“What I want people to know is that everything they’re doing online is being watched, is being tracked, every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded”.
-Jeff Seibert, tech entrepreneur.
Netflix’s recent release ‘The Social Dilemma’ caught the world by a storm. With the whole world going through the COVID crisis and the US dealing with the recent elections (in addition to dealing with many social and political controversies), this documentary couldn’t have been released at a better time. Or…was it?
Societal problems, such as the political polarization and propaganda, social engineering, consciousness engineering, misinformation, promotion of conspiracy theories, mental health (addiction, anxiety, and depression), data privacy and targeted advertising are discussed in the film as hazardous effects of social media usage.
The makers of the machine
The film depicts the very same people it criticizes – the creators of this dystopian world—who all of sudden have realized what a monster they helped create. These “tech bros”, working in places such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Pinterest, are now pitching in with their self-proclaimed knowledge of how these algorithms really work to, allegedly, control people, in order to learn everything they can about them—their likes and dislikes—so that they can make more money from them.
The tech bros claim they had no idea that the technology they were part of was planning on becoming such a “deadly weapon” (as they say), in this online discourse while working in these companies.
“A whole generation is more anxious, more depressed”
The film discusses the possible effects on mental health on people, taking a special aim at teenage girls. It claims that suicide rates, depression, and anxiety might coincide with high usage of social media in this group. It compares the addictive “high” you get from receiving likes on a post to the one you get when you hit a slot machine.
“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals-hearts, likes, thumbs up, and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with the truth. And instead, what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short and that leaves you even more vacant and empty before you did it”, says Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of Growth at Facebook.
Young girls growing up in the last century have always been exposed to the beautiful models on the covers of magazines, many of who had been photo-shopped by experts to look better than they do in real life. Of somewhat perfect relationships portrayed on their weekly TV show. Basically, they were sold an illusion. And while the media has had its fair share contributing to mental disorders and body dysmorphia in young girls, social media just might takes it to a whole new level.
Young girls nowadays are not only exposed to more of this “fake” content, they are shown unrealistic portrayals of beauty, popularity, and happiness. Countless filters and photo-shopping apps are used by social media influencers, who these girls inspire to look like.
If a social media influencer—someone who has a lot of followers on social media—posts a “boring, real picture” the image wouldn’t get as many likes as her posting a polished and edited picture in a bikini on a yacht drinking champagne with her friends. She knows this, and she also knows that because she will get more followers and engagement on certain types of posts, she will likely profit from it as companies will reach out to her for sponsorship. The greatest the illusion she sells, the more she’s liked, and the more she’s liked, the more profitable she will become for herself.
Little girls see this, and they feel like they can’t measure up. Moreover, they are depressed that they don’t look like these girls on Instagram, that they are not as popular, liked, successful, rich, etc. etc. Even with their peers, they compare the number of likes and followers they each get and that determines their social hierarchy in school and, in turn, self-worth. “We were not evolved to have social approval be dosed to us every 5 minutes”, says Tristan Harris, an ex. Google employee. Our self-esteem is now determined by how many likes we get.
It’s a vicious cycle. You produce content, it works, you get validation, you get a high, and then you keep chasing that same high over and over again and feel depressed when you don’t get it. The film suggests that the emergence of social media on mobile devices has tripled suicide rates in teenage girls.
Misinformation, or fake news, has always been around, way before the internet was born. Your neighbor heard somewhere that something happened and told everybody but it’s in fact wrong. Social media isn’t any different, except it makes the source seem more credible, hence more believable.
This is alarming. Not just because the message gets delivered at a much faster rate to the world than your chatterbox neighbor. But because the algorithms are structured as such that engagement, or interaction, is the #1 goal in spreading this misinformation. The film asserts that if my behavior tells a social media channel that I am totally against elderly abuse but also like puppies, I will be flooded with stories about elderly abuse that will spark feelings to stir up a string of comments (or engagement) from me, as opposed to maybe a simple “like” on a puppies post. This can get dangerous when it comes to misinformation about political or social issues, such as being circling with the recent US presidential election, coronavirus, and the protests across the US.
The film discusses conspiracies that have exploded in popularity due to the algorithms spreading them, with no awareness of whether they’re true or false. Examples such as a famous basketball player spreading the flat-earth theory because he saw it on YouTube (and later apologized). More extreme and event dangerous conspiracies started to implode, such as Pizzagate. Pizzagate was a made-up theory that ordering pizza means ordering a trafficked person. Facebook started suggesting Pizzagate groups to people vulnerable to believing conspiracy theories, and this hoax just became huge, causing people to spread lies about politicians and celebrities involved in this conspiracy.
With coronavirus, conspiracies it really became a matter of life and death. While in an already uncertain and panicky mode, society was and still is bombarded with theories about the pandemic causing even more confusion and fear, again, without any filter system in place for what’s real and what’s fake.
The fact that there isn’t any “human touch” to decipher between what’s real or fake, whereby the only determinant of whether a post becomes viral or not is based on a pure mathematical algorithm, poses a real moral issue.
Politics has been around for ages, and opposing views regarding countless issues have always existed. Nowadays, however, people who have opposing views are more criticized and hated than ever before. The film claims that this is due to the fact that those with the most extreme opinions are now more easily heard. But why are these extremists heard more than someone with a more moderate view on the matter? Simple: they are sensational, and they cause drama. And what does social media like? Engagement.
The film claims that the algorithm is set to make the most “dramatic” posts and comments be seen more often, as they will create –you know it—more engagement. That’s why when you go on a Facebook or Instagram post, it will often show you the comments with the most reactions, be it good or bad, as the first comments, not the ones that are most recent as used to be in the past.
