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Propaganda

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Social Media: Selfies, Isolation, and Bacon?

I was recently informed by Instagram that I spent approximately 2 hours and 4 minutes on their platform daily. I was absolutely mortified. Me, no way! – All I did was spend a few measly seconds scrolling, feasting my eyes on food pictures and daydream about taking bomb-ass photos like the unrealistically gorgeous girl I just saw. I did not spend two hours sending funny memes to my compadres. Seriously, did I spend that much time on social media? I was disappointed with myself. I could have used that time to do something more constructive, like, doing one of those free online courses my friend, Rage always sends me. Or, I could have been working on this post. I was in the sunken place of social media and I didn’t even notice it. I was victim of mass media propaganda and very soon I am going to become a social media zombie! Maybe, that is a tad-bit dramatic. But, why are we so drawn to these platforms that have most of us scrolling for days without even noticing time evading us? What is so enticing about spending hours on these mediums fuelling our compulsive urges, comparing and yearning to be like one of those persons who seem to go on vacation every week? There is no doubt that social media is a valuable tool in modern times. It is an important part of our daily lives. Media determines, shapes and moulds the lens through which we view the world. Media determines what can be said, who can say it, how it can be said and who can hear it. Napoleon Bonaparte regarded the “press as the seventh power.” The press played an integral role in the French revolution and remained a major tool on influence for the duration of the 19th century. The philosophies and mechanisms of social media has been heavily influenced by the principles set forth by Edward Bernays, “father of public relations.” His influence is the reason why we spend hours on end glued to our screens and purchasing products we don’t necessarily need.

Social Media dates back as far as 1844, (in what is considered to be a resemblance of modern social media), when Samuel Morse sent a single-wired telegraph from Washington to Baltimore. Morse message read, “ What hath God wrought.” Since then social media has impacted society both positively and negatively. It has made our lives much easier and it has made people lazier. Social networking is just one aspect of many people’s lives that may well be hindering  them. In his documentary, HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis refers to social media as an echo chamber where the algorithms are so strong and know so much about you that they only give you what they know you will like. Edward Bernays knew this very well. In 1928 Bernays published, Propaganda, in which he states that public relation is a necessary tool:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Throughout his career Bernays was commissioned by a vast variety of American corporations. One such corporation was the Beech-Nut Packing Company that was struggling to sell one of its largest meat item, bacon. Instead of reducing the price for bacon, Bernays asked a more probing question- who informs the public of what to consume? After speaking to numerous doctors, together they decided that a “hearty’ breakfast was better than a light breakfast. Bernays was able to get 5,000 doctors to sign on a statement that promoted a heavy breakfast that was protein rich, say, of eggs and bacon. The statement was published in the newspapers which resulted in the spike in sales of bacon.

Similarly, this marketing gimmick is used daily on social media platforms. Social media is not only narrowing the minds of people by excluding information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs but the large corporations that runs social media platforms are exploiting weakness in the minds of people to get them to behave in a way that suits them. These platforms are specifically designed to take advantage of human psychology. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google, who currently leads the Time Well Spent movement wrote in an article outlining a few of the thousands of techniques used on social media to manipulate people’s behaviour. Why is playing Razz Poker so addictive for some people? The reason is the linking of an intermittent variable reward to a human action. The reward for playing a hand of Razz could range from getting a good hand and wining a lot of money to getting a bad hand and wining nothing at all. This unpredictability of inconsistent and occasional reward is what keeps a person playing. And, social media platforms are using the same psychological principle in their apps.

