Tristan Harris Congress Testimony: Understanding the Use of Persuasive TechnologyApr 24, 2023
Mr. Harris, thank you Senator Thune and Senator Schatz, everything you said makes me sad because it's not happening by accident but by Design because the business model is to keep people engaged, in other words this hearing is about
technologyand it's try persuasion. an invisible asymmetry of power as a child i was a wizard and Magic teaches you that uh you know you can have asymmetric power without the other person realizing you can mask having asymmetric power by looking like you're in an equal relationship you say pick a card, any good card, meanwhile, knows exactly how to get that person to pick the card they want, and essentially what we're experiencing with
technologyis a growing asymmetry of power that's been disguised as an egalitarian or contractual relationship where accountability depends from us, so let's discuss why that happens in the race for attention, because companies have an attention cap to get more by being more and more aggressive.
I call it the race to the bottom of the brain stem, so it starts with Techniques like Pull to Refresh for you to pull to refresh your news feed that works like a slot machine. It has the same kind of addictive qualities that keep people in Las Vegas hooked on the slot machine. of this glass and I keep refilling the water or wine it won't know when to stop drinking so that's what happens with infinitely scrolling feeds we naturally remove the stop signals and this is what makes people wonder displace but the race for attention has to get more and more aggressive and so it's not enough to catch his behavior and predict what his behavior will take we have to predict how to keep him hooked in a different way and so he drags himself further down the brain stem in our social validation for what was the introduction of likes and followers how many followers do i have and that got every was much cheaper instead of getting your attention to get addicted to getting other people's attention and this has created the kind of mass narcissism and mass culture? that is happening with young people, especially today and after two decades in decline, the mental health of girls aged 10 to 14 has skyrocketed 170 percent in the last eight years and this has very characteristically been the cause of the The race for attention is not enough just to make people addicted to attention and the race has to migrate to AI, which can build a better predictive model of your behavior and therefore , if you give a YouTube example, there it is, it's about to hit you plan a YouTube video and you hit play and then you think you're going to watch this video and then you wake up two hours later and you're like oh my gosh what just to pass and the answer is because you had a supercomputer pointing at your brain and the moment you hit play it wakes up a version of you as an avatar voodoo doll inside a google server and that Avatar based on all the clicks and I like it and all you've done is like your hair trims and toenail trims. and nail filings that make the avatar look and act more and more like you so that within a google server they can simulate more and more possibilities if i choose you in this video if i choose you with this video how long would you stay and The business model is simply what maximizes watch time, which leads to the kind of algorithmic extremism you've pointed out and this is what has caused 70 percent of YouTube traffic to be due to recommendations not by human choice. but by machines and it's a race between The Facebook voodoo doll where you move your finger can predict what to show you next and the Google voodoo doll, and these are abstract metaphors that apply to the entire tech industry, where it's a race between who can best predict your behavior.
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tristan harris congress testimony understanding the use of persuasive technology...
Facebook has something called loyalty prediction. where they can actually predict to an advertiser when you're about to be disloyal to a brand, so if you're a mom and you take Pampers diapers, they can say to Pampers, hey, this user is about to be disloyal to this brand, please which in other words, they can predict things about us that we don't know about ourselves and that's a new level of asymmetrical power and we have a name for this asymmetrical relationship which is a fiduciary relationship or a duty of care relationship the same standard as we apply to doctors to priests to lawyers imagine a world where priests only make money by selling access to the confession booth to someone else except in this case facebook listens to the confessions of 2 billion people has a supercomputer at his side and he's calculating and predicting the confessions you're going to make before you know you're going to make them and that's what's causing all this havoc, so I'd love to talk about more of these things later.
I just want to end by saying that this affects everyone. even if you don't use these products you still send your kids to a school where other people believe vaccine conspiracy theories have an impact on their life or other people vote in their elections and when Mark Andreessen said um in the you know in 2011 that the quote was that software is going to eat the world and what he meant by Mark Andreessen being the founder of Netscape what he meant by that was that software can make every part of society more efficient not to suffer because it is just adding efficiencies and then we are going to allow the software to eat our elections we are going to allow it to eat our means our taxi our transport and the problem was that the software was eating the world without assuming the responsibility that we used to having rules and standards around Saturday morning cartoons and when YouTube gobbles up that part of society it just takes away all those protections and I just want to end by saying that I know Mr.
