Social media algorithms are changing the world—what if they could help solve the climate crisis? Sound ridiculous? Hear me out.
The machine learning algorithms of big modern technology platforms—Google, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube—focus on grabbing your attention, no matter the cost to you as an individual. The algorithms are exploiting human psychology to constantly keep you engaged in their platforms, and are driven by commercial interests that slowly and imperceivably change our behaviour. Scary stuff!
The power of social media
Previous employees of tech giants in the Netflix documentary "The Social Dilemma" argue that social media is not only changing behaviour, but eroding democracy. These technology companies have MASSIVE amounts of data on users—your friends, habits, likes and dislikes, political views, sleeping patterns, you name it! This allows them to create virtual models of us, which can be used, with ever increasing accuracy, to predict our actions and target ads to specific audiences to increase clicks and sales.
Additionally, rather than enabling users to see both sides of a story, the algorithms will keep tailoring content to you and reinforcing your existing values and beliefs. While this may sound nice to you, on a large-scale, these one-sided narratives are sowing increasingly worrying societal divides.
“Now we all have our own individual reality with our own individual facts, with our own individual stories that we see on a daily basis.” Jeff Orlowski—Director of The Social Dilemma
To make matters worse, researchers at MIT found that fake news is 70% more likely to be Retweeted and spreads 6 times faster than real news. So, who needs facts? How will a world with divided societies and no facts pan out? Also, who can spread this propaganda?
With big technology companies previously selling our data to the highest bidder, this essentially left democracy up for auction. Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political consulting firm, used Facebook to collect data for 'political-voter surveillance', which essentially allowed political campaigns to spread propaganda to key voting areas via social media platforms to sway entire elections. And it worked!
In fact, Cambridge Analytica were linked with winning political campaigns worldwide—the US, Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, the UK (Brexit)—making the world’s democracies an illusion.
Big tech algorithms could tip the scales for conservation
As conservation is all about people, many of the solutions to conservation issues also involve human behaviour change. With big tech platforms' algorithms able to change behaviour on such a drastic scale, they also have the power to either completely undermine conservation efforts or significantly help us to address problems. For example, how can we mitigate the devastating impacts of the climate crisis if people receive mixed messages and misinformation about whether it’s even real?
Though these complex algorithms are automated machine processes, they’re by no means objective. They’re built to maximize and satisfy goals, and are thus fundamentally impacted by human biases.
In the words of filmmaker and Director of The Social Dilemma Jeff Orlowski:
“Social media could really be designed in society's best interest. Right now, it's designed around commercial interests. These are tools designed by and for capitalism, for financial profit… This is the biggest issue of our time.”
So, theoretically, big technology platforms could change their algorithms to also satisfy the goal of tackling climate change? Or nudge behaviours to better align with the UN sustainable development goals? Or encourage pro-environmental behaviours, such as supporting local sustainable business and products, reducing your carbon footprint, recycling, etc.? What if Facebook promoted such behaviours or scientifically valid articles on the climate crisis for every business advertisement they send out? With social media able to influence human behaviour on an unprecedented scale, these tech giants have the power to wield this tool for something incredible.
Solving the ecological and climate crises requires swift and bold action
The climate crisis is no longer some distant threat, stalking us idly in the undergrowth. Its pounced and has us by the neck. We only have a small window of opportunity to maintain the global temperature increase below 1.5°C. According to the UN, we can do this together if commitments, policies, and action can reduce emissions by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030. Mass behaviour change is fundamental for this action.
“Today our report card says we are failing… Every fraction of additional warming beyond 1.5°C will result in increasingly severe and expensive impacts.” — The UN
By incorporating sustainable goals into the algorithms of big tech platforms, machine learning could significantly help solve the main environmental problems, tipping the balance of our world away from collapse and towards prosperity. Literally, a handful of people could write a bit of code (albeit a complicated one) to help change the fate of our natural world and save the lives of hundreds of millions of people, perhaps even saving humanity from extinction. Shouldn’t they?
“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” — Stan Lee
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