Sugar-Coating Facebook

Sixty years ago, in the midst of a national healthcare epidemic, health experts deemed fat, and specifically saturated fat, to be the culprit behind skyrocketing rates of heart disease and other coronary issues. It made sense — since overweight people were likely overeating unhealthy, fatty foods, and since those same people were the most likely to suffer from heart-related issues, fat was the logical culprit. The public was quick to seize this trend, and even quicker were big food brands — the ones that immediately leaped into supermarkets with “low-fat” and “skim” options for everything from yogurt to chocolate. These brands flew off the shelves, and big brands reaped the profits.

Fast forward to the present day, and things have improved — slightly. Heart disease still kills people in the United States at an alarming rate, and a rate that is deeply dissimilar to rates in even other “western” countries, like France, or Canada. So what happened? According to most modern health experts, as well as many well-informed journalists, fat was mislabeled as the culprit in the fight against obesity, and in turn heart disease. The true culprit was none other than the fundamental ingredient in almost everything we eat: sugar.

Sugar is a fascinating compound. It appears in almost every food, both organic and processed, though it is much more prevalent in the latter. In organic foods, sugar is present in small quantities, though in today’s world, most of us fail to notice the trace amounts of it in vegetables like spinach, or kale. Sugar is calorie-rich, and foods with high organic levels of it, such as dates, or figs, remind us why it is so hard to stop eating sugary food once we’ve started. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, our inability to control ourselves in the presence of sugar-laden foods is a deeply rooted biological impulse. Thousands of years ago, before the agricultural revolution, when our forager ancestors were exploring the land that now comprises five of the seven continents, their survival depended on their ability to find and ingest large amounts of calories. Ideally, they would have spread consumption over a certain time period, like we do, but since they didn’t have the luxury of consistent access to food, when they stumbled upon a tree ripe with figs, or dates — foods that were more calorie-rich than most anything else they could hope to find — the most sensible action for them was not to harvest or save them, but rather to eat as many as they could, and in turn survive to pass their genetic material down. Thousands of years later, we, their descendants, stand in front of the plates of Christmas cookies at our respective holiday parties, sick from overeating, and wonder why it’s so hard to listen to the voice of reason in our head telling us to stop. We want to listen, but too often, we cannot. Biologically, we are programmed not to.

Sugar is enticing on another, almost more sinister level — there is no food on earth that is both sweet and poisonous. This may seem unimportant today, but thousands of years ago, one threat among many was poisonous food. Once foragers realized the connection between sweetness and safety of consumption, they began to consume more sweet food. Fruit is an excellent example of this, however the sugar in fruit is tempered by the presence of fiber, which slows our body’s digestion of the sugar and prevents dangerous insulin spikes. Processed food today lacks this fiber, but retains — and even expands upon — the calories. Like other sweet food, processed food isn’t poisonous immediately, but in the long run, consuming it consistently can create serious health problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In essence, sugar is like alcohol*— we are momentarily comforted by it, but after that moment, or that night, we feel worse.

Sadly, too, sugar has replaced the fat that was removed to give previously “fatty” foods, like ice cream, or yogurt, back their flavor. Removing fat from products ruined the taste, and big brands, knowing this would alienate consumers, had to find a way to compensate. Sugar became a substitute for fat, and unknowingly, experts whose job it was to close the door on heart-related health issues instead ripped it wide open, and ushered in an entirely new era of health issues. This time, however, they added in issues like tooth decay and overall mental decline — two symptoms that have not been linked to consumption of fats, but have been directly linked to the consumption of sugar.

Sugar appears in limited quantities in many of the fruits and vegetables we grew up eating, but it is packed into processed foods such as candy, ketchup, peanut butter, or anything else that doesn’t fall from a tree, or grow out of the ground. Those foods have come to rely on sugar, and its biological capability to tempt us into eating far more than we need. It is quite frankly astounding that something that was so quintessential to our ability to survive and procreate thousands of years ago, something that was identified as a signal of safety and satiation, could today have become so perverted, abused by corporations in their quest to maximize corporate profits. Sugar is a silent killer — it does not make itself known easily, and for many years, was ignored, as experts embarked on wild goose chases and witch hunts that were, er…fruitless.

Sugar was not the only factor that contributed to the survival of our foraging ancestors — more important was association with other humans. In the words of my college anthropology professor, “A lone forager is a dead forager.” In those times, traveling with a band offered safety in numbers, which, in the face of threats like wild animals and other foraging bands, was vital. Most foraging bands ranged anywhere from a low of a few dozen to a max of 150 — any more, and the band’s structure would have begun to break down. This offers an explanation for why we are often comforted by the presence of other humans. It also explains why the majority of us will gravitate towards the majority in certain situations — we have a deeply rooted desire to be accepted, because our foraging ancestors faced certain death if they were not.

“A lone forager is a dead forager.”

