The new Opium of the Masses?

Karl Marx famously once called religion the ‘opium of the masses’. Could it be, in the age of instant communication, that the smartphone has replaced god as our drug of choice? Social media is incredibly addictive (quelle surprise). Personally, I managed to resist the charm of Facebook until I was about sixteen, after which I was insidiously seduced into the dopamine-inducing jungle of likes, comments and messages. Social media is also deeply unnatural, where information (albeit selective information) about other people’s lives are fired at us with all the ferocity of a Passchendaele artillery bombardment. It creates a propagandistic illusion of never-ending joy, success and achievement; and fails to realistically portray the full spectrum of human emotions. I asked some friends and colleagues for their opinions on the subject. Andrew, a History graduate, agrees that the ‘false expectations’ that social media can give people has ‘a negative impact on people’s mental health… (it) puts a lot of pressure on young people to conform to stuff they don’t necessarily want to’. This view is shared by celebrities such as Daisy Ridley, who quit Instagram last year and declared that ‘social media is bad for mental health’. Connie, an English and Creative Writing graduate, believes that social media can be a ‘rabbit hole of sensationalised mental illness (where) there is misinformation and glamorisation of issues like self-harm, depression and suicide’. Furthermore, there is potential to find ‘information, habits and language which you may not have discovered by yourself that offers you more and more ways to experience your personal mental heath problems. Take ‘thinspo’ blogs for example – which share techniques for weight loss and calorie counting, or how to hide the fact that you’re starving yourself from your family and friends’. Clearly, social media can be dangerous for your health. And yet, we all use it: in fact, the world seems to be in hock to it. 

The comparison between social media and opium may seem extreme and dramatic at first.  And yet, social media is not only extremely addictive, but evidence increasingly tells us that it is designed to be so. Because ‘the internet is funded largely by advertising’, as Evan Davis put it on Newsnight last year, ‘companies need to have us glued to their apps or they don’t make money’: thus, Facebook and Twitter are ‘in the business of persuasion’. Interestingly, although I did not make the comparison with opium when I asked English graduate Zaib for her opinion on the impact of social media, her answer seemed to invoke the idea of drug addiction. She fears that ‘our new way of socialising has wired us differently’, that we may be ‘diluting one of the best parts of humanity- connecting with one another- into dead-eyed, mindless scrolling until we get that dopamine rush from a single notification’. Similarly, Connie noted an ‘addictive cycle of sharing’. Indeed, psychologists believe that technology is now ‘hacking our brains’ by tapping in to our neural reward system; the part of us that makes us feel happy when we fulfil basic needs like eating. A like on your Instagram photo gives you the same kick as eating a chocolate digestive… and who doesn’t find those little beauties irresistible? This sort of sinister business is a far cry from Facebook’s stated aim of ‘bringing the world closer together’. Indeed, the obsequious mask of global altruism worn by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg is beginning to slip. In 2017, former Facebook president Sean Parker admitted that the company’s true objective was to ‘consume as much of your time and conscience attention as possible’. In order to do this, Parker continued, ‘we need to give you a sort of dopamine hit once in a while because someone commented on or liked a post… and that’s going to get you to contribute more content… it’s a social validation feedback loop…  it’s exactly the sort of thing a hacker like myself would come up with; you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology’. How creepy is that? It almost makes one want to raise the red flag of revolution and storm Silicon Valley.

Some of the people involved in the industry are beginning to jump ship in the name of humanity. James Williams, a former Google executive, now spends his days warning against the overmighty social media giants. He espouses the ‘attention economy’ theory first envisaged by Herbert Simon in the 1970s, who observed that ‘when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource’. Williams believes that the internet has made this theory a reality, which means we are living in an ‘attention economy’, where for the first time in history, technological advancement are hindering rather than helping human beings in the pursuit of their goals and desires. ‘In the attention economy’, Williams says, ‘our technologies are trying to grab our attention and direct it towards the goals that they have. And often those goals are quite different to our own’. He compares his personal goals- spending more time with family, learning to play the piano, etc- with the goals that technology has for us- maximising the amount of time we spend on social media, the number of clicks, the number of page views, etc- which highlights ‘a deep, fundamental gap… between the goals that we have and the goals that technologies have for us’. And this was well known to the creators of the technology. It is why Steve Jobs, according to Williams, never allowed his children to use the iPad.

