attention.

34 thoughts on “Facebook’s Desperate Smoke Screen

  1. Yevgeniya says:

    General newsfeed in Facebook is bad for the mind, I agree with that.
    However, Facebook has unique support groups for anything , any kind of disease – physical like ulcerative colitis or mental like bipolar depressoin, or for people who go through a meducal treatment such as ivf, or for hobbies such as poetry. In real life we dont have easy connections to lots of people with the same experience, but in a facebook group a person is instantly connected with people experiencing same thing at the same time. And its different than support boards which are anonymous and require separate registrations for each new one.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is the fundamental issue with Facebook’s current standing as a massive public company with revenue based almost entirely on usage time. The service offers many people truly valuable services (like the groups you mention). But for most people, engaging just with the things you find truly valuable probably would require 20 – 40 minutes a week, and something you could do on your desktop in one or two sittings per week. This is not nearly enough usage for Facebook to maintain it’s current revenue, so they have to try to convince you to use it much more.

      1. Yevgeniya says:

        That is an excellent point! No need to check on facebook groups constantly! Thats not good too!
        Separate point: now that we have internet on smart phones, access to social media is more difficult to manage. The phone follows you every where.

    2. David says:

      Yes the issue here is that Facebook has poached these services which were previous self-hosted on forums, blogs, mailing lists etc.

      They did this by offering an extremely easy to use system for both hosts and users, no issues with sign up systems, inconsistent posting interfaces, removed difficulty uploading images etc.

      My own forum which I have run since 2007 has been gradually decimated by Facebook, most of the interesting discussions and content we used to get are now posted by previous forum members to Facebook groups.

      Persuading users away from the Facebook walled garden is nigh on impossible!

  2. Lesedi says:

    I am preaching to my friends on a regular about this terrible social media industry, they all agree to the facades been pulled and the addictive nature of these hellish platforms, nevertheless they still hooked, like all addictions it’s not easy to just quit. In my current city (Pretoria, SA) people crowd public parks like monkeys for free WiFi just to glue their faces onto their mobile screens incessantly scrolling random rubbish content and corrected photographs on this attention seeking applications.

  3. Bragadeesh says:

    Great Article. When I go about preaching people about Facebook’s harmful effects, its almost like advising an 15-year old adult. Even to my own wife, preaching it is impossible 🙁
    The only thing I can do is to set an example and continuing doing deep and productive work.

    Because of your two books Deep work and So good they can’t ignore you, I was able to quit my job and become an entrepreneur now. The only major digital distraction I have these days is your blog 🙂

    Thanks, Cal, please continue touching lives!

  4. Scott says:

    Great article Cal.
    One very effective method I am using daily to spread the message of the perils of SM is
    Simply being present through my day.
    Since I choose to not own/use a “Smart” Phone , and have fully recovered from a two year addiction to twitter I stand out in public.
    When in conversation , and the other persons “phone” bings, they almost always say “Im still listening” as their head drops, and the light from the important shiny thing message creates a glow on their distracted face. I then stop talking and say
    “I can wait”………
    Its an amazingly effective strategy to bring awareness to this addict that they truly are in deep AND I feel like a man who maintains my integrity and sanity,
    Ive found that “preaching” anything places the “preachee” on defense.
    People on the defense naturally defend .
    People respond better to contrast.
    I simply live – present.
    This speaks louder than any words can express.
    Keep up the awesome work.
    Thank you for Deep Work, just read it.

  5. MH says:

    I think you are underestimating the political damage caused by Facebook, or perhaps the degree to which it is affecting real lives (particularly those who do not have a Y chromosome, or darker shades of skin, or who do not prefer people of the opposite sex).

    That said, it is pretty telling that Facebook isn’t addressing its addictive nature. The only way to cure that would be to shut down the company, and we all know they won’t do that.

  6. I think the foundation of addiction and exploitation is a huge part of the threat to democracy, and that they cannot be separated.

  7. John says:

    I’ve seen other articles from Facebook insiders that openly admit they engineer to grab and sustain attention. This is probably no worse than any other social medium that is out there waving its hands to get you to look so then they can serve up marketing messages while you are there.
    And as long as they give open access to all sides of the political spectrum then the message, not the medium, still has to cut through and resonate with the user. With their latest algorithm tweak, Facebook is trying to make the addictive experience more relevant and better as to keep you around longer so it can continue to sell ads. I find it humorous that Soros is whining about social media since many of the groups he finances rely on it heavily to reach their end audience.

  8. Dave Dayanan says:

    Thanks for the post.

  9. EA says:

    Cal – you seriously have to read Henry Kissinger’s chapter in his book “World Order” titled “Foreign Policy in the Digital Era” (and maybe the other chapter, “Cyber Technology and World Order”). Even Google’s Eric Schmidt said that the chapter should be mandatory reading and interviewed Kissinger about it for over an hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wooGL__-OvA

  10. Naval Gupta says:

    Great Article! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  11. Greg Neuman says:

    What are you proposing though? You could take this argument and port it to video games, gambling, television, etc. Are you saying the govt should regulate our free time? If someone wants to waste their time watches puppy videos on Facebook, and another wants to play candy crush on a phone, that is their prerogative.