Thousands of years ago, our foraging ancestors’ focus on survival drove them to eat large quantities of sweet, calorie-rich foods, because sweetness guaranteed the two things foragers required from food: safety and satiation. Foragers also desired human connection, because without it, they were less likely to survive any one of the trials and tribulations they were guaranteed to face. Today, human connection remains instrumental to our happiness and success, but sugar no longer does, and our society is beginning to understand its pernicious effects. We are beginning to limit our consumption of it, and corporations are coming around, perhaps unsurprisingly, as they are forced to pivot in response to consumer demand. Still, one corporation has capitalized on these two biological impulses better than any single group ever has, and it isn’t a food company — it’s Facebook.

First and foremost, Facebook is a social network that allows us to “connect” with friends and family. 150 years ago, we interacted with people we could not see by written mail. Decades later, we called them from telephones, and after that came forms like email and cellular phones. Communication and association with other human beings has always been at the center of the human experience, and thus as humanity has progressed, so have our options for communicating with one another. Facebook is but one of many recent steps towards closing the loop on non-face-to-face communication.

Beyond connecting us with those we care about, Facebook allows us to share content and ideas that can then be either supported or questioned by our audiences, which are typically collections of our associates, co-workers, friends, and family. Given that human interaction is deeply rooted within us as a survival instinct, it is no surprise that Facebook has exploded as a medium for content creation and consumption. Similarly, given that acceptance by others is also rooted in us as a survival instinct, it is even less of a surprise that people on Facebook gravitate towards audiences and publications that agree with their preexisting beliefs — desire for acceptance did, after all, allow our ancestors to survive, and in turn give way to us.

Given that my biological desires resemble those of my ancestors, my Facebook news feed is dominated by pictures and updates from a few of my closest friends and relatives, as well as articles from publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Quartz, Aeon, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, The Economist, and a handful of others. 62% of Americans now use Facebook for news, and thus feed curation is key, and I am proud of mine. Everything I see it in interests me for two reasons. The first is because the articles published by these publications are typically well-written and thought-provoking pieces of long-form journalism — they are not “news” in the traditional sense. The second is that these publications agree with my underlying assumptions about the state of the world.

This second assumption is where Facebook gets tricky. Facebook’s entire business model is predicated on delivering users what they want to see, just like food corporations’ models are predicated on promising to deliver consumers what they want to eat. Prior to recent research, and even since, consumers wanted sugar, both because they believed it to be a healthy and similar-tasting substitute for fat, and because it is delicious. In the same way that corporations delivered on those promises, now Facebook is delivering on theirs. Facebook offers users unprecedented levels of personalization — levels that afford each user an escape into their own online reality — one not necessarily bound by truth, or objective fact.

On May 12th, 2012, the date of Facebook’s IPO, it was valued at 81.74 billion dollars, and it has managed to more than quadruple that number in just over four years. Facebook’s current market capitalization is around 343 billion dollars, making it the seventh most valuable company in the world. It is obvious, then, that Facebook is extraordinarily good at realizing their business model of crafting a different reality for every user. They have also mastered the art of keeping users on their site for extended periods of time. The average daily Facebook user, and there are well over a billion of them, myself included — spends over 50 minutes on the site every day. Humans average sixteen waking hours each day. That means that sixteen percent of humanity spends over six percent of their life on Facebook. Humanity has long been characterized by its ability to compromise and create harmony. Now, almost a sixth of us spend nearly an hour a day on a site where compromise and being challenged on our beliefs is optional.

2016 was the first year I noticed just how distorting having my own reality can be. For months, Facebook fed users like me headlines indicating the inevitability of a Clinton victory in the American presidential election. In the weeks leading up election day, political conversations staled because of how lopsided the polls were. Trump was down by eight points, then ten, and it seemed as if it were over. He would lose, and Clinton would win, and the United States would continue its steady march onward, in search of “progress”. Liberals would continue to celebrate their victory in the war of culture, and those who disagreed would be left to languish. This was the reality that everyone I knew was preparing for.

Except that wasn’t what happened. On the morning of Wednesday, November 9th, millions of Americans awoke to headlines that didn’t fit with the ones they had been reading for the weeks and months leading up to the election. “Democrats, Students, and Foreign Allies Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency”, read The New York Times. I was shocked. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the concept of the “echo chamber”, or the idea that the Facebook feed I had come to rely upon as my source of news and information about the world was simply catering to the beliefs I already harbored. What I didn’t realize, or simply didn’t want to, was that throughout the election Trump had been utilizing Facebook data to inform his campaign strategy — crafting different messages for different users. Like how Trump stopped campaigning in states he had locked up (Alabama, etc.) and states he was guaranteed to lose (California, etc.), Facebook told him to ignore users like me with his messages, because my Facebook profile did not indicate that I was on the fence, or that I would be an easy vote to capture.

