“The more morally impudent language you use, the more inflammatory language, contemptuous language, the more outrage you use, the more shared it becomes. So we are rewarded for being part contractors. The better you are at inventing a new way to be divisive, we’ll reward you with more likes, followers and retweets.”
That’s what Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, told Bill Whitaker this week on 60 Mintues.
In his 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, Harris argued that social media platforms have captured our attention. Now he cites a new study by Twitter showing that attacks on political opponents are almost guaranteed to attract attention.
“Every single term related to your political outsider group increased the likelihood that this post would be retweeted or reshared by 67%,” Harris told Whitaker. “The underdog group is the other side.”
“These platforms,” Whitaker asked, “don’t they just reflect who we are and what we think and the divisions that already exist?”
“They charge 100 or 1,000 times to one of the worst parts of us,” Harris said.
Here is a recent example. On the day the Justice Department released a photo showing classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, a tweet highlighting a direct message on the subject received about 2,000 “likes.” But a tweet by a Republican congresswoman calling Trump’s opponents “fools” got 10 times more “likes,” and a tweet from the left calling Donald Trump a “traitor” got 20 times more “likes.”
And, Harris says, anger distorts the political landscape.
“Why does the world know more about Marjorie Taylor Greene than all the other hundreds of congressional candidates? That’s because the angry, inflammatory stuff goes the most viral,” Harris said.
Harris said the intimidation and anger crossed political lines.
“I think the deepest thing, so perverted, about these platforms is that they’ve grasped the importance of social participation in society,” Harris told Whitaker. “The fact that they’ve colonized and privatized this social participation means ‘I’m on TikTok’, ‘I’m on Instagram’, ‘I’m on Facebook’.”
And these platforms compete fiercely for our attention and the advertising money that attention generates.
“Facebook doesn’t say, ‘Let me make design decisions that strengthen democracy,'” Harris said. “They say, ‘How do I develop the product in a direction that elicits more engagement from people?’ Because if I don’t do that, I’m only going to lose to the companies that do.”
“Companies like TikTok,” Harris continued, “and TikTok has become one of the most popular apps around the world.”
TikTok has done this by offering an addictive mix of short videos. Some are silly, others overtly political. It’s owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, and Harris says the version offered to Chinese consumers called Douyin is very different from the one available in the West.
“If you’re under 14, on their version of TikTok, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos, and educational videos,” Harris said. “And they also limit it to just 40 minutes a day. Now they don’t ship this version of TikTok to the rest of the world. So it’s almost as if they realize that technology is affecting how children develop, and they’re making their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok while shipping the opium version to the rest of the world.”
The version served to the West has kids hooked for hours. The effects, Harris says, are predictable.
“There’s a poll of youth in the US and China asking, ‘What’s the most ambitious career you want to have?’ And the USA was number one,’ [social media] influencers,” Harris said. “And in China, number one was ‘astronaut.’ Again, if you allow these two societies to evolve for a few generations, I can tell you what your world will be like.”
TikTok told 60 Minutes that it is giving American users tools to limit screen time. But these tools are entirely optional. And national security concerns have sparked fresh calls for a US ban on TikTok in the past week
Twitter noted that it asks users to think twice before sharing potentially harmful posts. But within days of buying Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted a conspiracy theory about the attack on spokeswoman Nancy Pelosis’ husband. It was later deleted.
And Facebook said it reduced the total amount of political content its 240 million American users see.