By Meena Palaniappan
Over the past few months, social media has become a digital pariah — major platforms have been accused of fostering a climate of intolerance, making people vulnerable to propaganda, and fraying our social fabric. And, to make maters worse, recent revelations about foreign influence and Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook apps to harvest data have even staunch supporters of social media questioning the personal and societal risks of data sharing online. There are, in short, huge problems with social media and its attention-based economy. Yet, there are also huge benefits to being connected with online communities and instant information. In November of last year, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, made waves by stating that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” created by social media “are destroying how society works.” Other major players in the social media space, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, have stepped forward with similar remarks. In response to this evolving consciousness, in February 2018, a group of former Facebook and Google employees started the Center for Humane Technology. According to the group: “What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” As the CEO of a social media platform dedicated to the idea of “neighbors helping neighbors” — and as the mom of a precocious 11-year-old who recently told me that “social media is evil” — I feel the tension more than most. Why did social media, once hailed as a beacon for democratizing information, empowering social movements, and building a more connected world, lead to so many of these negative and unintended outcomes? How can we reverse this?
Social Psychology and Business Models
To understand the dark-side of social media, we have to look at human psychology, group behavior and technology. As Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote in Time last year, anger provides a “burst of adrenaline” when expressed, and “anger is particularly contagious on social media,” because we are wired to take emotional queues from our peers. Empirical research has backed this up: A study by Beihang University of Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging platform, found that rage travelled faster than joy, sadness or disgust. A 2016 study in Nature about Facebook found more active users spread more negative messages. And not only anger, but false information spreads rapidly online. This combination can promote a deep polarization and encourage the spread of conspiracy theories. Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT, wrote a piece on March 8th in the NY Times, summarizing research that he and colleagues have conducted. Their analysis, which studied millions of tweets over the entire 11 year history of Twitter, found that false stories spread far faster and more broadly than true ones do. Researchers like Dr. Aral argue that it’s not just the nature of the technology — but also the business models that support it. As Aral puts it, “the social media advertising market creates incentives for the spread of false stories because their wider diffusion makes them profitable.” Roger McNamee, an early investor and advisor to Facebook also wrote about the far reaching negative consequences of Facebook’s business model. He notes that Facebook, Google and other social media platforms make their money from advertising. This makes users of these platforms not the customer, but actually the product that is being sold to advertisers. This, he theorizes, is what leads to the unintended negative consequences of social media — namely, chasing advertising dollars at the expense of users health and the health of communities. In a panel at the New School, Roger McNamee said “Facebook created a business model that essentially made people who believe [conspiracy theories] more valuable. It was in [Facebook’s] interest to appeal to fear and anger.” In a March 20, NYTimes Op/Ed, Zayneb Tufecki takes this argument further. In writing about the Cambridge Analytica controversy, she argues that “A business model based on vast data surveillance and charging clients to opaquely target users based on this kind of extensive profiling will inevitably be misused. The real problem is that billions of dollars are being made at the expense of the health of our public sphere…”
Searching for Social Solutions
Given the array of negative outcomes we’ve experienced, how can we reform social media? Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive, argues for getting off social media or strictly limiting the time you spend on it. McNamee argues for more transparency and regulation. And Aral makes the case that if platforms “demote accounts or posts” that spread false stories, that the financial incentives would swing towards more factual content. These all sound like good ideas, but I think we need to go further to focus our energy on building networks that are dedicated to prosocial ideas and content and that are designed to strengthen local communities. This dream social media platform is a tall order, but this is why we built AtmaGo, a social network dedicated to social cohesion and community resilience. One advantage we have, as a non-profit, is that we don’t have to respond to the demands of advertisers. This has given us the luxury of focusing on the needs and opportunities of people living in low income communities in the developing world. Not being beholden to advertisers, but to users, has also allowed us to create an app that focuses on prosocial content and that works on the lower end mobile phones and systems our users have. Our business model means that we are not being forced solely to maximize time on the app, which could lead to chasing posts that promote fear and anger. We also are able to continually follow the demands of our users, even when it leads to users spending less time on AtmaGo. For example, our users wanted to see more change on the ground as a result of what was happening on AtmaGo. So, with the help of IDEO.org and other partners, we added the ability for users to report problems to government and organize events to improve their communities. Since then, AtmaGo users in cities across Indonesia have created events to remove solid waste from their neighborhoods and plant trees. Activities like these not only reduce the impact of flooding, which is a persistent problem throughout Indonesia, but they also promote real-world social interactions that are critical for the health of communities, and their ability to bounce back from disaster. In studies of Hurricane Sandy and natural disasters in Chicago, researchers have found that areas with high levels of community interaction and organization fared far better than others. In a recent study on the tsunami in Japan, communities with good social networks had lower mortality and bounced back more quickly from disaster. Our work at Atma is inspired by the Indonesian idea of Gotong Royong, or mutual support — neighbors working together to improve their communities. Not only are humans wired to connect, but we are also born with an innate desire to help others. Economist Samuel Bowles says, “In the past 20 years, we have discovered that people — all around the world — are a lot more moral and a lot less selfish than economists and evolutionary biologists had previously assumed, and that our moral commitments are surprisingly similar: to reciprocity, fairness and helping people in need, even if acting on these motives can be personally costly for a person.” There is a lot we do at Atma to promote prosocial content, from sponsoring community resilience gatherings like tree planting, to contests where people share what they love about their neighborhood. Community moderators set the tone for “helpful” content, and our marketing focuses on “neighbors helping neighbors.” And, for people living in poor communities who are too easily ignored by governments, AtmaGo makes them visible. One of our users said: “Marginalized people are not helpless, with AtmaGo people can voice their aspirations, and show the world that they are worthy of attention too.” When my son decried social media, I nodded in agreement, but also asked him to think about the benefits — of being connected, of being able to share information widely and with no cost, of amplifying voices that are often unheard. There are major problems with social media, that much is clear, but there are also huge benefits that we have just started to understand and capture. AtmaGo is our attempt to create a better approach — one that’s explicitly prosocial and focused on people helping people. We may not be as big as Facebook (yet), and we can’t say we’ve solved every problem, but we are trying to find a better path — in the end, we are betting that the right kind of social media can unlock more of what is good in humanity.