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Trapped inside the algorithm: ‘mindless scrolling’ and individual liberty

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1. Introduction: Doin’ Time (Well Spent)?

Whereas social media platforms continue to play a significant role in our day to day lives, there seems to be a growing sentiment towards general dissatisfaction among individuals regarding their social media use. Besides privacy concerns and issues pertaining to mental health, excessive screen time seems to be an increasing concern, spurring actions like the tech industry’s ‘Time Well Spent’ initiative and the European Parliament’s push to regulate social media’s ‘addictive’ tendencies. Despite these efforts and individuals’ pushback, however, global social media use remains largely unchanged (with certain studies even predicting an increase in the years to come). This contradiction suggests that there are forces at work here beyond individual control- and willingness.

Social media platforms largely rely on the collection- and extraction of personal data their main (if not sole) method of revenue accumulation. This practice may heavily undermine individual autonomy, (therefore) restricting one’s liberty in the sense of freedom of will. This danger seems to be recognized, at least in part, by the new article 25 of the DSA, which (i.a.) prohibits interfaces that are designed in such a way that they might distort one’s ability make free decisions.

The aim of this post is to push against the dominant narrative that the danger of the use of social media platforms lies in the impact that it has on users’ individual autonomy. This article argues that individual autonomy is not the only value that is at stake. There are also ways in which the use of such platforms constrains individuals’ liberty. Specifically, we argue that beyond a restriction of freedom of will, the current workings of social media platforms may also result in a restriction of freedom of action, resulting in users of social media platforms being ‘trapped’ by the algorithm. For the sake of this contribution, we rely on Harry Frankfurt’s account of free will (see Frankfurt 1971). As such, freedom of will refers to the freedom to construct one’s own desires; freedom of action, on the other hand, refers to the absence of obstacles to actually put these desires into action.

2. Engagement Based Interfaces and Surveillance Capitalism

Anyone who has ever used social media is probably familiar with its ability to keep users engaged for as long- and often as possible. Although design elements such as ‘endless scrolling’ and autoplay undeniably contribute to this, there seems to be another feature at stake here: personalized content. From Instagram’s ‘explore’-page to Youtube’s ‘suggested for you’-section, the power of personalization is crucial in keeping users glued to their screens (see also here), making it a fundamental aspect of social media platform’s business models. By now, it has become almost common knowledge that major social media platforms operate on business models rooted in surveillance capitalism, as dubbed so notoriously by Soshana Zuboff. This business model revolves around gathering user data to predict preferences, and personalize content (including advertisements), aiming to maximize user engagement (and, retention), due to the economic value derived from user interaction. Surveillance capitalism, and its connected practices of content personalization and targeted advertising, have been subject to high scrutiny and debate, both in policy circles as well as in academic discourse.

However, concerns generally seem to be limited to risks posed to the individual’s freedom of will. For example, the recent lawsuit pressing Meta to halt personal data processing for behavioral advertising purposes underscores the implications of these business models on user’s autonomy and formation of their free will. Further, Article 25 of the DSA prohibits platforms from designing their interfaces in such a way that could distort or manipulate free choice, emphasizing the profound impact such choices may have on user’s autonomy and their capacity for autonomous decisions. Indeed, the main idea is thus that the constant exposure to- and imposition of personalized content has the potential to seriously restrict one’s ability to make genuinely autonomous decisions. In other words, users may feel that ‘the algorithm patronizes me in a way. I am not in charge of my decision-making anymore, or at least only indirectly’ (cited here). Whereas these are very real concerns that should not in any way be underestimated, we go beyond current discussions and suggest that this alleged result of decaying free will is inherently connected to the individual’s (in)ability to resist mindless scrolling, leading the individual to get trapped inside the algorithm – therefore also limiting their freedom of action.

3. The Exprisonment of the Mindless Scroller

The concept of ‘exprisonment’ refers to practices of restraint besides traditional imprisonment, including for example electronic monitoring or area bans (see also here). These practices are typically associated with the state, but private entities may also engage in exprisonment activities, employee monitoring being such an example. In a recent post on the UK Labour Law Blog, Jeevan Hariharan and Hadassa Noorda argue that extreme monitoring can have the effect of forcing employees to stay in a particular place, controlled by their manager in almost all their activities. One illustration comes from Teleperformance, one of the largest call center companies, where employees work from home and face webcams which scan their remote working spaces for infractions, using facial recognition and location tracking technology (see this article). Individuals subject to these monitoring practices are literally deprived of their liberty to move from their desk for a period of time (see Hariharan, Noorda). In this way monitoring practices can be considered a form of exprisonment.

In any case – the crux is whether someone is deprived, or restricted, in their liberty, in the sense of being able to enjoy a ‘free life’ (see this article by Noorda). This difference between deprivation versus restriction should be underlined and understood in terms of degree/severity, the latter referring to the limitation of certain aspects of a free life rather than full-on ‘imprisonment’ (in for example a high security prison) (see here). Considering the discussion in the previous section, the case for arguing that social media induced mind-wandering might result in a restriction of liberty in the sense of freedom of will might not be all that controversial. However, it could be contended that social media induced mind-wandering or ‘mindless scrolling’ may also limit freedom of action.  As observed by Aranda and Baig, individuals often describe feeling liberated when their phones run out of battery, implying an inverse association between smartphone use and freedom. We do not argue that mindless scrolling results in situations in which an individual is completely deprived of their liberty, but it does seem to result in the restriction of certain aspects of their freedom of action: by the design of social media platforms people remain glued to their screens, ‘trapped’ – if you will – inside the algorithms. To further strengthen this claim, consider the following descriptions of individuals on how they experience their social media use as examples.

