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Former Facebook executive: “you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed”

“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” former Facebook vice-president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya, told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business last November (see video below).

His comments first emerged on VERGE this week.

Palihapitiya expressed regret for his part in building tools that destroy “the social fabric of how society works” and warned his audience: “If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. It’s time to take a hard break from some of these tools.”

The former Facebook executive who left Facebook in 2011 said: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.

“And this is not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads,” he added. “This is a global problem … It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

“I don’t have a good solution. My solution is, I don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.

“Bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything they want. It’s a really bad state of affairs and we compound the problem. We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals (hearts, likes, thumbs ups) and we conflate that with value and we conflate that with truth.”


He warned his audience of bright Stanford graduates that whether they realize it or not, “you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed” (as are all of us). It was unintentional, he said, but now you have to decide how much of your intellectual independence you’re willing to give up, he told his audience.

Palihapitiya is not the only Facebook executive who has expressed belated insight into the consequences of the work they did at Facebook years ago. His comments are part of an ongoing debate about the seemingly unlimited power and reach of social media.

At an Axios event Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker also sounded the alarm on how social networks purposely hook us and potentially cause mental damage.

Parker had said that he was “something of a conscientious objector” to using social media, and Palihapitaya revealed that he doesn’t use “that shit” anymore and neither are his children allowed to use it.

What Parker said at the Axios event is actually very damning.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”

“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

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And to crown it all this acknowledgement:

“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

Interesting: Palihapitiya said it was unintentional, yet here Parker admits they all knew what they were doing – hook customer engagement through regular dopamine spurts.

These two executives echo the feelings expressed some time ago by Google, Twitter and Facebook software engineers who helped make technology so addictive, announcing that they are disconnecting themselves from the internet.


The group includes the likes of Justin Rosenstein, creator of the “Like” button, Tristan Harris former design ethicist at Google and founder of the advocacy group Time Well Spent, Loren Brichter who created Tweetie and the pull-to-refresh feature and James Williams, the ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business.

The clouds are gathering

Social media companies have been in the dog box since it has become clear that their reach stretches as far as influencing political outcomes like the US presidential election and Brexit, through facilitating the spread of fake news, conspiracies and propaganda, effectively taking over the minds of an unsuspecting Facebook audience.

Most recently Facebook has been accused of allowing hatred against the Rohingya in Myanmar to escalate through newsfeeds that claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

Thing is, in a closed country like Myanmar, Facebook is the source of news. It’s the quickest way to find out what’s happening on the ground. If Facebook knows that, the company should start taking responsibility as a news provider just like any other and stop hiding pretending to be just “a social utility that connects people.” It clearly has become more than that.


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Notable replies

  1. ACD says:

    I enjoyed using FB to post articles I found interesting and, from time to time, experiencing stimulating discussion which came from friends and the wider membership. When FB appeared to be aligned with political factions and national security intrusions, I found myself less interested in looking at FB though I have not left. It seems to me that people who become addicted are vulnerable to addiction generally.

  2. FB is just a window where I see people doing things. Some people I know say things that they really should know better. Some friends (or just passers by) say wonderful things. I usually share thes. Am I being programmed? Probably, but each night I dream and all this programming is reviewed and if useful, retained. On the internet I see stupidity by big business. tell me, why do I see an ad from Amazon for something I recently purchased? If I look for something on the web for a friend I will often see an ad for the item. Is that bad? No, if it was not for that ad I might see an ad for something else and I ignore ads. I have too much now and in retirement, do not want anything else. Yes, if I won the powerball, I know exactly what camera and lens I would purchase. Then my screenplay would go into production. One really good thing about FB is I may find people I can help. And I do. Very often they do not know they are being helped but that is ok, I know. I also know I may meet people who can help me and I will solicit this help in an instant. To know me is to be offered a world of wonder. I appreciate their encouragement and offer no apologies for attempting to hijack their lives.

  3. FB is the new de facto pulpit. FB is the biggest shaper of ideology.

  4. Only for those who lack the freedom of thought to get their ideology from the future. I live in the far future, the FB of today is nothing more than charcoal on the walls of a big cave. Do not worry, if you need something to think about just ask. My world has much to offer.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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