The disinformation age. How we are losing touch with reality and each other.

A 6-minute read – hang in there, you’ll get dopamine at the end of this!

‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’. – My dad

Hey guys. I hope you are all well. It has been a little while since we sent out a newsletter. Things have been tough in the startup world, especially in the travel sector. I know all our partners who are reading this, and our non-partners reading this are going through tough times. Guys, it’s been exactly a year already since the virus actually started. A year. Gone. Just like that. And we are in lockdown again. F*ck 2020.

A little update from our side. We have taken on two lovely new people to the team. Welcome, Felicia and Nadia! At the moment we are working on building the new and proper website, and we are looking to get investors on board. So if you’re really rich and bored, or want to make yourself useful, send us some cash, please. Just kidding.

Artwork by Joey Klarenbeek

Today’s newsletter is a topic I have spoken about before. Back in the summer, I talked about how social media is making us dumb. Today, I’d like to refine that! Social media is making you dumb but also into a dopamine junky who will believe anything! Woohoo.

As the days get darker both literally and metaphorically, as businesses close their doors for good, and many people will plunge into solitude at home, it is important to remember that being on smartphones for longer and consuming ever more quantities of digested media has its implications.

The sexy least-hairy Neanderthal girl across the campfire.

Okay, I will try to keep this newsletter super short, which is actually pretty hard. Let’s start with the basics of media, but mainly social media. We all basically know now (after watching documentaries like ‘A social dilemma’ on Netflix) that companies like Facebook and Tiktok have hacked how to monopolise our attention by addicting us to dopamine. Simply, and hear me out… don’t scroll down or get bored because this article isn’t giving you enough dopamine – stick with it!!… Basically, social media companies (let’s call them SMCs) have used the random dopamine reward system to addict you (a bit like gambling slot machines). Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that is released by your brain when you get random rewards, which make you seek more random rewards. This used to be things like sexy time with the cute least hairy Neanderthal girl across the campfire with all her teeth still intact, or taking down a massive mammoth, or finding some yummy berries. All things essential to the survival of our species.

Our brains are programmed to seek random rewards, but it gets bored when there are regular rewards. These days we get huge dopamine stimulus for very little effort – things like alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, but the biggest culprit is social media. For the past 6 months, all the news has been nothing but how many people are dying of covid19, how the hospitals are full, and how pretty soon we will be walking around a deserted London in some sort of Danny Boyle zombie movie. We get it, there is a dangerous virus. But don’t forget that the media has incentives to A. sell, and B. scare you as much as possible into being inside and avoiding others to therefore stop the spread, which is good. But generally, the media is going to make it sound way worse so that it has a higher hit rate and the chance of manipulation. Consider that the pattern of most viruses and parasites (like malaria) is to evolve to become less dangerous and lethal – it’s not in the virus or parasites interest to kill its host. My point is if you’re constantly consuming vast quantities of media and news from mainstream media and social media sources, your opinion will be heavily shaped by those creating that media. 

Artwork by Asaf Hanuka

There is now mounting evidence that SMCs add fake likes/views and boost random posts, but not all posts that you post, which will then trigger a big dopamine reward and will give you a large hit of dopamine without actually exerting much effort (unlike killing a mammoth). Your brain then loves this and becomes addicted to the easy dopamine triggering thing, in this case, social media. The trouble is, your brain will also downregulate the dopamine receptors meaning you need more stimulus and dopamine to get the same hit. This means more time on SMC apps, endlessly scrolling and/or posting. Have you ever heard your friend being like omg this video on Tiktok or this photo on Instagram got me soooo many likes/views? That’s planned, it’s not random. It’s designed to hack your dopamine reward system. You’re more likely to then go and recommend the SMC app to your mate, and that’s how SMCs are the biggest most powerful companies in the modern world.

It’s also the big search engines. Google will show you different search auto-fills and results depending on where you are and what you’re into because they have the same, very powerful and smart algorithms that know you better than you do. So the info you see on SMCs and search engines isn’t necessarily impartial and unbiased.

Artwork by Mark Kostabi

Your phone knows you better than you…

So the dopamine addiction mentioned above is half of the equation. We now have a shit load of people addicted to their smartphones and SMCs. The other half is the algorithms that SMCs use. The algorithms learn your behaviour, your likes, dislikes, anxieties and political or religious views. They then show you content they think you will like. Third parties will pay SMCs to show you products and stuff they think you will like. Clothes, holidays, insurance etc. The problem is that these third parties can also be dark and shady organisations and governments. And if they have money, they can use the legitimate tools that SMCs like Facebook advertising and user data have on offer for nefarious purposes. So the ads that you used to see for clothes and insurance turn into politically charged videos, or other sorts of propaganda. For example, if you have a stronger stance on immigration (or other racist tendencies), it’s very easy for a political party who are campaigning to win over the mildly racist people to pay SMCs to show propaganda videos to the users who have those tendencies, then bosh, you’ve won their vote.

There has never been a more powerful tool of persuasion and manipulation. In fact, many people believe that social media is the most powerful weapon of mass destruction in the 21st century.

‘Over time, you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you because everyone on your newsfeed sounds just like you. And once you’re in that state, it turns out you’re easily manipulated…’
-Roger Macnamee – Facebook early investor & venture capitalist.

I guess the Truman Show was right – we accept the false reality that we are presented with.

Artwork by Steve Cutts

What is this resulting in?

Tribalism, divided opinions turning into polarisation, friends becoming enemies of people who voted for things like Brexit or Trump, riots on the streets, hate speech inciting civil war, the breakdown of democracy and informed decisions, depression in young people, governments and organisations being able to brainwash people… you thought Covid-19 was bad!

What can we do?

Spend less time on social media, or at least practise safe social media. I mean don’t get me wrong, social media is incredible. It has brought us closer to people who are far away, it has allowed for untold creativity and for people to spread the good word, it has allowed businesses and organisations to grow and given many people great opportunities. We must understand how to practice safe social media. Make informed decisions, do your research, talk to different people and hear both sides of the story. The madness I have seen in the recent months – I see people elbowing the traffic stop button… you’re not going to melt into a soup of virus-infected sludge if you touch the button with your finger! Do you think someone with Covid-19 has spat directly on the button in the last hour? Come on. But this is the problem, media and social media have created such fear. In fact, it’s not even really SMCs fault anymore. They have created the tool, and now companies, organisations, and shady governments have been using them to brainwash and manipulate.

I also hear people talking about, and staunchly defending the most obscure conspiracy theories. Again, because of nonsense, they have seen on social media.

Alright, thanks a lot for sticking with it until now. It’s hard to keep newsletters short. I could write pages on this. The most important thing to do is to put your phone down, get outside, enjoy nature, make connections with your friends again, and live in the real world.

Please share this with anyone you think would benefit from it. It really helps us too!

Ed and the Biostays team