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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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