The Engineering of Consent the term is applied by extension to the practical application of the social sciences. With the myriad ideas and things in the marketplace competing for the attention and action of the public today, proper engineering becomes a prime requisite to gaining that consent. Bernays 1955, p.22
I watched this BBC video about social media addiction today. And it irritated me. Both because of the partisan way the debate was framed and the implicit assumptions about an implied audience and the effects social media were having on them.
1. Asking a seemingly innocuous question - “Is there such a thing as too much time on social media?”
2. Answering that question in the affirmative, and furthermore labelling a hypothetical problem as an empire fact (thus foreclosing any debate that might have taken place over the issue) - “For the next few minutes this video will take over your phone to explore social media addiction”
3. “Research suggests” - an appellation that appeals to the authority of research (even if it is only suggestive) and thus an evidential basis for the claims being advanced. I have to make the point here there no actually research is cited in this video – the presence of research endorsing its claims is only ever alluded to. One such claim is - “If you spend more that two hours on social media sites a day, research suggests you are more likely to report symptoms of social anxiety and depression.”
4. Appeal to ‘experts’ - “some experts are also “suggesting” that some uses could even be addicted” to social media. This is a far weaker claim than the one made upfront about “exploring social media addiction”, which gave the impression that the existence of this phenomena wasn’t in doubt. No evidence is again offered to support or deny these suppositions, or to suggest how widespread their impact might be.
5. There is an immediate follow up question. Does any of this sound like you? The question implicates the viewer in the rhetoric.
6. Some anecdotal comments are offered in support of the assertion …. David – ‘I spend a lot of time thinking about social media, or planning how to use it’ … Claire – I feel and urge to use it more and more. … Michael – I use it to forget about personal problems …. Jonathan ‘I’ve tried to cut down on my use without success.’ … Sarah ‘I get restless or troubled if I am prohibited from using it.’ These comments are in response to a Hashtag eliciting comments from people who feel they have issues with social media, thus positive comments about social media, or ones refuting the supposition are almost by definition excluded. This is a social media version of the vox pol. A common technique used in news reports. (The vox populi from the latin proverb - “The voice of the people is the voice of God” An early reference to the expression appeared in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 798. Ironically Alcuin wrote- Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.--Those people who keep saying, ‘The voice of people is the voice of God’ should not be listened to, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.)
7. An additional attempt to implicate the viewer - If you strongly agreed with more than four of those statements could you have a social media addiction? Not that no actual definition of social media addiction has been offered. You mean I have social media addiction if I find myself agreeing with four out of six anecdotal vox pops? The criteria for admission into this problematic cohort is obviously as wideranging and inclusive as it is vague.
8. Equating implied harm with use “Struggling to tear yourself away from your smartphone probably means you use it when it’s doubly bad, like when your supposed to be working, studying or even sleeping.” This of course implies that it is singularly bad to be using a smartphone in the first place??
9. Smarphone screen emit blue light which disrupts the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. Again no sources are cited, but Wood et al 2013, or Figueiro et al 201? It should be noted that this claim was recently addressed by smartphone manufacturers who have added a setting that automatically turn the screen light orange at night. So is that problem solved. Under the criteria offered by the research, the answer is yes.
10. Statement from Dr. Charlie Tyack (He is a Clinical Psychologist working at Guys and St Thomas’ hospitals whose research interests include sleep, social media and mental health). If a device is in the bedroom we know it is “almost irresistible to engage with that device.” The message is possibly aimed at the concerned parents of children and teenagers. It seems to me to be offered as an encouraging them to prohibit their children’s devices. Thus denying them the possibility of managing their problem themselves... thus denying the parents the possibility of parents encouraging their children to manage their 'problems'. Such is the pattern of a moral panic over media (see, for example, television, video nasties, even writing in the case of Plato!)
11. If you are using social media too much, have you thought of the reasons why? (The expectation here is that actual issues may be discussed that would assist the supposed smartphone addict to deal with their problem). But no, the reason why you are using too much social media is that you are already a social media addict. Furthermore, “new findings in 2017 showed that you are more likely to be addicted to social media if … you’re young, single, a woman, or a student. No citations are again offered. Perhaps they are referring to Daria Kuss and Mark Griffith’s research. “Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned”, published in 2017. Interestingly one of those lessons learnt according to the authors, is that in connection with the methodological problems associated with the research into social media ‘it needs to be noted that there is much controversy within the research field concerning both the possible overpathologising of everyday life’ Kuss and Griffiths state that they do not discriminate between the label addiction, compulsion, and problematic SNS use, and they acknowledge that there needs to be a requirement of significant impairment and distress on behalf of the individual experiencing it in order to qualify for using clinical terminology such as the ‘addiction’ label. Now think again about the vox pops offered as anecdotal evidence of social media addiction and ask yourself, do they meet this criteria?
12. Addictive use is also associated with low levels of education, income and self esteem (over picture of a white male adolescent… as well as narcissism (over image of white adolescent female). Apparently....
13. If you are already feeling a bit unhappy before you log in, the science suggests that you won’t improve how you feel in the long term (again not source is cited for this claim).
In all of these point I see the basic issue as arguments from authority are being used to frame an issue as a cause for concern without due dilligence or impartiality, a tactic that is otherwise known as begging the question. The issue is presented as a black and white case with all nuances being eliminated. The audience to the report are being implicated as social media addicts. Furthermore the BBC does not declare its interest in this debate. Social media use is a thread to the dominance of mainstream media use. Therefore a threat to the BBC. The hours people spend using social media are cited as eidence of its harm, despite the fact that statistics have long been available which show that people spend much more than 2 hours a day watching television on avarage (Ofcom, 2017). This BBC report obviously feels the issue is so urgent and important that they can jettison any sense of impartiality in reporting it. And instead resort to tabloid tactics to position their audience as social media addicts who are a cause of concern.
Bernays, E. L., & Cutler, H. W. (Eds.). (1955) The Engineering of Consent. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Figueiro et al 2011 ‘The impact of light from computer monitors on melatonin levels in college students’. Biogenic Amines Vol. 25, issue 2 (2011), pp. 106–116
Kuss, D. and Griffith, M. (2017). “Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned”, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Mar 17;14(3)
Ofcom 2017 Communications Market Report “nine in ten of us listened to the radio at least once a week in 2016, listening for 3 hours 3 minutes a day on average. p. 2
Pantic I 2014 ‘Online Social Networking and Mental Health’ Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2014 Oct 1; 17(10): 652–657.
Wood et al 2013 ‘Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression’ Applied Ergonomics Volume 44, Issue 2, March 2013, Pages 237-240