Every day leading up to the election, when I opened my computer, I was immediately drawn to Facebook’s familiarity. Facebook comforted me by feeding me a continual stream of content that agreed with my preexisting beliefs. It is true — I believed that Clinton would win. I believed that the polls had it right. I believed that Trump’s message had resonated with a large portion of the American populace, but not enough to afford him the presidency. I was wrong, as were many people smarter and better-informed than I. For weeks, I asked myself why, before I realized the simple truth: I became complacent because nothing in my online reality told me that there was any reason to worry. To be clear, my Facebook feed wasn’t the only media outlet telling me that Clinton was sure to win — so did most of the polls, and most everyone I spoke to. And yet, my Facebook feed didn’t show me anything that would have made me think Trump would win. There were no articles from polls claiming otherwise, or expositions on the conditions in Appalachia, though they existed. Instead, there were links to Quartz articles with polls indicating the inevitability of a Clinton presidency, and news clips of anchors talking about the possibility of Trump dropping out of the race. I didn’t see the other side of these issues because given my likes, interests, friends, and reading habits, the other side wouldn’t have been a profitable thing for Facebook to show me. That is both what is so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying about Facebook — while on it, we can pick and choose what our reality is, but off it, we still must deal with what the reality is. We must ask ourselves — what type of society are we creating when everyone has a different perspective on reality? And who benefits? Facebook, certainly. But what about the public?

“That is both what is so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying about Facebook: while on it, we can pick and choose what our reality is, but off it, we still must deal with what the reality is.”

Before all of this — before the advent of processed food, massive food conglomerates, and Facebook— it used to be that we would eat nutritious food, the majority of which had only trace amounts of sugar, like vegetables, meat, and grains. These types of food were not delicious in the traditional sense, but they offered nutrients, and only a small amount of sugar as a tiny incentive to continue consuming them on moderated basis. In the same way that these types of food are good for us, so too are diets of news that combine a variety of different perspectives and beliefs. These diets are nutritious, because they are varied, and they challenge us to get outside our comfort zones — our “echo chambers” — and ask us to consider why a woman in her 40s from Alabama might vote for Trump, instead of allowing us to immediately write her off as a “deplorable”, and someone whose opinion is not worth noting.

Facebook offers us the opportunity to do this, too. Many people I follow on Facebook and Twitter — people that I respect — have vocalized that they’ve started following people and publications that offer opinions deeply contrary to their own. These are the same people that, in the face of increasing amounts of sweet, desirable food, have chosen to consume instead a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, meat, and grains. On occasion, these people will have something sweet — a brownie, or an Oreo. But even though they allow themselves to enjoy these treats on a limited basis, they are far more focused on creating a life for themselves that is challenging and stimulating, rather than consistently comfortable. These are the people that take advantage of the incredible tool for good that Facebook is capable of being.

While some people do take initiative and invite themselves to be challenged on even their most fundamental beliefs, most do not. It is hard to blame them; most people do not have time to explore the internet and be up to date on everything that’s going on — let alone find varying perspectives on each and every thing on which it is possible to have an opinion. Still, it is important for everyone to realize that Facebook’s model is built on the same systemic foundation as the food industry’s, and thus the news you see in your feed is not the same news being read by your friend, or relative. Because of how these models work, within the food industry, sugar permeates everywhere. Large corporations have altered our food so that it is dominated by sugar, because that is what consumers want. Facebook is doing the same with its content, not because it is evil, but because we are telling it to. Instead of feeding us steady diets of knowledge and ideas that expand our horizons, Facebook feeds the majority of us steady diets of confirmation bias — things that taste good, because they’re close to what we want, but far from what we need. Why else would Facebook call its home page a “feed” if the goal weren’t for us to “consume” everything on it? In the end, this content may satiate us, but it will not challenge us, and we will not be better — or healthier — because of it. Years ago, food corporations filled processed food with sugar to capitalize on consumer demand and ignorance. Now, Facebook’s model is doing the same with its content.

“Why else would Facebook call its home page a “feed” if the goal weren’t for us to “consume” everything on it?”

It is not Facebook’s fault that it is good at delivering people what they want to see, but it is undeniable that their model has hijacked and taken full advantage of our biological need for human connection and acceptance. The entire site is built to cater to the whims of the well over one billion people that log on every day— to continually craft individual realities for its users, and thus continually divide us into smaller and smaller sects of a larger and larger populace. Over the past sixty years, as we slowly realized the pitfalls of consuming food laden with sugar, parts of our society — not all of it, to be clear — slowly began to change the food they consumed in recognition of the effect of eating only that which tasted delicious. Like we have done with food, we now must open ourselves to the power for good that Facebook can be by exposing ourselves to different and diverse perspectives. If, as a society, we are unable to do this — if we are unable to remove ourselves from our individual echo chambers — if we ignore the importance of exposing ourselves to contrarian ideas, and not only exposing ourselves to them, but listening to them, and understanding them — we will find ourselves headed down a dangerous path.

Facebook claims its mission is to connect the world. The result of its business model, however, given the way that the majority of people currently consume content and information, is anything but. As we dive headfirst into a globalized future — a future in which borders will blend, walls will fall, and ideas will continue to evolve, we must acknowledge the consequences of ignoring Facebook’s potential to insulate us from anything that challenges us, as well as its power as a force for linking us together in the collective challenge to improve the world. If we fail to do these things, we risk falling into rabbit holes filled only with things that agree with us — things that taste sweet — and, more importantly, devoid of things that do not.


Acknowledgements: Thank you to David Perell for his edits, Rosa Rumora for her feedback, and Jason Cinti for the source information!

Footnotes:

¹ In a twist of irony, alcohol is sugar, fermented.

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