COMPISSUES03 - The Dark Side of Social Networks


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A presentation introducing students to dark side of social networks, including the psychological tricks and cognitive biases that allow them to flourish. Non-technical, and suitable for use in a 'soft skills' module.

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COMPISSUES03 - The Dark Side of Social Networks

  1. 1. + The Dark Side of Social Networks Current Issues in Web Technology Michael Heron
  2. 2. + Introduction  We’ve spoken quite a lot about some of the power of social networks.  We need to traverse some dark parts of the human psyche to really appreciate many of the benefits.  In this lecture we’re going to talk about those dark parts, and how social networks work as much through fear and conformity as through memes and virality.  Many of the techniques used to create the stickiest and most viral messages are fundamentally exploitative.  We’ll talk more about this in the Captology lectures.
  3. 3. + Conformity  Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘social proofing’?   Social proofing is the cognitive bias that comes into play when we are in social circumstances and don’t know how to behave.   Probably not, but every one of us is affected by it every day. We look to the people around us for cues as to how we should interpret a situation. That works reasonably well.  Sometimes.
  4. 4. + Conformity  We are very strongly influenced by social contexts.   Also in the Solomon Asch line experiments.     C.F. Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. Codified in things like the Matthew Effect. Feedback accumulates to things which have already accumulated feedback. Social networks are multipliers of these effects.   Because we are ‘part of the group’ Social pressures are strongest when they come from ‘people like us’
  5. 5. + The Bystander Effect  A tremendously famous incident in 1964 was the murder of Kitty Genovese.   The murder itself is not what made the incident so well known.   A 28 year old woman stabbed to death outside her home in NYC. It was the newspaper coverage that followed. Investigations by reporters (some of which may have been embellished) revealed two key facts:   The attacks had happened over a 30 minute period in three separate incidents..  A period of time during which she was screaming for help. During that time several dozen people watched the murder.  None of them called them police.
  6. 6. + The Bystander Effect  Whether or not the reporting of this event was accurate, the research it spawned off is well validated.    And become codified as ‘the bystander effect’ Driven by:   Social proofing Diffusion of responsibility  ‘Someone else will do something’  ‘Nobody else seems to be concerned’  Counteracted by specific allocations of roles, actions and responsibilities.  Counteracted by ‘accountability’ for actions.
  7. 7. + People Like Us  Humans are naturally designed to form groups.     The effects of these vary from person to person, but they exert a constant pressure from many directions.   The family The tribe The nationality ‘Our genes make us like people like us’  27.cfm It takes a certain kind of personality to be willing to spend a lot of time ‘rocking the boat’
  8. 8. + Social Pressure  At school, the pressure to conform had a name.   It never truly goes away.   You might think of it as an aggressive form of memetic propagation. Social networks, by virtue of their design, are powerful amplifiers of social effects.   Peer pressure And some of these effects work against our better judgement. They invoke a ‘whirr-click’ response, to quote Robert Cialdini.
  9. 9. + Social Pressure  If you buy into the basic premise of memetic theory, the reasons why social pressures are important is obvious.  You pick up real viruses by being in close proximity to people with viruses.  You’re more likely to catch them from your friends.  The ideas and attitudes that your friends have propagate more freely than the ideas and attitudes of strangers.  Within our monkey brains, that also extends to ‘people like us’.  ‘These people who are of my tribe’
  10. 10. + Reciprocity Effect  Let’s look at one such effect that is capitalized upon by the trend towards social gaming.   Have you ever been in a situation where someone has handed you a cheap trinket and then asked for money?   It’s a very common technique. One of the cognitive biases in the human mind is that ‘gifts must be repaid’   The Reciprocity Effect. We must reciprocate. This effect underpins the propagation of social norms.
  11. 11. + Reciprocity Effect  Zynga are masters of this effect.   Farmville in particular is a masterpiece of psychological manipulation.   It’s not so much a game as a perfectly pitched engine for transferring the contents of your bank account from you to Zynga. You will have seen this in action, undoubtedly.   To help us bridge in this lecture the narrative from social networks to games. <Some friend> has gifted you a cow! Log on to Farmville to return the favour! You didn’t get me gift! You got me an obligation. 
  12. 12. + Reciprocity Effect  The effect is magnified within our ‘people like us’ group.   What? To do that I need to click on these stupid things and then press that thing and then come back in an hour? Fine, whatever.   Someone got me a cow, I must then log on to do whatever dumb thing I need to do to negate the imbalance. Right, I’m back. Hey, they gave me a free cow I can gift to a friend. I guess that’s nice of them. I can send that on to the friend who sent me his’ Some minutes later, from the perspective of the first friend:  ‘Wow, he sent me a cow back!’  ‘They must really like Farmville. I’ll send something else their way when I get a chance’