When facebook displays a notification icon on your phone, you hastily check it to see what in underneath because you don’t know what it is going to be about. When you are looking at your twitter feed, you keep scrolling as you don’t know which tweet will appear next or who wrote it. Because liked photos and tweets don’t appear on a set schedule you check for them compulsively. If you have ever visited the supermarket for some bread and milk have you ever noticed that they are far away from each other or positioned at the far end of the store? This is deliberate so as to achieve your reason for going to the supermarket for some bread and milk you also achieve the supermarket business need of maximizing how much you buy by walking pass several items for sale. Social media uses the same method. When you log on to perform a specific task such as sending a tweet you are shown your news feed. When you view your news feed on Instagram you are shown top trends, friend’s activities and advertisements .These are deliberately placed distractions. An easy way for people to consume more content is to change an encounter that is finite and make it an everlasting one. News feed are now never ending – continuously loading more content to keep you scrolling and avoid pausing or leaving the site. Sites such as Youtube now auto plays the next video so that you don’t need to make a conscientious decision to continue watching. Again, achieving their goal of increasing the amount of time you spend on their site. The “foot in the door” phenomenon refers to the fact that people tend to be more likely to comply with a large request if they have already agreed to a smaller one. Social media companies utilize this strategy by asking people for a small request i.e click on here to see who like your post. Then ramping up from there to offering several other options.

Many people don’t estimate correctly the amount of time they spend on social platforms after that initial first click. Reading  what someone has written on your page may take a matter of seconds but could result in half an hour browsing the site. No matter how small the chance, the fear of missing out on something important is another psychology trait that is exasperated by social media companies and keeps you using their site. People stay friends with other people on facebook despite not talking to them for years just in case they have something important to say.

It is a natural human reaction to feel motivated when we feel like we are appreciated by our friends and family. People are even more motivated when they feel like the belong to a community. Oftentimes, the technological companies suggest tagging faces in photos automatically, meaning they now control the approval rather than it being an independent conscientious choice by your friends. In the same way you are vulnerable to social approval when you upload a new selfie. Snapping a selfie seem like an insignificant act. But on a profound level, selfies are possibly wrapped up with questions of how people view their bodies and present themselves to others.  A study conducted by researchers in Canada and Australia  suggest that posting a selfie on social media might be more intensely loaded with emotions than perceive. Participants in the study were given the mundane task of uploading selfies on social media. The participants were placed into two groups. One group was allowed to edit their selfies and choose the selfie they like best to upload. The other group was informed to upload the selfie as is.  A survey was conducted both before and after uploading the selfies to assess the participants view on their body image and mood. Astonishingly, simply snapping and uploading the selfies affected both. The participants were not only anxious after uploading the selfies but far less confident. According to the researchers, the experiment demonstrated that taking a selfie and posting it caused adverse psychological damage. Another study conducted titled, The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to like Them Yet Everybody Has Reasons to Take Them ,researchers found that people preferred viewing other kinds of photos as oppose to selfies. The researchers found that people’s negative reaction towards selfies had to do with their displeasure in viewing themselves in a negative way. Selfies tend expose people’s narcissistic inclination. This narcissistic tendency is frowned upon in society so people try to shy away from such behaviour even though they indulge in it.

 

The pressure and manipulation used by social media companies have left many people feeling vulnerable and insecure. This vulnerable state have also left people feeling depressed and lonely. An experimental study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania have linked the connection between depression and the feeling of isolation with social media usage. The results showed that decreasing the amount of time spent on social media can leave one feeling happier and improve one’s overall well-being. The experiment traced 143 participants  for one month. Each participant had to complete a well-being survey that included scales that measured their “fearing of missing out”, depression and loneliness and overall wellbeing. In the first week the participants were told to use their social media normally. For during of the experiment the participants were divided into a control group. One group was instructed to use social media regularly while the other group was limited to 10 minutes of social media usage per day. After the end of each week a well-being survey was completed. One of the researchers of the experiment, Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt stated, “We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid.” She continued her statement noting, “ “Here’s the bottom line. Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.” In spite of the pervasiveness of social media , achieving meaningful connection online can be  problematic. The role of social media plays is a complicated one. Social media can persuade us to act in certain ways that goes against our moral code . The cyberspace is constantly becoming more sophisticated and responsive to human interaction. By being aware of this manipulation you can make more informed decisions.

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