The Dark Secrets Behind Your Favorite Social Media Platform

Each experienced social media user knows that when they post ideas online, they receive a media “feed” back to them. Their feed is made up of posts by their followers and by people they follow as well. This raises a serious question: Why are certain pictures and videos being recommended to you in your “feed”? After watching the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, one BHHS student offers an informed answer to the question.

By Audrey Goldberg 

There are multiple social media apps and platforms. Each one uses advanced computer algorithms. These apps essentially reduce every individual into a mathematical equation. The purpose of computer algorithms is not to help the user, but rather to keep you online as long as possible to sell you items such as: services, clothes, and personal products. Your entire profile is constantly analyzed by computers, so that these social media companies can monetize your usage. These algorithms are intended to persuade you to stay on the app longer or to open the app instantly when receiving a notification. One common type of notification is “tagging.” Notice how Instagram’s notifications say “you’ve been tagged in @someone’s photo,” but does not show the photo in the notification. When people receive this notification it’s tempting to look right away, especially if the notification is from a close friend or family member. These are the leading factors we can attribute to Instagram making a significant profit from screen time. Every day, the notifications will vary depending on what content you have been accessing by hitting the like button, commenting, or simply viewing. Instagram repeats this procedure until it is successful and can perfect the algorithm. Many other companies use this tactic such as Google, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.  

Where are these computers actually located? Google has thousands of computers in numerous facilities below ground and underwater. They are interconnected as they run these complex algorithms sending information back and forth to each other. Such algorithms are “opinions embedded in code” according to Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist. 

There is a circulating conspiracy theory that social media “sells” your data. However, arguably, Instagram and Twitter actually don’t care about whose posts you’re viewing and why. Instead, they care about how long you look at that post for and what other pictures and videos can make you stay on the app. These platforms view their users as a product to be sold to advertisers, and it’s a perpetual cycle. Every time you open a social media application, you’re unknowingly going through this process.

Social media has its downsides. Studies show that social media is a leading cause of teen depression. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “Per every 100,000 teenage girls that were admitted into a hospital due [to] self harm, there has been a 62% increase in girls ages 15-19, and a 189% increase in girls ages 10-14.” Experts say the increase is due to the impact of social media. First, a teenager might see a photo of their friends hanging out with their other friends which makes them feel excluded. When this happens more than once, over time it contributes towards teens developing depression. Another common situation is when teens compare themselves to other kids their age, or to social media influencers. While Photoshop has become a popular editing app, teens don’t consider that edits were used as they scroll through multiple photos and only perceive attractiveness without considering the photos have been highly altered. This leads to body dysmorphia. Social media only shows the highlights of people’s lives and can make teens feel like they have to look a certain way to gain likes, followers, and comments. 

Social media also makes users addicted to the point where they lose self control. This addiction isolates the users and pulls them away from reality. For example, TikTok is one of the most addicting social media platforms in the world right now. Because the content is exclusively videos, once you start scrolling, it’s hard to stop, especially because the videos are only 15 seconds long. The main reason for this addiction is because the content people are watching is specifically designed to keep them on the app for as long as possible. Just like Instagram and Facebook, TikTok is thriving because of the combination of these tricks.  

This next issue is something the average person is not aware of. According to the experts in The Social Dilemma, geography impacts the articles and videos that appear when you search. Google, Safari, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge retrieve different articles for you to read on politics and other current events depending on your location. “The platforms make it possible to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease, and without very much money” states Renée Diresta, Research Manager of Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of policy at Data for Democracy. This shifts the perspective of what news the readers learn and offers a possible explanation of why there is a growing divisiveness in the United States.  When you begin to enter a search, the app program’s algorithm is set to fill in the blank and predict what you want to search.  That is why a person living in Nebraska will likely get different search results than a person living in New York, even if they are using the same exact search terms.  As a result, the Nebraskan news feeds can differ from the New York news feeds, even if they both enter the same query.  The app program algorithm is designed to present you with viewpoints in line with what the majority of the citizens in your area believe. This is one of the reasons why app programs ask you to turn on your location. 

Another problem with social media is that fake news competes with the real news. Fake news is usually more amplified and interesting to read about. Many people with different biases are putting themselves out there to the point that the readers don’t know the real story, and don’t know whose story to trust. 

I hope reading this article has opened your eyes. Next time you pick up your device because you see a notification, consider why you are actually receiving it, and if it’s best for you read it. Next time you’re scrolling through TikTok and Instagram late at night, consider that by not going to sleep, you are making that social media app more money by the minute. Also, always question the content you are receiving. Is it reliable? Is it accurate? Most importantly, remember that, as summarized by Justin Rosenstein, a software programmer and entrepreneur, “We’re the product, our attention is being sold.”