Ramona Pringle: Originally, what was social media supposed to do? What was the intent, and what were people’s hopes for it?
Katina Michael: Social media was supposed to connect people through space and time by using an electronic medium to enable virtual communications. In ancient times, we had messengers that would travel on foot or horseback, later came the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and the Internet. We have seen an evolution of communication techniques enhancing one’s capacity to make connections between people, between customers and organisations, between citizens and governments, across cultures, across time zones. John Donne wrote in 1624:
“No man is an island, | Entire of itself, | Every man is a piece of the continent, | A part of the main.
In this way, I believe people have an innate yearning to come together, to belong. We are by nature social beings.
Many mathematical formulas were presented, thought experiments described, and empirical work conducted from the 1950s onward on what has come to be labelled Six Degrees of Separation, the “small-world problem”. Some of the more notable researchers around the idea included, Manfred Kochen, Ithiel de Sola Pool, Stanley Milgram, all of whom were preoccupied by contacts and influences, social networks and shortest path linkages.
Social media was supposed to facilitate these “people linkages” enabling more convenient communications between family, friends, colleagues, and communities of interest. It was also supposed to facilitate access to information that was relevant to us as a human being appealing to our activities, likes, hobbies and life pursuits.
When I was a little child I remember my mother sending her parents Aerograms from Australia that cost $0.35. She would give us each 2 lines to write our special message in Greek to our grandparents whom we hadn’t met. They were filled with love-phrases like: “I send you kisses on both your sweet eyes.” Much later we got a home telephone and I remember being “flawed” by hearing the voice of the people who gave birth to my mother. Overwhelmed by joy we’d try to pour out our heart in a 5 minute call every year- delays and all.
I valued every single communication I had with my grandparents though I never met them in the flesh. But those were the days when voice was voice and not data. I don’t know what it would’ve been like if Facebook was around back then. My parents still don’t feel they have a need for access to the Internet, let alone social media, preferring in-person, one-to-one communications. They still hand-deliver their birthday cards and my children and I love getting them, and then reciprocating with a physical hug. I don’t know if that would change if I ever moved overseas.
A great deal of the research I have read about the nascent stages of what we call Social Media today depicts founders wanting to help “people find people” through the Internet. Many of us recall the large slabs of provincial telephone books we relied on: White Pages that contained residential listings and Yellow Pages that contained business listings filled with advertisements. Think of social media as an up-to-date visual telephone book that has profiles of people and their relationships defined between people (parents, siblings, friends, customers, employees in businesses and government services) with a description of current events, pertinent documentation, and multimedia. Imagine being able to hyperlink through your hardcopy telephone book and to see it virtually come to life. This is social media. These were our original hopes. Get the most up-to-date information you need, when you need it, and make it easy to contact people locally, regionally, globally.
Ramona Pringle: What have we seen this year in terms of deviations on these platforms? (i.e. election meddling, fake news, racist algorithms)
Katina Michael: A great deal of the network infrastructure required to reach people in almost every nation has now been rolled out spanning hundreds of thousands of kilometres (our Earth has a mean radius of 6,371 km (about 4,000 miles). Given migration patterns continue to increase (both intra and inter country), workforces have become more and more mobile, and there are vast numbers of people who use and rely on social media each day, we have seen a noticeable deviation away from “information access” to “advertising” over the last decade. This year we have also seen stark misuse of social media platforms for the creation of inauthentic account profiles, the spreading of deliberate and targeted disinformation through automated bots for propaganda purposes, we have witnessed calculated market and economic manipulation based on an individual’s documented traits and characteristics on social media, consumer exploitation, and the distribution of fake news through troll houses and spamsters with mysterious and mostly hidden agendas. These have purportedly led to drowning out legitimate calls for help in places of conflict (e.g. Syria), been responsible for the Brexit vote, led to President Trump’s election victory, led to an increase in the polarisation of people’s beliefs to extremes, and contributed to instability and citizen anxieties about the now and future. In short, many people believe what they read on the Internet and can easily be mislead if the trusted sources on their social media communities declare something as truth. These are echo chambers sending reverberations through the Net. Some rely on these reverberations to make decisions. These are things that people overtly encounter, but even more sinister are the things that people can’t see. The algorithms being used to proactively profile you based on keywords, images you post, and likes and comments on social media pages that you make, that are then used to sway your sentiment this way or that.
Ramona Pringle: How did this come about, and why on social media platforms?
Katina Michael: Propaganda is an old strategy. It is the way to win over the masses. It has been estimated that 40% of the world’s population has at least one social media profile [i].Facebook alone has 2.07 billion active users (1.74 billion of which are mobile active users MAU) we can infer that direct reach is possible via public social networks. There has never been a more powerful capability to reach individuals than electronic social media. In World War 2, Hitler dropped Nazi leaflets on the masses shortly after D-Day in 1944, showing scenes of apparent disaster in England. These messages affected the suffering people who picked up and read the leaflets. Now imagine a world, where we cannot see the physical leaflets being dropped from above, and we don’t know who the messages are from, in fact we don’t even realise someone is sending us subversive content. We call this networked fall-out but we have traditionally called this advertising. And yet today’s advertising has become the way to get into your head and manipulate the things that you believe. M.G. Michael and I have written elsewhere [ii]: they “want us to believe that our stance is contradictory to the majority; that our position is not only unimportant but warped.”
