When the movie, The Matrix, was released in 1999, it described a dystopian world in which people’s minds lived in a world of artificial intelligence (AI) while their bodies were used to fuel the AI machine. There is a pivotal moment when Morpheus, leader of a rebel movement, interacts with the consciousness of Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, to invite him to free his mind and body in order to see and live in the real world (not that created by AI). He presents him a choice of swallowing one of two pills. If he takes the red pill, it will allow him to choose to free himself and see the world as it truly is. If he takes the blue pill, his mind will be returned to the matrix and he will be able to numb and continue his current AI existance. Neo chooses the red pill, and this brings him into the fight for humankind, and makes the movie a box office success. The release of The Matrix: Resurrenctions, released in December 2021, prompted me to go back to watch the original trilogy and when I did I viewed it on an entirely new, and all-too-real level. The irony is that the original movie was released even before Facebook, Twitter, and the subsequent explosion of social media platforms. But as we witness the current landscape laying rot to our minds for the sake of the attention economy, I realize that, indeed, we are very much a part of the matrix. The question now becomes that once you become aware of it, do you choose the blue pill, to stay numb inside the matrix, which dictates in many ways to you what is your “reality,” or do you choose the red pill, and leave the matrix in seeking of your own real experience.
To understand how we are in this matrix, we need to understand how the platforms themselves work and make money. For an excellent summary on this, I highly recommend visiting this website from the Center for Humane Technology. Honestly that website should be part of the user manual and informed consent process to join any social media platform. But I will do my best to summarize in brief what I’ve internalized from their work. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all advertised as “free,” but while we may not pay a subscription now, we are paying dearly with our time, attention and with our information. The platforms make money by keeping us engaged with the platform, scrolling and clicking. And powerful AI-driven algorithms that learn exactly what types of advertisements we will respond to and generate clicks and money for the advertisers. This is way more powerful and cost-effective than TV commercials and newspaper ads, be cause we are shown ads and information in our feed specific to each of us based on our demographic profile, where we live, education level, interests, political and other affiliations, previous likes and clicks we have made, etc. It is all a part of commoditizing our information. The platforms sell to advertisers an extremely high success rate for their ads, because of this ability to deliver to the consumer more customized ads that predict that the customer will click.
So to be successful, they need us on their platforms. And to keep us engaged, they have learned that people are more likely to respond to words that elicit more emotional responses. This was actually studied and published in PNAS. So for people to succeed in society on social media, whether running for office or trying to bring attention to their cause or themselves, they have learned that posting more inflammatory content with emotional words is more likely to generate shares and retweets, to achieve the reward of “going viral.” When the Wall Street Journal published its Facebook Files last year and when Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, was interviewed on 60 minutes, these tactics were put into the public square for us to see how we were being manipulated. In addition to inflammatory rhetoric, social media made it easy to share professional-appearing fake news stories and unvetted conspiracy theories, often amplified by government officials including the former president on his Twitter feed. Having worked as a physician during the COVID-19 pandemic and working to dispel misinformation as I saw some of my own Facebook friends spreading COVID and vaccine conspiracy theories online, then living as an American through the rise of election conspiracy theories fomented by the former president that led to the insurrection on January 6 and continuing to contribute to violence to this day, I’ve personally witnessed and have been a part of this mechanistic structure that drive emotional responses, dehumanizes people, creates camps, and ultimately keeps eyes, attention and mind on platform.
As a result of this social media machine, we waste countless hours “doomscrolling” the news and social media feeds, or posting and then checking our phones to see if we have a response, like or retweet. And the price we pay is our time and attention. We struggle with focus in daily tasks or <gasp> reading a book or long investigative article in the newspaper that requires more than 2 minutes of our attention. We run out of time at the end of the day to accomplish what we had set out to do, so we end up skipping that workout. (What’s one workout, anyway?) We walk and are looking at our phone and miss the owl perched above us in the trees. We space out when talking with another individual because we have lost mental focus and brain fitness. We are less productive doing the “deep work,” which is crucial to our jobs, or to solving societal problems, and is written about by Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work. And if this is affecting our adult brains, what is happening to the developing brains of our children and teenagers?
If I told you about a drug that skewed our sense of the world, undermined relationships, disrupted our ability to think, undermined relationships, degraded our mental health physical health, and contributed to developmental delays, you might suspect that there should be rules for this substance. You might even think that it should be banned. At the least there should be some sort of guardrails, or at least a warning label like we find on alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, or sedating medications. Yet that drug very much exists. And not only does it affect our brains and health in so many ways, but as detailed in the Center for Humane Tech ledger of harms it also skews our sense of the world, polarizes politics and elections, and amplifies systemic oppression. For details on how social media harms us, see the ledger of harms on the Center for Humane Technology website.