    1. Bond. James Bond. says:

      Watch Cal’s Ted Talk on YouTube to understand what he is propoising. He wants to bring awareness to people’s addiction to social media and their smartphones, that’s all

  12. Mrs. Q says:

    Quoting and using as a jumping off point, a man who spends millions to legalize drugs, which daily addicts users, to make a point about digital addiction, stikes me as less than a ‘deep work’ approach to the topic. Having actually researched Soros, it’s obvious here he is essentially is saying “don’t get addicted to their stuff – get addicted to what I approve of.” While I appreciate the commentary on FB’s smoke screen in this post, the lack of acknowledged cognitive dissonance regarding quoting one drug/addiction peddler decrying another digital/addiction peddler undermines the credibility of and discernment utilized by the author. Consider the source and their money, connections, and hypocrisies a little more next time. Even Hitler had some good quotes, so it’s best to also do ‘deep research’ when extolling the virtues of ‘deep work.’

    And I won’t be shocked if this comment doesn’t get published.

    1. DeepThinker says:

      I think you miss the point he’s making. Regardless of the morality of the man’s political views, George Soros is an enormously influential person drawing attention to the issue on one of the most influential stages in the world. If Hitler had felt strongly about something in 1938, it would have been (and was) newsworthy.

      I also think, as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, that comparing advocacy for lenient drug policies to the perpetrating Holocaust is (besides nonsensical) enormously offensive. George Soros is no Hitler.

    2. Bond. James Bond. says:

      If you are offended that Cal is criticizing your addiction FB, don’t be. He blames FB, not you. Feel free to ignore him and continue scrolling through your timeline.

    3. Josh says:

      I would agree that occasionally Cal seems a little sloppy with his research.

  13. Sam says:

    Remember the fallout that documentary Super Size Me caused when it came out in 2004. At least in the U.S, McDonald’s actually phased out the supersizing option for their meals and other McDonald restaurants around the world introduced entire ranges of healthier options to their menu.

    Maybe something like this will come along and pressure the social media giants?

    But, I guess it could be argued that McDonald’s response was akin to the smoke screen you claim Facebook is using, Cal. Tough situation.

    Great article.

    1. Yevgeniya says:

      Excellent comparison of Facebook and McDonalds.
      Another comparison I was thinking were alchohol, sigaretts and cocaine in 1920s when it was legal. All these substances were prolufurated until their dangers were exposed, and then they were either banned like recreational cocaine or regulated like sigaretts and alchohol.

  14. Ian Gregory says:

    Good article, though I would never have seen it if it had not come up in my Facebook feed.

    1. AC says:

      This is where I’m old fashioned. I have bookmarked the Study Hacks blog and I manually and consciously check it every 2 to 3 weeks using the web browser on my desktop PC. When I do so, it’s with one browser tab open.

      It is one of a small number (less than 10) of high quality blogs that I pay any attention to. I couldn’t imagine a life where Facebook directs my internet browsing habits.

      I don’t have a Facebook account. I permanently deleted it in 2012 after 5 years of the kind of usage that does NOT help Facebook’s profits. I only ever accessed it on a desktop computer.

  15. Scott says:

    Simple Shout out to BOND. JAMESBOND.
    His rebuttals are examples of one who bubbles over with common sense.
    And,, really…there’s no APP for that.
    Thank you.

  16. Yevgeniya says:

    I would like to see an article/blog post on how to manage your smart phone.

  17. Yevgeniya says:

    1. Is it worth to have a smart phone vs previous generation cell phone with trxt and call only.
    2. If a person has a smart phone
    A. How to use it
    B. How not to use it.

    1. Yevgeniya says:

      C. When to use it.
      When to have it off.

  18. Josh says:

    I just read an article called, “the dark reason so many Millennials are broke and depressed”. It pinned the blame for poor finances and deteriorating mental health on social media use and abuse based on some research published last week.
    Thought-provoking read:

    https://moneyish.com/ish/the-dark-reason-so-many-millennials-are-miserable-and-broke/

  19. Nayeem says:

    The heading was interesting, so I bound to dig it. Actually, Facebook & other social medias have duel door, so we are unable to push the stop button for rest of all and don’t even know how to do or ever possible!! we just have to cope with this fact continuously…

  20. Brett says:

    George Soros complains about democracy being negatively affected by social media, yet he and his, so called, open society use it extensively to push political messaging onto young minds without the benefit of debate or dissenting views.

    Social media is indeed a threat. It is a threat to the world that people like George Soros want to impose on us all. Anytime someone seeks to diminish our ability to freely exchange ideas, they themselves become the greatest threat we face.

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