  13. 13. + The Dark Side  The problem with all these techniques as that they are largely evolutionary traits.   Cognitive biases are the ‘cheat codes to the human mind’   If you know they exist, you can design strategies to tickle these biases. They don’t work universally.   Our cognitive biases, and there are hundreds of them, help us make sense of an incredibly complex world. At best they increase rates of compliance. But nonetheless, you’re exploiting loopholes in human thinking.  Loopholes of which many people are not aware.
  14. 14. + The Dark Side  There are numerous ways in which the nature of social networking has a dark side.  An erosion of privacy   Facilitation of social pressures.   And an increase in the willingness of individuals to share information. Cyberbullying Enabling the wrong kinds of ‘people like us’ to communicate.    Terrorists Traders of child sex images Deindividuation  Hidden behind pseudonyms
  15. 15. + The Dark Side  Social networks don’t create any of these problems.   However, their design does magnify the effects. There were ‘funny memes’ before Facebook.  However, it was difficult for such things to become viral.   Virality is multiplied by the power of social networks. It’s easy to separate the real life consequences when all the social cues point to propagation.  It’s easy to forget that most memes are profoundly cruel to the people involved.  If it was bad, people wouldn’t be doing it, right?
  16. 16. + Bandwagon Effects  Social networks multiply the bandwagon effect.   This is another cognitive bias, reinforced by other biases.    Social proofing ‘Herd instinct’ The bandwagon effect by itself is not inherently harmful, and can be put to ‘good’ use.     The more people doing something, the more ‘okay’ it has to be. The current ‘green bandwagon’ Momentum in socially beneficial causes. The ‘Arab spring’ However, it can also create a tremendously negative environment in which people sublimate their judgements for that of the group.
  17. 17. + Cyberstalking  We put more and more information online every year.   That is, ‘the collective we’ The more information we put out there, the more information it will unexpectedly reveal.  An individual foursquare announcement won’t tell me anything.  A thousand analysed over the course of a year will tell me everything.   Not everyone who views your online footprint is going to be looking to do you any favours.
  18. 18. + Identify Theft  Consider the common ‘security questions’ that are asked for authentication.    Your mother’s maiden name Your first pet Where you were born  Consider the set of information that your social networks ask of you on a daily basis.  Consider what people could find out from looking at your relationships.  Consider what they could find out looking at your ‘where I lived’ entries.
  19. 19. + Identify Theft  There are high profile examples of people gaining enough information through analysing the information available online    Facebook code leak One Direction album leak But, identify theft is a growing problem.   And the ease with which it can be done is increased as a result of social networking. In many cases, it is not an individual doing this.  This is a staple of organised crime nowadays,
  20. 20. + The Culture of Sharing  More and more employers, police and other interested individuals are looking to social media.  The media we upload is usually full of identifying metadata.   A while ago someone posted a photograph of a desk, upon which was a line of cocaine.   Digital cameras encode a giant amount of information with their digital files. With the tagline ‘I bet you can’t guess where I am’ Seconds later, the Internet told him.  ‘The second office on the third floor of the east wing of the Whitehouse’
  21. 21. + The Culture of Sharing  Some employers demand employees for their social media login details.    Mostly in America. We have stronger data protection here. However, how much of your social media data is truly private?  Facebook change their privacy settings on an almost monthly basis.  If your settings are locked down, what about friends sharing your photos?  What about you being tagged in their public photos?
  22. 22. + The Culture of Sharing  In America, during a divorce settlement, a couple were told to share each other’s facebook password.  Full disclosure.  Could your account stand up to the scrutiny of someone else looking over everything you’ve ever said and done there?  Can you delete the information you put online?  Can you ever put the genie back in the bottle?  Do we share too much as a society?
  23. 23. + Conclusion  Social networks have the power to do great things for us.   Our culture of online sharing creates a range of issues for us in the future.   We can’t really get away from the things we’ve done online. The context in which we make remarks is often not obvious.    But they have a dark side. You’ll say things to friends you wouldn’t say to other people. You’ll say things to colleagues in a particular area of expertise that others will misinterpret. And along the way, the human mind is working against us.  Because it’s full of cognitive biases.