Once you hit the “like” button to one of these anger-provoking, premeditated posts to show up on your feed by Facebook (or any similar social media channel), you will likely be flooded with more and more of the same anger-provoking stuff on social media, making you more “angry”, hence more polarized on your stand on the matter and less “open” and “accepting” of opposing views.
The ad industry also plays a role here. An extreme, dramatic story about, let’s say an activist, will generate more activity, and hence more opportunity for advertisers. Such happened with the tweet that went viral about a supposed FBI agent who got arrested at the recent US protests. It was later found that the man wasn’t an FBI agent, and the video was filmed over a year prior to the 2020 protests.
“What began as advertising is now a threat to freedom and democracy,” says Shoshana Zuboff in the film. She describes the phenomenon of mining human experience (or logging in data trails) to create marketable predictions about our future actions as “surveillance capitalism”.
And while the essence of capitalism is finding and exploiting resources in order to become profitable, the question is asked—where do we draw the line?
This isn’t the first time we ask this question. In fact, in recent years the popularity of documentary films showcasing the harms we cause ourselves and the planet (A couple of which were made by the same creator of The Social Dilemma himself), has skyrocketed.
Subsequently, they sparked awareness and have been a topic of great discussion among people, especially the younger generations, many of whom have been inspired to act change their lifestyles based on these films (think veganism, environmental consciousness, and green living).
The main goal of these films was to show that there’s someone higher, much higher than us, who’s controlling/manipulating/deceiving us and probably destroying our health and the planet just so that he can extract more money from us.
The film stresses the point that if you’re not paying for the product, then the product is actually, well, you. You are studied so well to only be sold to the highest bidder. Data is the new oil. It’s valuable. Full psychological profiling is stored about you at every social media channel, how long you spend looking at an image, they know who you are more than you do.
Social Engineering is also an issue. It’s defined as “any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interest”. Think how much data of ours these companies hold, and how creative hackers are getting more and more manipulative trying to get it.
The medium is the message
With every new technology emerging, some criticism is expected to come forth from the ones “losing out” by its arrival. For instance, when the telephone was created, the mail system criticized it. We were hooked to different technologies during different times. We’ve adapted to the most recent forms of ads and the newest tricks to try and get our attention by advertisers.
Fast-forward to 2020, where artificial intelligence has entered the picture, we are essentially forced to jump a thousand steps to try to adapt to this new reality of ad targeting, which is almost unavoidable. The film claims that as humans, we have sure evolved, but are still mostly the same as primal humans were. In short, our brain cannot keep up with the fast rate of technology. We are in a position now that even the people who programmed these algorithms know less than the algorithms themselves, and we are basically controlled by these algorithms.
“If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more elections hacking, more inability to focus on the real issue, we’re toast”, says the film.
The light at the end of the tunnel
After reviewing some of the detrimental effects of social media, one can only wonder: Would society be happier without social media, or will we find something else to distract us?
What about all the great relationships formed online, the ones who were lost over the years and found online, the people who are physically unable to form relationships outside the online world, and found emotional support and help online?
We can still reap the benefits of social media if we and the makers of it exercise some control over this machine. Social media companies should start by implementing human-touched fact-checking to posts, as many have already started doing. While “learning us” is just a way to close in as of the loophole for advertisers as possible, some limitations should be exercised.
Instagram has already started marking photos using effects as “Made with Effect” to let people know that this is not a real image. Furthermore, , the company recently decided that they will ban filters showing cosmetic surgery, thus helping reduce the negative psychological effects they have caused in many people, especially young girls.
While it’s easy to blame the makers of these addictive technologies, we need to take accountability for our actions too.
What can you do?
- Reduce the amount of time on social media
We know, easier said than done, but there are actual apps you can download to help with that and set time limits. Don’t forget that at the end of the day it’s an escape, and while it can at times be much needed, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.
- Turn off push notifications
This will help you reduce the “high” you get when the notifications pop up and also not distract you from your real life.
- Become aware of your actions
What are you doing on social media? Do you check it a few minutes a day to see what your friends have been up to and what’s new in your world of interest, or are you scrolling for hours comparing your life to others’? Become aware of your actions, so you can take action.
Follow accounts that fuel your interests and make you feel good about yourself, like your close friends, artists you like, and feel-good inspirations, not those that make you feel insecure and bad about yourself.
- Discern between legitimate and illegitimate media sources
First, check the source. “Most examples of fake news can be debunked pretty easily with a simple Google search,” explains Matthew Hornsey, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland Business School. Checking reputable and objective sites for your news will be the best assurance of real, unbiased news.
Keep in mind that many of these viral fake news also have an intention behind them, whether it’s political (such as depicted in the film about Myanmar) or to simply cause havoc, do not underestimate that they exist.
An example of a valuable source of information is the ZoneAlarm blog, which covers many cyber and tech topics, such as news, tips and tricks for protecting yourself from various types of cyberattacks, and simple explanations of complicated cyber terms and situations. Their main source of information? Their very own cybersecurity software company – Check Point – and its extensive research teams.
- Delete the apps from your phone
Also, you can block them from your phone browser. Sounds extreme? You can still keep your accounts active and check them here and there from your computer if you can trust yourself to not over-do it.
- Protect yourself from Social Engineering
The most commonly-used social engineering tactic is phishing, used by hackers to steal your credentials. Aside from practicing common sense and high awareness, the best way to protect yourself from phishing attacks is to have phishing protection, and to practice these tips. Now that you’ve learned how the machine works and its intentions, it’s much easier to control it, by controlling your