Rogers Fred Rogers testified before this committee ago 50 years concerned about the animated blitz we were showing kids I think today he would be horrified by what we're doing now and at the same time he was able to talk to the committee and that committee made a different decision so hopefully we can talk more about that today , thanks, we know that internet platforms like Google and Facebook have vast amounts of data about each user, what can these companies predict about users based on that data, thanks for the question, so I think there is an important connection to do between privacy and persuasion which I think are often not linked, so maybe it's helpful to link that to, you know, Cambridge analytica, which was an event where, based on your Facebook likes , based on 150 of your facebook likes, i was able to predict your political persona and so i could do things with that, the reason i opened described my opening statement that it's about a growing asymmetry of power is that without any of your data i can predict growing characteristics about you using AI there is an article recently that with 80 accuracy I can predict the same Big Five personality traits that Cambridge Analytics got from you without any of your data.
All I have to do is look at the mouse movements and click patterns, in other words it's the end of the poker face. His demeanor is his signature and We can know his political personality based only on the text of the tweet. We can know your political affiliation with a precision of about 80. Computers can probably figure out that you are gay before you know you are gay. They can predict with 95% accuracy that you are going to quit your job according to an IBM study they can predict that you are pregnant they can predict your micro expressions on your face better than a human micro expressions are your um your mild reactions to things you don't they are they are not very visible but they are invisibly visible computers can predict that as you go on and realize you can and start to deeply fake things you can actually generate a new synthetic piece of media a new synthetic face or a synthetic message that is perfectly tuned. to these characteristics and the reason why I open the statement by saying that we have to recognize that what is at issue is a growing asymmetry of power between technology and the limits of the human mind my favorite sociobiologist EO Wilson said that the fundamental problem of humanity is that we have ancient paleolithic emotions, we have medieval institutions, and we have godlike technology, so we are nuclear-armed chimpanzees and our paleolithic brains are limited against the exponentially growing power of technology to predict things about us, the reason why it's so important to migrate this relationship from being extractive to get things out of you to being fiduciary is that you can't have asymmetrical power that is specifically designed to get things out of you any more than you can have lawyers or doctors whose entire business model is for take everything they learned and sell it to someone else, except in this case, the level of things we can predict about you is much greater than actually each of those fields combined when you really add up all the data that assembles an increasingly accurate voodoo doll of each one of us and there are two billion voodoo dolls by the way there is one for one in four people on earth with YouTube and Facebook there are more than two billion people senator from stanford peters thank you mr president thank you to our Witnesses to a fascinating eh discussion I like to address a topic that I think is of profound importance to our Democratic Republic and that is the fact that in order to have a vibrant democracy you need to have an exchange of ideas and an open platform and certainly part of the promise of the internet, as it was first conceived, was that we'd have this amazing Universal Commons where a wide range of ideas would be discussed and debated, it would be robust, and yet we seem to be missing the point that we're actually getting more and more isolated uh Mr.
Dr. Wolfram you mentioned how people could make decisions and they could live in a bubble but at least it would be their bubble that they would live in but that is what we are seeing throughout our society as we the polarization increases more and more. more people are reverting to tribal type behavior Mr. Harris, you talked about our medieval institutions and Stone Age mines. of tribal behavior, so my question is to what extent is this technology really accelerating that and is there a way out? Yes, Mr. Harris, yes, thank you. I love this question. people are polarized and this is just messing around it's a mirror it's holding up a mirror to society but what it's really doing is an amplifier to the worst parts of us so in the race to the bottom brain stem for get attention, huh, come on Take an example like Twitter.
You're figuring out what I can show you that's going to get the most share and it turns out that moral outrage outrage gets the most share, so it was found in a study that for every world word of moral outrage. that you add to a tweet, it increases your retweet rate by 17, so in other words, you know that the polarization of our society is actually part of the business model. ideas that take a long time to talk about and that's why you have 140 characters that dominate our social discourse, but reality and the most important issues for us are more and more complex, while we can say more and more simple things about them that they automatically create polarization because you can't say something simple about something complicated and have everyone agree with you, people will by definition misunderstand and hate you for it, and then it's never been easier to retweet that and generate a crowd that it will come after you and this has created a culture of reporting and Chilling Effects and a whole bunch of other polarizing after effects that are amplified by the fact that these platforms are rewarded for bringing you the coolest stuff.
