How and Why You’re Being Manipulated

“Will you get off your phone for once and do something with your life?” is something I, and probably you, have heard countless times. We’ve come to accept that our parents will continue to hurl similar lines at us for eternity, and that’s that.

I admit that, very occasionally, I’ll see something on my computer or phone and completely lose focus for hours. But that’s nothing to worry about at all, because we have total control over our device usage…

…Right?

Could I survive a week without my favorite communication app? Could you? The answer is almost definitely an astounding no. In fact, there was a 13-minute gap between writing this sentence and writing the previous one because my programmer friend had sent me an article on serverless architecture, which then led to another article on fetch methods.

It’s remarkably easy to get completely sidetracked in these times. An Instagram notification, a text from a friend, or an innocent scroll through your feed all have the potential to suck up hours of our time. Modern recommendation algorithms, which decide what videos or posts you end up seeing, are so good that they can keep us hooked for hours.

Assuming that you haven’t been living under a rock these past few years, you’re probably aware of tech companies collecting our data. One use for that data is to train complex, AI-powered algorithms in order to build a digital profile of each user. That model can accurately predict whether a user will engage with a specific trigger. Things like location, age, gender, workplace, school, sexual preference, political views, and what you had for lunch are all known to varying degrees of accuracy. It’s difficult to overstate just how much of your activity is tracked — everything you have ever typed or uploaded, every swipe, click, and pause you have ever performed on every electronic device is meticulously recorded and subsequently analyzed. In far too many cases, your digital model knows more about you than perhaps you know about yourself, like Target knowing a girl was pregnant, Alexa knowing if your relationship is going to end, or the police knowing if you’re going to commit a crime. And if that wasn’t enough, our technologies are continuously improving on a daily basis.

And frankly… the same cannot be said for us.

We humans remain as psychologically and physically vulnerable as we were a century ago — evolution is taking her sweet time in coming up with the next major update, I suppose (wings, please?). In that regard, us teenagers tend to naively trust whatever we’re told, we tend to assume that the people we interact with are being completely honest. This is quite problematic, as shown by the amount of criminals that rely on our trust. To illustrate this point, consider the following hypothetical scenario.

It’s the day before a project is due, and your friend is asking you for “help” — even though you were given weeks to work on it.

[Friend]: “Hey, could I copy your project? I haven’t even started on it yet.”

[You]: “… no? Dude we’ve had weeks to work on it.”

[Friend]: “Let me see it for 30 seconds, that’s it, please.”

[You]: “No! Do it on your own!”

[Friend]: “Okay… it’s just… my grandma died a week ago and we’ve been really busy with death stuff, that’s why I haven’t been doing this project…”

You can probably imagine what happens next. This is, of course, a grossly exaggerated and comical illustration, but the point remains that we’re an easily manipulated species. Now imagine what tech corporations, armed with AI, petabytes (millions of gigabytes) of user data, and knowledge about our psychology, can do.

If you’ve been following along up until now, then you might be wondering, “Why would tech companies want to manipulate us?” That, my friend, is an excellent question, but the answer is simple:

Money.

There’s a saying about the recent rise of “free” services, “If the product is free, then you are the product.” This is exactly the case with products like Google, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and every other for-profit company that somehow manages to provide a free to use product. Their business is one of collecting your data and selling it either directly to other companies, or indirectly, in the form of targeted advertisements. Amazon, for instance, is the largest advertiser in the US.

What this means is that the longer a company can keep your attention, the more money they can make.

It is these 3 key aspects that constitute what I’ve repeatedly referred to as “manipulation”: advanced algorithms capable of learning by themselves, a population not so well-versed in detecting manipulation, and corporations optimizing said algorithms for profit. They learn what keeps you scrolling and throws it back at you to keep you scrolling. If you engage with political opinions, they show more political opinions; if you engage with memes, they show more memes; if you engage with Instagram stalking, they show you pictures of that one ex from 2 years ago.

The broadcast and print news version of this follows mostly the same concept, except instead of algorithms deciding what retains users, its writers and news anchors who employ the same tactics. And in the case of tech companies, I’m not accusing the companies themselves of knowingly manipulating their users on a massive scale, no. What’s happening is simply a matter of algorithms trying to figure out what works on us and what doesn’t; clearly they have done a good job. Yet these companies certainly have a say in how their algorithms run, and it’s my wish to see them progress in a more ethical way, but that’s a different topic altogether.

This is an existential threat to society as we know it. “How can they be so blind and dumb in the face of all this evidence that I’m seeing?” The answer is that they aren’t seeing whatever you’re seeing. Take any two people with strong, opposite political views and ask them the same set of questions, and what you get is two wildly contrasting sets of “truth”. They are unable to have any meaningful debate because of the gaping disparity between their realities. Media platforms aren’t a direct existential threat; they are the catalyst — our own ignorance is the threat. The 2020 election should be enough to convince you of this fact, so I’ll refrain from elaborating.

For now, just be aware of possible manipulative tactics being used anytime, anywhere, and by anyone — like this paper! Is there a solid reason to support an argument or is it just your emotions? Cross-check your sources, or even do your own research on a topic if you have time. It might seem tedious at first, but the resulting nuanced opinions you’ll form is definitely worth it.

Let’s not enter a civil war, ya?

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Programmer, amateur physicist, musician, full-time teenager. I also like cats.

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Everest

Everest

Programmer, amateur physicist, musician, full-time teenager. I also like cats.

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