Facebook has ultimately given up on its core mission to connect people and to trigger meaningful conversations. Starting this week, Meta is kicking friends and news off their homepages. Instead, creator clips and viral videos are being featured in Facebook and Instagram timelines worldwide. It’s a declaration of war on TikTok — and maybe all of us.
Firing up Facebook and Instagram these days, you may no longer recognize your newsfeeds. Friends and message texts are off the home screen. Instead, you’ll see more viral videos and creator content from people you don’t follow will be pushed into the “Suggested For You” timelines.
With this step, Facebook finally gave up on its noble goal of promoting “meaningful conversations” and connecting “people that matter to us” (Mark Zuckerberg 2017). And once again, around two billion Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp/Messenger users will become lab rats in one of humanity’s greatest sociological experiments.
A Forsa study commissioned by the commercial health insurance company of Germany has shown that the rate of depression among teenagers has almost doubled in the last ten years (even prior to Covid). Girls are particularly affected. The reason: They spend more time than boys in social networks.
Performing around the clock
I try to imagine what it must be like to be a teenager in the age of social media and smartphones. They face a constant pressure to perform for their peers. Show me your Instagram profile, and I’ll tell you who you are: the number of people who follow you, the number of likes you receive on the web determines your popularity ranking. In plain text. In real time. Visible to everyone. 24/7. Your social media credit score.
The social networks are brutal: Nowhere else in life are you so blantantly measured, so permanently and ruthlessly confronted with the fact that no matter what you do, you are not good enough: not beautiful, not slim, not strong enough. So, you perform for the human social status algorithm. Look everyone: my life is better than yours!
No more retreats
While there used to be a school bell that, like the end of a boxing round, freed you from the competitive school environment, today there is no easy retreat for young people. Instead, the real competition begins after school: a fight for attention, status, and likes.
The omnipresence of smartphones has meant that young people no longer have a safe haven. While we used to be able to decide for ourselves what we did in our free time and with whom we met, social networks follow us from the moment we wake until we go to bed. And, even while we sleep.
A tick-tocking time bomb
Since my last blog post, two families in the US have filed lawsuits against TikTok. Two girls, aged 8 and 9, died in a dare (new speak: “challenge”), which involved choking and filming themselves before falling unconscious. This “blackout challenge” was spread via TikTok. This is precisely the kind of viral content that Facebook now wants to place at the center Facebook and Instagram home screen news feeds.
TikTok belongs to ByteDance, an internet company based in Beijing, and remains a privacy concern. There continue to be indications that user data secretly flows to China. Although it’s disputed whether China excerts political influence on TikTok for foreign users, TikTok was banned in India years ago.
What makes TikTok so dangerous is its secret algorithm, which seems to magically cast a spell over people, children and young people in particular. Like a slot machine in Las Vegas, TikTok displays one video clip after the next. Each funnier or more surprising than the clip before.
The choice and order of the videos is no coincidence. A sophisticated algorithm studies the usage behavior of the viewer to maximize the user’s attention. And in the background, TikTok secretly learns about you, sniffing out where you are, which websites you visit, and what apps you use.
The worst of all worlds
In TikTok, Google and Facebook have met their match. Although American firms also shamelessly spy on us through our phones, the Chinese do it better. It’s n wonder that Facebook parent company, Meta, is panicking and announced that its homepage algorithm — just like TikTok — will focus on viral video wonders and creator content in the future.
Instead of leading by example and create a responsible, healthier environment with YouTube or Instagram, Google and Facebook are now copying the worst practices of TikTok and integrating them into their own products — aiming directly at minors. You might as well distribute free crack in daycare centers and playgrounds.
An arms race has begun for the most insidious manipulation of human weaknesses and the most shameless exploitation of our desires. The goal: even more app dependency, more data collection, more profit. A targeted attack on the dopamine center of the human brain. These tactics have been shown to be extremely addictive, especially in the emotionally troubled and young people.
The regulation challenge
So what should we do? Better education? Stricter laws? Higher fines? The answer is: yes.
My appeal to myself: go offline more often and enjoy the moment. No more worrying about posting the next holiday photo, the funniest video sequence, or a witty tweet. Just capture the moment with my mind.
My appeal to politicians: go online more! And do it yourself (don’t ask your assistants to do it for you). Use Instagram and TikTok, preferably daily. Reflect on what these apps do to you, how the programs manipulate you and bind you deeper and longer to the platform.
And then: Invite psychologists, network experts, lawyers, parents, and educators to develop suitable countermeasures. Just as we have done with alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive drugs. And don’t just talk, but act. Take the “regulatory challenge” and improve the laws to protect human lives.