Interestingly, there is a country that is working to combat the harms of social media to its citizens and to our youth. This recent interview of Tristan Harris by 60 minutes talke about Tik Tok. This newest platform, which originated in China, is shown on a limited basis to children in China, showing science and educational videos for at most 30 minutes per day, whereas the USA and Europe are exposed to endless videos with no limits on content or time on platform. The result? The number one thing kids want to be when they grow up in China: An astronaut. In the USA: A social media influencer. If our country is intoxicated by social media, which is costing us our time and attention and polarizing us into camps to keep us on platform, how will we solve the world’s greatest problems? How will we truly address climate change as the world melts around us? How will we come to reckon with our nation’s history so that we can truly confront and address the social injustices we witness every day? The answer is, we won’t. If we remain addicted and in this stupor, we will fail, and our country will fail. And instead of putting in the hard work in learning, leaning in and challenging ourselves and having conversations with others to work together to solve problems, we turn to billionaire moguls and tech giants to save us.
Elon Musk purchased Twitter in the name of bringing back freedom of speech to the “town square.” The problem with his stated belief is that he is battling an algorithm predicated on division and amplification of emotions, which if unmoderated will allow and amplify hate and divisive posts. He wants to “make Twitter fun again,” and by his posts Twitter being fun means “owning the libs,” and posting gross and offensive jokes and memes that go viral with likes and retweets. (Some may ask, who decides what is offensive? My question back to you is, “Would you show that meme or picture to your 8-year-old? Or how about to your friend who is a member of the group that is being made fun of in that picture?” We could start there.) He is literally creating daily news through his drama, manifesting in human form the thrill of polarization and division by generating twitter activity as many clap or gape and express support or disgust. As advertisers and less inflammatory consumers of his platform flee, he is changing the landscape and entire nature of his platform. And just like the algorithm was gamed by bad actors to influence voters in the 2016 election, foster vaccine hesitancy, or motivate the insurrection, I cannot help but wonder if there are people who would similarly engage with Elon in the same way. It is plausible that through an effort to drive likes of his posts, bad actors could influence his behavior by stoking his ego in certain ways so as to continue to push him toward his role as a chaos agent, all in an efforts to foster instability in our country and around the world. What if the person seemingly in charge of this matrix believing he was restoring the town square, in reality were just a cog in the machine, being manipulated himself? Because none of us — not even the billionaire — are immune to the drug of social media, especially the more time we spend on platforms. None of us are protected from the influence (subtle or overt) of the algorithms that determine what posts we even see from the start.
I find myself at this point in time hearing and making these arguments with myself: 1. If I — or people like me — leave, twitter will lose my voice or any taming voice of reason and become even more inflammatory and devolve further into a conspiracy website. Honestly it’s already there (it was even before Musk). And the system, this social media game, is definitely rigged against those who aim for moderation. 2. It is my responsibility to stay and help battle medical misinformation, or help call out hate and bigotry. This is true, but in the context of this greater game, which amplifies hate speech and division, my calling it out on Twitter is like a raindrop falling in the ocean. The impact, while it exists, is comparitively minimal. 3. And I will miss my colleagues on #MedTwitter and #CyclingTwitter. I have no counterargument to this one. I learned so much through the pandemic with scientist colleagues sharing our experiences and data as together we worked to understand the emerging coronavirus. I have learned a lot through people sharing their experiences and knowledge in the realm of social justice and antiracism. I have worked side-by-side with people working to raise awareness about pulmonary hypertension. And I cannot judge others. While these may be good reasons to stay on the platform for some, I think the cost of my time and attention (including the time to write this Dear Elon letter), is far greater. While I may lose the feeling of community and camaraderie that this app brings, I will actively seek knowledge through peer-reviewed literature, fact-checked news, and the books on my bookshelf. And it’s time to reconnect with real people in person, not through screens.
I know if I stay on the platform in this moment I will be choosing the drama and choosing a path that will not get me closer to my goals.
So what is the alternative? Many people are desparately looking for the next and better social media platform. Many are migrating to Mastodon, and although I claimed my profile there I have hardly visited. And I think that for now I won’t.
Rather than looking for the next social media platform to jump to, I think it is time to take another look at how I engage with social media altogether.
Yes, and when I do so, perhaps it is really time for a breakup. And it’s time to do the deep work again, and get back on the Colorado Trail and places without wifi again. It’s time to disconnect from the matrix and choose the real world. It’s time to work to define my own reality rather than allowing it to be designed/filtered/amplified for me. So with that, once the Twitter archive zip file is downloaded, I’ll be coming off Twitter. I just can no longer be on a platform that amplifies hate and misogyny and robs me of my attention. It is Elon’s right to make Twitter how he sees fit. And it is my right to consume the material (and be consumed by it) or leave. I choose at this moment in time to leave. I choose to be free.
If you want to follow me, I’ll be spending more time engaging here, on a long form platform, in a format unlikely to go viral (and that’s okay). I’ll still be on Strava, so if I see you there I’ll toss you a “props” for sure. And I am still intermittently checking in on Facebook and Instagram, although after the exposés last year I had more or less left those platforms in favor of Twitter, so I’m not as drawn to the idea of going back there.
Rather, I’m much more keen on meeting with my friends in person, whether it be in a café or on a hike, talking on the phone, or going solo again, riding my bike for hours on the trail, or reading a book. I’ll be re-engaging with my work and making it deep work, and by investing my time this way I am betting that next year will bring breakthroughs for our own research and programs. This is the perfect time to be making this change, as we prepare to start a new year. So thank you, Elon, for helping me see that it’s now time to go.