Getting Hooked on Tech

Getting Hooked on Tech
Communications of the ACM, June 2018, Vol. 61 No. 6, Pages 18-19
By Logan Kugler

“Facebook and Google lead the way in this arena. Facebook allows users to customize their personal profile to their liking and indicate their interests by engaging with content. Every reaction a user has to a post teaches Facebook’s algorithms his/her preferences; these algorithms then serve more content that even better matches the user’s preferences.


The result? The user visits and revisits the site, staying for longer, making them a richer target for advertising.”


It is not a good year for Facebook. The company’s ubiquitous platform, designed to bring users together, was used by Russian non-state actors to tear America apart by creating fake posts on highly divisive issues and using them to sway opinion in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.


In hindsight, Facebook was the perfect weapon: used by billions worldwide, and more than half of Americans use it several times each day. That much attention, it turns out, could be weaponized by the Russians.


According to The New York Times, “Facebook found $100,000 of ad purchases that were linked to the fake pages—designed to look like the pages of Americans animated by particular issues—that spread inflammatory messages about immigration, guns and other topics; derided Mrs. Clinton and supported Mr. Trump.”


The impact of these efforts was perceived as so dire that Facebook agreed to turn over to Congress more than 3,000 ads used to influence attitudes during the election. At the time, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “It’s a new challenge for Internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”


That’s nice, but only tells one side of the story.


While the fake posts were designed to provoke outrage, some users kept coming back multiple times per day; they were shown even more fake news, and further influenced by false narratives.


If these types of sensational posts are like a drug, then users have been programmed to be unable to get enough of them from social media sites and the smartphones that display them.

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