COLUMN: The social media problem

Published 6:11 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2023

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There is no doubt that the rise of social media has produced many positive outcomes. People have been able to connect with each other no matter if they are next door or on the other side of the world. Organ donors have been matched with organ seekers in a way never imagined a few years ago.

There are, however, seemingly many more negative consequences that have evolved from these forms of social media which use artificial intelligence (AI). If you have a cellphone, someone knows who you talk to, when, how long, and often where your phone was that day. If you have a “loyalty card” from a vendor, that company knows what you buy, how often, when, and in what quantity. These data records are stored for future use.

When Henry Ford started Ford Motor Company in 1903, he had to purchase land, build a factory complete with assembly line equipment, hire and train a workforce, buy steel and iron for fabrication, and establish agreements with suppliers like Harvey Firestone who provided tires.

Most of today’s major technology companies were started in college dormitory rooms and home garages. The stories of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are fascinating examples of human inspiration and drive. Interestingly, these college dropouts built some of the world’s most valuable corporations, from a financial standpoint, that exist today. Their tools – just computer hardware and software.

The streaming service Netflix has a fascinating expose called “The Social Dilemmathat educates us on the manner in which companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have taken technology and, using basic theories of human psychology, have caused both children and adults to be addicted to their services. They have been able to heighten our curiosity to the point that every phone call, email, or text message makes us want to check immediately to determine the sender and the topic. This addiction is affecting student’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand, complete homework, and get enough sleep. For adults, it is affecting productivity, attendance, and focus at work. Many employers blame the hesitance of their employees to return to work in the office on the ease of dealing with social media unrestricted at home.

How do these large technology companies get us addicted? Industry giants like Facebook use algorithms which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as a “step-by-step procedure for achieving some end.They monitor the spoken and written words we use regarding specific activities to project our future actions. For example, if we “like” a person’s photo regarding a vacation trip taken to The Bahamas, travel agencies may pay Facebook fees to provide a list of people perhaps interested in a trip to The Bahamas. Because these algorithms have been in place for several years and the volume of people identified is large, the accuracy of these predictions is high.

Have you ever clicked on a product of interest only once and then received advertisements for that and similar products for several days after that? The algorithm identified you as a potential buyer and several companies providing that product paid Facebook to get your email address.

This is a complex issue that is evolving exponentially every day. It is a battle between an individual’s privacy and the technology firm’s goal of increasing profits to satisfy shareholders. Unfortunately, government regulation is far behind the advancements in artificial intelligence, and this will be worth watching for years to come.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is chair of the Franklin City School Board and a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is