Last Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg was living his more painful experience. He was totally on the grill. The energy in the room was electric. The reluctant CEO is made to answer some very important questions. Except it failed. It was designed to fail. It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook. It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing. It was designed to deflect and confuse. Each senator was given less than five minutes for questions. That meant that there was no room for follow-ups, no chance for big discoveries and many frustratingly half-developed ideas. The worst moments, for all of us, were when senators asked if Zuckerberg would support legislation that would regulate Facebook. By asking him if he would support legislation, the senators elevated him to a kind of co-thinker whose view on Facebook regulation carried special weight. Somehow, it was reminding the discussions about tobacco in the 50s. And this hearing was another content to be featured on the platform to get the people hooked…without answering our questions or worries. It was a big show. A dope show. And everybody enjoyed it…look at the memes and the jokes and you’ll see the fail of this event that made us confirm who we decided to be, some kind of lab rats again…or maybe pigeons.
Skinner’s pigeons are those birds that the Harvard psychologist submitted in the 1950s to a devilish exercise. Skinner led them to receive food if they poked at a glass, but varying carefully the interval to observe their behavior, some pigeons pecking the box 2.5 times per second, 16 hours in a row. The experience is explained by Ofir Turel, professor of information systems at California State University, Fullerton, and researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute of the Department of Psychology at the University of California. He links it to our online compulsive behavior, which he has been studying for ten years. The American describes himself as one of the “founders of what might be called the neuroscience of social networks.” In 2014, he observes the brains of excessive Facebook users and finds that the social network activates the same areas as cocaine. At a time when awareness of the effects of our hyper connection is growing in Silicon Valley, where Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook regrets to have designed a system based on “dopamine shots”, we contacted him to discuss the relevance of the term addiction, the reward circuit and prefrontal cortex, conflict of interest between Facebook and researchers, or these famous pigeons.
The media only mentioned the similarities we found with cocaine, while the differences were equally important. The brain has at least two systems involved in addictions. One, which is involved in the activation of the amygdala and the ventral striatum, is called the impulsive system (and you can see it as the accelerator of a car: every time you see a piece of cake, your brain tells you that taking one end will release dopamine, so you want to eat this piece of cake.Your brain once understood that the cake had released dopamine so he learned and wants to recreate this association ). In case of addiction, this system becomes very sensitive. If we go back to the analogy of the accelerator, it means that your car can accelerate without you controlling it. The other system is the inhibition system, at the level of the prefrontal cortex: the one that makes you give up the cake is the brake pedal. In severe addictions, such as cocaine, systems progress in the opposite direction, the accelerator is very sensitive, the brake does not work. In the case of FB, there are few differences with cocaine: we found that the impulsive system was affected, that it was particularly sensitive in people who have the criteria of a kind of addiction to social networks, but that the brake system was intact, while it is damaged in cocaine addicts. Which is good news because when it is damaged, it is very difficult to repair. Toxic substances kill the neurons present in this brake system. On the other hand, a very sensitive impulsive system is being repaired with drugs, with therapy and many means. As for the cigarette: we can repair the behavior if the motivation is strong enough. There are also “variable rewards”, which really come to mess with the release of dopamine in the brain. It’s not much different from all of us when we check our smart phones 150 times a day. We do not know how many people have liked our post, whether we have likes, or what our friends have posted: all these things generate rewards in the brain in the form of dopamine release. And because the rewards are variable, we automatically repeat our behavior again, and again.
So, now, we understand that the issue might be stronger than what it seems. There is so much we don’t know about Facebook. We might not fully understand we have a corporate monopoly that can manipulate brains and behaviors. We don’t know how their algorithm treats news organizations or content producers, how Facebook uses its own information about Facebook users or how tracking across platforms works. Now that the initial show trial is done, we need the real deal. The real deal would be to dissect the whole system with months of debate, involving experts, psychologists and scientists, to finally understand how this whole thing is shaping our lives.