One participant in a study on what makes smartphone use either meaningful or meaningless signaled that they felt as if their smartphone use did not feel like an active choice anymore:  ‘I’d say it’s more just a condition thing at this point. It’s so normalized to have the phone in my pocket or on the table or whatever and just be absentmindedly glancing at it or picking up and scrolling through something. (…) just kind of a force of habit’. A similar experience includes the sentiment users signal of time passing by almost unnoticed: ‘I sometimes lie on my bed and scroll/switch from one app to another for 1h-1h30, without seeing the time go by’ (here). What these quotes demonstrate is the feeling, or perhaps reality even, of being ‘stuck’. Although often indicating the desire to spent their time otherwise, many social media users are trapped in behind digital, pixelated, algorithmic bars: ‘it [the Facebook algorithm] is like a Lotus flower. It makes you want for more; yet, it traps you from really getting what you want’ (here). Indeed, one would almost say ‘it’s like a prison. You can get lost in your phone and not get out (…) you can’t get away’ (here).

Insofar as mindless scrolling thus somehow captures individuals, it could be argued that this constitutes a possible form of ‘exprisonment’. There is, however, an obvious critique here: the mindless scroller seems to have an active choice in whether or not to engage with social media platforms (or, smartphones in general) in the first place: there is nothing preventing you from simply switching off your phone, or closing the app. However, anyone familiar with the basics of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism can coexist – understands that there are more complex factors at play here. The next section explores free will and determinism.

4. Frankfurt’s Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action

A possible account for these apparent differing desires and (consequential) actions is described by Harry Frankfurt in his Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person. In this work, Frankfurt elaborates on the distinction between what he labels first- and second-order desires/volitions, and their connection to the actual behavior of an individual. Frankfurt explains his thesis by distinguishing between different kinds of ‘addicts’, one of them being the ‘unwilling addict’: someone that wishes they would not want to drink alcohol, for example, but end up doing so anyway.

Applying Frankfurt’s thesis to the case of the mindless scroller comes down to the following. The mindless scroller has two opposing first-order desires, namely i) the desire to browse social media and ii) the desire to not do so, and spent their time in another, more useful or ‘meaningful’ manner. However, what the mindless scroller ends up doing is, exactly, i): scrolling. This is their first-order will. The second-order volition of the mindless scroller is, on the other hand, the wish that their desire to not engage in this scrolling would be their willwhich would then be put into action. There is thus a dissonance between the mindless scroller’s first- and second-order volitions. Following Frankfurt, this absence of correspondence of the will to the (second-order) will to desire, results in an absence of free will for the mindless scroller.

However, this free will is distinct from the mindless scroller’s freedom of action. Indeed – whereas the mindless scroller might lack freedom of will, he seems to be free to do what he wants (first-order, namely: scrolling). Joel Feinberg has also touched upon the distinction between freedom of will- and action, emphasizing that freedom of actions implies the absence of objective, external factors that may comprise an individual’s freedom. In this regard, it could be argued that prisoners, for example, only have limited freedom of action, although they are not completely deprived from it (see also this article by Frankfurt and Locke).  Similarly, those subjected to exprisonment conditions might also experience restrictions to their freedom of action (because of their being de-facto imprisoned) – and as set out in the previous section, the mindless scroller could be regarded as such an exprisoned individual.

5. Concluding remarks      

Considering the foregoing, it could be inferred from this conceptual analysis that mindless scrollers lack freedom of will as a result of the dissonance between their first- and second-order desires. Consequently, the restriction of their freedom of will may cause the mindless scrolling individual to get trapped by the algorithm. As a result, they are being restricted in their freedom of action in such a way that it may constitute a form of ‘exprisonment’. This is a result of the deeper underlying issue of the core business models of most social media platforms. Alternatives are possible – if profit ceases to prevail over ‘people’ – and the acknowledgment that the current trajectory is unsustainable is becoming more and more prevalent. However, whereas concerns regarding autonomy and free will seem to have been at least in part acknowledged, both in the literature as well as legislative efforts (for example article 25 DSA), we suggest that the potential risks for freedom of action that results from the algorithmic trap is also worthy of consideration.

Hadassa Noorda
Assistant Professor at University of Amsterdam

Hadassa Noorda is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and a NIAS-Institute Gak Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies. She is also an affiliated researcher with NYU’s Center for Law and Philosophy.

Jessie Levano
Student Assistant at University of Amsterdam

Jessie Levano is a student assistant at the Law Faculty of the University of Amsterdam. She holds a degree in International Technology Law (LLM) and is currently obtaining a second specialization in International and European Law (LLM) at the VU Amsterdam.

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