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Industry ethicist: Social media companies amplifying Americans' anger for profit

Social media and political polarization
Social media and political polarization in America | 60 Minutes 13:39

"The more moral outrageous language you use, the more inflammatory language, contemptuous language, the more indignation you use, the more it will get shared. So we are being rewarded for being division entrepreneurs. The better you are at innovating a new way to be divisive, we will pay you in more likes, followers and retweets."

That's what Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, told Bill Whitaker this week on 60 Mintues. 

In his 2020 documentary, "The Social Dilemma," Harris made the case that social media platforms have hijacked our attention. Now, he's citing a new study of Twitter showing that attacking political opponents is almost guaranteed to draw attention.

"Each individual term referring to your political out-group increased the odds of that post being retweeted or reshared by 67%," Harris told Whitaker. "Out-group being the other side."

"These platforms," Whitaker asked, "are they not just reflecting who we are and what we think and the divisions that are already there?"

"They're super-charging 100 or 1,000 times to one the worst parts of ourselves," Harris said.

Here's a recent example. The day the Department of Justice released a photo showing classified documents in former President Donald Trump's Florida home, a tweet highlighting a straight news story on the subject received about 2,000 "likes." But a tweet from a Republican congresswoman calling Trump's opponents "dumbasses" was "liked" ten times as much, and a tweet from the left labeling Donald Trump "a traitor" was "liked" 20 times more.

And, Harris says, anger skews the political landscape.

"Why is it that the world knows more about Marjorie Taylor Greene than they know about all the other hundreds of congressional candidates? It's because the enraging inflammatory stuff goes the most viral," Harris said.

Harris said the intimidation and anger cut across political lines.

"I think the deepest, like, perverse thing about these platforms is that they have captured the meaning of social participation in society," Harris told Whitaker. "That they've colonized and privatized that social participation means 'I'm on TikTok,' 'I'm on Instagram,' 'I'm on Facebook.'"

And competition is fierce among those platforms for our attention and the advertising dollars that attention generates. 

"Facebook isn't saying, 'Let me make design decisions that are going to strengthen democracy,'" Harris said. "They're saying, 'How do I evolve the product in a direction that will get more engagement from people?' Because if I don't do that I'm just going to lose to the companies that do."

The feedback loop of social media | 60 Minutes 03:30

"Companies like TikTok," Harris continued, "And TikTok has become, like, one of the most popular apps around the entire world."

TikTok has done that by serving up an addictive mix of short videos. Some are silly, others overtly political. It's owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance and Harris says the version that's served to Chinese consumers, called Douyin, is very different from the one available in the West.

"In their version of TikTok, if you're under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos," Harris said. "And they also limit it to only 40 minutes per day. Now they don't ship that version of TikTok to the rest of the world. So it's almost like they recognize that technology's influencing kids' development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world."

The version served to the West has kids hooked for hours at a time. The impact, Harris says, is predictable.

"There's a survey of preteens in the U.S. and China asking, 'What is the most aspirational career that you want to have?' And the U.S. the number one was, ' [social media] influencer,'" Harris said. "And in China the number one was, 'astronaut.' Again, you allow those two societies to play out for a few generations, I can tell you what your world is going to look like."

TikTok told 60 Minutes it gives American users tools to limit screen time. But those tools are entirely voluntary. And national security concerns have triggered new calls this past week for TikTok to be banned in the U.S.

Twitter pointed out that it asks users to think twice before they share potentially harmful posts. But within days of buying Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted a conspiracy theory about the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband. It was later deleted.

And Facebook said it has cut the overall amount of political content that its 240 million American users see.

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