Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Brainwashing by Social Media

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There has been a lot of discussion around the Netflix show “The Social Dilemma” which blames social media algorithms and corporate greed for the irrational beliefs held by large segments of the population. Why do so many people believe the world is flat, that the moon landing didn’t happen, that 5G spreads covid, that Trump is truthful or anything that QAnon says? What is the mechanism in our brains that makes us so receptive to believing things that are completely crazy and easily disproved? Let’s look at how we learn and how this normally reliable mechanism is subverted by social media to cause the steadfast belief in what should be unbelievable.

Repetition and Practice

To master a skill, like a musical instrument or sport, usually takes 10,000 hours of practice according to Malcom Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. We all know how if we practice something over and over it reinforces our knowledge. For physical skills, it builds “muscle memory” where we can perform the tasks without even thinking about them. We often complain about how boring grade school is since we keep repeating the same things over and over again. Sadly, this is the best way to teach things that the student will retain. If this isn’t done the knowledge is never moved from short term to long term memory. Just hearing something once is almost never retained for any length of time.

Hebbian Learning

Hebbian learning is looking at what repetition does at the neural level. Donald Hebb’s theory is that as neural pathways are triggered repeatedly they become stronger, more neurons will be added to strengthen the signal, more weight in our neural network will be chemically built up. This is part of the physiological process that happens in the brain as we learn by repetition. This means that our brain is actually changing in response to this repetitive stimulus. The stronger this repetition, the stronger the structure in the brain and hence the harder it is to repudiate this knowledge.

Evolution Favours Repetition

In the early days of the brain, before social media and even before civilization, this made sense. Repeated bad experiences, for instance what areas flood when it rains, was good information to retain. This simple approach tended to work quite well with mother nature allowing human beings to survive and thrive.

Exploiting this learning mechanism is the science behind brainwashing. This tended to be a bad but smaller scale problem, but now with social media, it’s gotten out of control.

Social Media Subversion

When I took high school social studies we learned things like not to trust single sources. If a news story was reported by multiple independent sources then we give it more credence than single sources. This strategy fit well with repetitive learning and would naturally cause us to filter out most crackpots. Social Media throws this out the window.

Now a crackpot can post a crazy theory on Facebook, thousands of bot accounts can pick it up and repost it and hundreds of conmen can see an opportunity and also promote the craziness for their own gains. In your news feed you start to see this article over and over from different sources, perhaps sometimes rewritten but often not. It now appears like this is from multiple sources, which it is, but they aren’t independent, they are all copies. This repetition now starts to work on your brain’s structure and it starts to become believable. The brain is wonderfully complex and imaginative and manufactures rationalizations for nearly anything. Suddenly you believe the craziness and being persuaded otherwise becomes more and more difficult.

This is coupled with the social media algorithms that present one sided views, the theory being that you’ll like Facebook better if you only see what you agree with. So you never even see the counter arguments to the craziness.

Is There a Cure?

I’m not sure there is a cure. This would require a much higher level of critical thinking and logic from the general population. I don’t think regulating social media will help, especially since the government has a lot of interest in brainwashing and spreading false information.

Perhaps I would posit that the reason the Vulcan’s in Star Trek adopted their strict logic philosophy was a result of a social media mass craziness caused by their ancient evolutionary learning mechanisms. Is our only way out to adopt a culture of pure logic? Is this even possible? It would certainly not be in the interest of most governments or corporations.


Social Media exploits our deeply ingrained learning mechanisms, allowing us to be brainwashed. The mechanisms have been known for a long time and exploited by the likes of Goebbels and Manson to great effect. Social Media has opened up these techniques to be used by any crackpot out there. Coupled with state sponsored amplification intended to destabilize a target country the effects are proving catastrophic, allowing corporations to villainize climate change for their short term profits or corrupt politicians to hold on to power against the interests of their own people. Will we find a way out of this mess? It is proving difficult and might require the extreme step of banning social media (which seems unlikely). Hopefully sanity will prevail, but we don’t have a good history of that being the case.

Written by smist08

October 9, 2020 at 1:33 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] Last time, we discussed how Social Media brainwashes us by presenting us false information repeatedly, triggering evolutionary learning mechanisms, to get us to believe patently false claims like the Earth being flat. In this article we’ll look at how Social Media presents only one side of a story, introducing bias and preventing a balanced view of the world. Social Media presents this as a feature, that we can filter to only see what we like, but let’s look at the consequences of this and how this is dividing us, rather than bringing us together. […]

  2. […] blogged about being brainwashed by social media and how social media divides us. Politics is happening at Internet Time. Events are happening much […]

  3. […] As Stephen Smith says in his blog (Picture from his site): […]

    Hunter Biden. Redacted!

    November 26, 2020 at 11:26 am

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