One last example of this is on YouTube. Let's say we actually call. I know there are worried people here. about the equal representation of the left and the right in the media, let's just say that we understood perfectly just a month ago on YouTube if you mapped the 15 most mentioned verbs or keywords in the recommended videos, they were hates debunked delete destroy in others words you know jordan peterson destroy social justice warrior and video so that kind of thing is background radiation we are dosing 2 billion people with and you can hire english content moderators and start handling the problem is like Mrs.
Stanfield said, but the problem is that two billion people and 100, you know, hundreds of languages are using these products. How many engineers on YouTube speak the 22 languages of India, where elections are coming up? So that's some context, well, there's a lot of context. Fascinating and I'm running out of time, but I took particular note in his
testimonywhen he talked about how technology will eat up elections and he was referring to I think another writer on that topic in theshort time left i have what is your biggest concern about the 2020 election and how technology can eat up this upcoming election yes that comment was that another example of we used to have protections that technology took away from us we used to have campaign ads the same price so that it would cost the same amount on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. m. for any candidate to run in an election when Facebook gobbles up that part of the media it just removes those protections so now there's no price equal in terms of what worries me, what worries me most is the fact that none of these issues have been resolved.
The business model hasn't changed and the reason why you see an event in Christchurch and the video pops up everywhere or you know. Any of these examples, fundamentally, there's no easy way for these platforms to address this problem because the problem is their business model. that in the last month, even so recently, considering these issues have been reported for years, there was a pattern identified by YouTube where young women who had taken videos of themselves dancing on camera were linked on the I use patterns to other videos like that which was more and more in that realm and YouTube just identified as a supercomputer as a pattern is a pattern this is a kind of pathway that tends to be very attractive the way we tend to describe this if you imagine a spook on youtube on my left hand side is the quiet walter cronkite youtube section on the right hand side there are crazy town bigfoot ufo conspiracy theories you know whatever and um if you take a human and you could leave them anywhere Instead you could leave them in the quiet section or you could leave them in the mad city but if I'm YouTube and I want you to watch more which way from there I'm going to send you I'll never send you. to the column section i will always send you towards the crazy city so now imagine 2 billion people as an ant colony of humanity and it is tilting the playing field towards the crazy stuff and the specific examples of this makes one year a teenager who watched a diet video on youtube would be recommended anorexia videos because that was the most extreme thing to show the voodoo doll looking like a teenager.
I looked at a NASA moon landing, it would show Flat Earth conspiracy theories that were recommended hundreds of millions of times before it was recently taken down. I wrote another example of 50 white nationalists in a Belling cat study who had said it was YouTube that had red I filled them with red pills pilling is the term to know, open-mindedness the best predictor of whether you'll believe in a theory of the conspiracy is if i can make you believe in a conspiracy theory because a conspiracy opens your mind and makes you doubt and question things and say you get really paranoid and the problem is youtube is doing this en masse and has created a kind of Out of two billion Truman custom shows, every channel has that radicalizing direction and if you think about it from a responsibility perspective when we had Janet Jackson on one side of the TV screen at the Super Bowl and we had 60 million Americans on the other, we had a five second delay on TV and a bunch of humans in the loop for a reason, but what happens when having two billion Truman's shows two billion possible Janet Jackson's and two billion people in the other end is a digital Frankenstein which is really hard to control and I think that's the way we need to look at it from there we can talk about how to regulate it yes of course anyone else has an idea on a pretty important threshold question , yes, I think if it's okay if I intervene, thank you Senator, the problem here is that section 230 of decency in communications has to do with section two. all about section 230. it obviously made it so the platforms won't be responsible for any content that's on them which freed them up to do what we've created today the problem is if they know youtube is a publisher well they're not generating the content they're not paying journalists they're not doing that but they're recommending things and i think we need a new class um you guys know the new york times is responsible if you say something that defames another person that gets to about 100 million people or more, uh, when YouTube recommends Flat Earth conspiracy theories hundreds of millions of times and if you consider that 70 percent of YouTube traffic is recommendation driven, that is, driven by what they recommend when a algorithm chooses to put in front of a person's eyes is if you were to derive a motto backwards it would be with great power without responsibility
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