If social media is the opium of the modern world, then a clear comparison can be drawn between the East India Company of the 18th and 19th centuries and the Facebook of today. In 19th century China, addiction to opium had become ‘endemic’. The power of the drug trade was such that despite the banning of opium imports by the imperial decree of Qing Jiaqing Emperor in 1799, imports rose from 75 metric tonnes in 1775 to 2,500mt by 1839. The main facilitator and profiteer of this trade was the East India Company; the company that governed India, from where most opium was grown. At its height, the Company ruled over a billion people, ran a trading system that dwarfed those of most nation states, and had secured a steady revenue stream through the peddling of addictive drugs. Similarly, Facebook has over a billion users, it represents wealth that exceeds many nation states, and secures a revenue stream through advertising using addictive, psychologically hacking products. And just like the East India Company, the social media giant’s immense power is ‘increasingly centralised, in the hands of just a few people… in one state in one country (Williams)’. And although Facebook lacks the huge private army that the East India Company once had, it has something altogether more frightening and powerful: substantial influence over the hearts and minds of its users. In a recent article for the New Statesman, Nicky Woolf provides us with some examples of this power. During the 2010 American midterm elections, Facebook conducted a non-consensual social experiment on 61 million people. It learned that by adding an ‘I voted’ button at the top of the newsfeed, turnout in the election increased by 340,000 votes. Two years later, it experimented on 700,000 users (again, without their consent) by showing them happy and sad content, and learned that it could manipulate their user’s emotional states. Facebook’s users had, in Woolf’s words, been ‘turned into lab rats’. Joel Penney, from Montclair State University in New Jersey, expresses ‘major’ concern that Facebook has ‘more ability to manipulate public opinion than any other media entity that has existed before’. In his 2010 book The Facebook Effect, former company leader David Kirkpatrick bluntly stated that ‘Facebook could determine the winner of any election in any democratic country’.

The comparisons between Facebook and the East Indian Company don’t end there. In her article, Woolf explores the ‘imperial ambitions’ of Mark Zuckerberg. The presidency of the East India Company would later morph into the Viceroyalty of India; a transition from soft to overt power in British politics. In similarly fashion, it seems that Zuckerberg now has his sights on the White House. In the last year, he has hired ‘two senior Obama advisers’ (including Obama’s public speaking coach), toured the states important to prospective presidential candidates, and in 2016 he ‘inserted a special mechanism into Facebook’s stock structure enabling him to take a leave of absence to work in government’. Furthermore, Zuckerberg, hitherto an atheist, seems to have suddenly found god- most likely because a 2015 opinion poll found that 40% of American voters would not vote for an atheist as president. With his disturbing, formidable power to shape people’s emotions and opinions, the idea of a Zuckerberg presidency borders on dystopia even more so than the Trump administration. 

With all the above considered, is social media the new opium of the masses? Some people talk about giving up their phones for some time, but maybe we should be treating these notions with a sense of urgency. This is all easier said than done, of course. Anyone reading this article will be reading it online, probably on their phone or laptop. I am as guilty as the next person of spending too much time reading stuff online rather than reading something in a physical book. In any case, and regardless of whether or not you decide to limit your social media use, nobody should be fooled that the tech giants are driven primarily by some sort of morality. Some people seem to like Mark Zuckerberg. Personally, I’ve always thought he had all the charm of a decomposing snail. The voracious greed of consumer capitalism means that Facebook and the other tech-giants will never relinquish their grip on the attention of the world’s populace. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote that defenders of freedom had ‘failed to take into account… man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. This fact may be lost on the defenders of freedom, but it is certainly not lost on the social media giants. In the spirit of humanity, perhaps we should all make a concerted effort to put down the opium pipe.

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