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Social Media Platforms as Digital Slot Machines

In a recent paper I published with my colleagues Lavinia Marin (TU Delft) and Constantin Vica (University of Bucharest), titled “Digital Slot Machines: Social Media Platforms as Attentional Scaffolds” we take a step back from AI and return to an older problem in digital ethics, that despite its urgency, is often overlooked: the impact of social media platforms on attention, both at the individual and collective levels.

In this paper, we introduce the concept of attentional scaffolds and show the resemblance between social media platforms and slot machines, both functioning as hostile attentional scaffolds. We analyze how these platforms strategically harness users’ emotions to capture and retain their attention, benefiting the platforms at the expense of users’ interests. Much like the mechanics employed in slot machines, social media platforms are designed to captivate users’ attention by employing a system of intermittent rewards, all with the aim of maximizing engagement. We also focus on the interplay of emotions and attention, and their impact on epistemic states, to show in more detail how social media platforms work as digital slot machines. We argue that despite being designed around individual users, digital platforms wield aggregate effects at the collective level. By exploring phenomena such as emotional contagion and the emergence of group emotions, we illustrate the transition from individual experiences to collective outcomes. Employing online moral outrage as a case study, we illustrate how negative emotions serve as scaffolds for individuals’ attention, propagate within social groups, and give rise to collective attitudes.

The paper was published in Topoi and can be freely accessed via the following link:

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Having now read the paper this largely concurs with my own thoughts/considerations regarding – focus – forming a basis for a great deal of the outcomes (and a common basic base) for the individuals needs for both privacy and freedom. Notwithstanding the articles constraints, created by mainly focusing on the emotional manipulation designed within digital online material, probably to meet word limits, further consideration of cross cultural contamination and subsequent motivational pressures in a commercial environment may have been useful. Certainly considering available responses by individuals to recognised and known methods of emotional and other manipulations would be more informative than a direct pointer to any particular and necessarily geographically limited regulative response which would itself need to recognise and reflect the cross cultural issues mentioned, if commercial considerations were to be addressed.
    Recognition of the of the growth and use of emotion by historical advertising and commerce generally, leading into the digital age, would have been useful (i.e. fashion, music, art, advertising, politics.). If the writers interests in the area continue they will already have been considering and extending their conclusions into the future, but there are always many diversionary routes.

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