Ramona Pringle: Where did things go astray? What role does the massive scale and rapid growth of these platforms have to do with thing going astray?
Katina Michael: Here I will address “where did things go astray?” This is a great question! Where did things go astray? Social media has always been about connecting people. Virtualise this capability through electronic networks and the speed of communication has been demonstrated to become somewhat of a distraction, as feedback loops get faster and faster, and people struggle to keep abreast of meaningful communications. The faster pace means that we have less time to dedicate to authentic communications, and we are challenged by our capacity to respond. Our priority correspondence is always continuously being updated as messages flow through. Sometimes this means we come to a complete grind. Our preparation to write a message, and the actual transference of that message into words deteriorates to an instant message at best, and at worst, an incoherent stream of decapitalised letters resembling words that are more synonymous with dyslexia. We know from studies that the half-life of a message keeps diminishing. While we might have six degrees of separation (some researchers have purported that these days it is only four degrees), we can only ever maintain about 100 meaningful connections at once, and yet we purportedly have thousands of followers and we in turn follow hundreds of others, and on average have many more online friends than physical friends. At this point of time-space squeeze, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether social media is fulfilling its original intent, and whether or not we are creating meaningful connections any longer.
Thus things go astray when we ourselves misuse the communications platforms we have created as a cybernetic tool, that was meant to aid engagement (e.g. cyberbullying, trolling). When corporations build algorithms to reach and engage customers to create stickiness drivers for repeat patronage and purchase, especially impulse buying (e.g. what Natasha Dow Schull calls “addiction by design” [iii]). I recollect here Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-1601):
Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.
Things also go astray when we politicise social media as a means to get our campaigns out, whatever the imperative [[iv]]! When social media becomes the first stop shop for law enforcement and defence personnel to curb criminality and strategise about powers and state enemies. When it is used as a tool of surveillance and monitoring of the masses.
Whenever I’ve spoken out against certain forms of social media use, the response is usually: “But Katina what about what Arab Spring showed us in 2010?” And I say: “indeed, the power of the people to mobilise, coordinate and be heard by the global theatre via social media”. And then I rebut further: “state and non-state actors learn really quickly from weapons of conflict- what you can do, I can do better! And so the very techniques used to attract supporters and a global constituency empathetic to a given crisis, is now being used to drown out these cries for help. Cold and calculated. A form of denial of service attack. Drown out the voices that are most in need, and you cannot hear them. They suffocate in their misery. Is this human? But then “physical networks” and “apps”, and “packets of data” themselves are anything but human.
Ramona Pringle: Is there a reckoning? What impact will that have on these companies?
Katina Michael: So we have solved the problem of communications today. And by solving this problem we have created others. The Guardian [v] reported:
Google has said Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on targeted ads on YouTube, Google and Gmail, according to reports. Last month, Facebook released a statement saying it had found $100,000 of ad spending on about 3,000 ads that it linked to 470 “inauthentic” accounts that it had linked to Russia. The company later clarified that the ads focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum”.
Facebook has pledged R&D monies to the detection of fake news. And Google has for some time run algorithms on images stored on its servers searching for illicit activities. How will companies achieve this honourable aim without deconstructing users, their linkages, and their sentiments? Thus we are being told that in order to have our humanity preserved we should be stripped naked, go under the microscope, and then we will be safe! What kind of rhetoric is this? Our quantified online self knows us better than we know ourselves- discrete clicks and ticks brought together and analysed can predict with better confidence our very next move. The promises of behavioural biometrics to make us better? Are they for real?
Ramona Pringle: What’s next? Are these companies too big to fail/too ingrained in people’s lives? Or will we see a shift away from them?
Katina Michael: I point to a wonderful talk delivered by Scott Galloway, professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business and Founder of L2 [vi] who so eloquently deconstructed the Big Four (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google).
My personal opinion? All of these platforms can be used to fulfil fundamental freedoms, that is a human right of every human being. The more we stray from the basic need these platforms fulfilled that served to grow them at an unforeseen rate of expansion- that is to bring people even closer together- the more we will find ourselves in a global e-garbage dump with the difficult task of wading through the wreck and the broken pieces to find things that actually work and have a real use value for society. There will always be market manipulators, this does not mean we cease using electronic communications, citizenry and consumers-alike just need to become smarter in establishing an augmediated reality. My reality is not my Facebook feed, nor the Google advertising that swallows up my Gmail text and gives me stuff that *it* believes I want to hear… I love Facebook and Google for the functionality it has given us to communicate, but I hate what is going on behind our backs. Our information belongs to us, not to the highest bidder. Personal data belongs to those who create it, not private corporations or governments who want to make a killing on it, metaphorically or literally. We need to address this power imbalance and restore ethical standards. Too many paradoxes exist today, and if we are not careful we will herald in an era of behavioural biometrics driven by social media practices that will control us rather than free us.
[ii] Article by M.G. Michael and Katina Michael , “Resistance is NOT futile”. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=7270446
Citation: Ramona Pringle interviews Katina Michael for a CBC Article here.