How Social Media Changes Our Brains

16 Dec, 2020


How Social Media Changes Our Brains

December 2020

When the COVID-19 lockdowns took effect, “the online world ignited like a digital forest fire,” Sinan Aral writes in The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt. Use of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook Live shot up overnight.

The pandemic was a surprise, but the new reliance on digital platforms was predictable, writes Aral, who is the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and head of MIT’s Analytics Lab as well as co-founder of Manifest Capital, a venture capital fund.

In what way was the acceleration predictable?

It was predictable because the social media world was itself predictable. The human brain has evolved as a remarkable processor of social signals, beyond what any other species is capable of. And social media delivers trillions of real-time social signals nonstop all day long. We’d already become accustomed to using social media, but when we were forced off the streets and out of our offices and all of that, we suddenly had little choice but to rely on it for many of our social connections. The demand was so immense that Mark Zuckerberg said it was all Facebook could do to keep the lights on. Looked at from a different direction, the demand had already been there. Social media just came along to meet that demand.

What, exactly, is the “Hype Machine”?

That’s my term for the entire social media industrial complex, which includes all those that support it, including consumers. And the purpose of social media, the way it operates and on which its economy depends, is to keep us hyped up, to keep us engaged. That’s what its advertising depends on. That’s also why anger and “fake news” and outrageous claims are so viral.

And neuroscience understands this, right?

That’s one way to think of it, yes. Social media is built for the way our brains work, as neuroscientists know. It is designed to stimulate our dopamine-reward mechanism. It is designed explicitly to do that, as Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, told reporter Mike Allen of Axios back in 2017. And we go back over and over for these dopamine hits, and that changes how our brains operate. Add to that the effect of loneliness, which increases with the lockdown.

How so?

Loneliness causes neural pain, and using social media allows us to feel connected and alleviates some of that pain. That’s only the beginning of how its use changes us.

Can you offer another example?

Sure. There have been fascinating studies out of UCLA that exposed young people to images of risky behaviors like using drugs or drinking alcohol. The images were accompanied by numbers of likes, with identical images shown to different study participants. The only difference was the number of likes. The upshot is that for those behaviors with more likes, the response inhibition of the participants was reduced. In layman’s terms, the more likes, the less inhibition the participants expressed to engaging in those risky activities. So social media in that case changed how we respond.

And, as you write, it also makes effective use of misinformation and even disinformation. How does that work?

We know that in 2016, Russia made a massive and sophisticated manipulation of social media to influence our presidential election, and they clearly mounted an even greater effort in 2020. Now if you assume that the goal of their efforts was to elect and then reelect Donald Trump, then you might see their efforts this time as a failure. But that’s too narrow an interpretation. If their goal was, as I believe, mainly to reduce Americans’ confidence in our democracy, then it has been a huge success. If they want to increase our levels of polarization, they’ve succeeded.

But social media works to do that, anyway, right?

Yes, it does. That’s because it allows us to live in echo chambers, in filter bubbles. It’s typical of Americans today to experience completely different information sets. If you watch Fox and listen to Rush Limbaugh, you have one view of reality, and if you rely on CNN and NPR, you have a completely different view of reality. And there is no common ground, because we are exposed to completely segregated information. And Facebook algorithms reinforce this segregation. This is troubling in ways a lot of people don’t quite understand.

Troubling, how?

We’re seeing a rise in what is called “affective polarization,” meaning the polarization goes beyond a difference of opinion. Affective polarization refers to the extent to which we don’t just disagree with other people about politics, but actually hate them. And the manipulation, through fake news or outrageous claims, for example, drives this affective polarization.

It is becoming more difficult to tell fake news from facts, right?

It is difficult, and it won’t get any easier with the rise of “deepfake technology,” which makes it possible to create hyper-realistic video or audio of real people that is impossible to distinguish from the real thing. We’ve seen videos that purport to be Barack Obama and Boris Johnson that look and sound just like them, and the technology that makes this possible also constantly improves, making it still more difficult to tell the real thing from the fake. This technology has already been used to defraud companies of millions of dollars. The CFO will get a call telling him or her to move money, and it sounds so much like the boss that the CFO does what he or she is told.

All this sounds so depressing. Can you offer some hope?

Sure. When social media first emerged, a kind of utopianism accompanied its arrival. We saw nothing but its promise. It would democratize the flow of information. It would make it possible to accomplish things that were never possible before, and there is some evidence that this is true. After the Nepal earthquake of 2015, for example, a Facebook call for donations raised more than $15 million in relief funds, which was more than the U.S. and European governments were able to contribute combined. Social media also makes it possible to create movements for positive political change like Black Lives Matter, whose own founders say would never have come into existence without social media. The economic effect of social media is also huge. The value to consumers created by Facebook is estimated to be $350 billion since 2016.

So it’s easy to overlook the benefits when we focus on its dark side?

That’s exactly right. I think we need to move off the dystopian view of social media that we’ve gotten used to and remember the possibilities it presents. A lot of work has to be done, of course, to get there. I argue that we need to establish competition in the social media universe, and by that I don’t mean simply breaking up Facebook. All that would do is clear the way for the next Facebook. What we would need to do to encourage genuine competition is a complicated subject, and for that, I’d refer you to my book!

Reach Aral at

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