Start talking to strangers

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Alarmingly few people realise just how easy it is for such [social media] platforms to manipulate us with a degree of sophistication that makes us all their virtual puppets.”  


Social media platforms have the power to durably influence our moods, behaviour and thoughts: so far, so unremarkable. Today it is impossible to go about one’s life without being at the receiving end of a variety of campaigns  designed to push our ‘emotional buttons’ in a bid to foster certain behaviours. Ad-makers know that we tend to be jealous creatures who like to feel desired, safe, empowered etc. – we can guess that too.

Social media platforms know a whole lot more about us: because of the detailed, granular data we more or less willingly share about ourselves -and our acquaintances- these platforms know us better than many of our friends do. Alarmingly few people realise just how easy it is for such platforms to manipulate us with a degree of sophistication that makes us all their virtual puppets. This manipulation is different from the ‘emotional button pushing’ techniques used by advertisers for two reasons. First because of these platforms’ intimate knowledge of what ‘makes us tick’. Second because of the widespread, unconscious motivation that leads to use social media platforms in the first place: we are social creatures with a deeply ingrained desire to be liked and accepted. We are rarely fully conscious of this desire, and the things we humans do to that end are seldom rational.

Now, you might ask: what is so wrong about being manipulated by social media platforms? At an individual level, this manipulation imperils the process through which we constantly seek to re-define ourselves as persons: when things happen to us -good or bad- we might discard some of it, and try to appropriate the rest. When we discover that this process -precarious as it is- was manipulated, we feel betrayed. 

This sense of betrayal can arise at a collective level too. 

Democratic processes are meant to allow vigorous debate and confrontation between conflicting political positions. When we are only ever exposed to views that comfort us in our existing beliefs -a phenomenon driven by the platforms’ incentive to maximise user engagement- political confrontation morphs into tribalism. Glover’s masterful Humanity: a moral history of the 20th Century amply demonstrates just how far our capacity for horrendous violence can go when fuelled by the ‘us against them’ logic. That logic pre-dates humanity. Today it is not only magnified ten-fold by so-called ‘filter bubbles’. When a massacre like Christchurch’s is streamed live on social media, tribalism is also given a loudspeaker, a camera, and a larger audience than ever before. Designing better and faster ways of preventing the spread of hateful content is important, but it won’t address the following: is humanity being manipulated into an increasingly more tribal, less tolerant version? If so it might be time to ditch social media, and start talking to strangers.