Everybody knows that social media can manipulate data and use it to control us. But how many of us know about Snapchat dysmorphia – or young girls using filters to look good on Snapchat and then going for plastic surgery to fit that image? How many of us see social media as a “marketplace that trades exclusively on human futures”? Or think about the trillions of dollars that have made internet companies the richest in the history of the world.
And what is the product they are selling? Us. Or, to be more specific, “it is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our behaviours and perceptions”, according to Jaron Lanier, the author of Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Now. The Social Dilemma is a documentary by Jeff Orlowski that tells, through the perspective of a few former executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies, about the catastrophic destruction that these platforms are wreaking on our lives.
There is the rampant fear that artificial intelligence is going to take over our lives and hijack our jobs. But AI is already doing that in a deeper way today. We are living in a reality in which it has overpowered our human nature. According to the film, there are massive rooms at Google, both underground and underwater, where hundreds of computers, deeply inter-connected, are running several programmes simultaneously.
Lanier asks us to imagine what if Wikipedia customised its data to each individual user. And that is exactly what Google is doing. If you type in climate change, for example, your search might tell you that it is a big hoax. Or you might find that it is the greatest threat to humanity. It all depends on where you are living and what your interests are. It is like we are living “in 2.7 billion Truman Shows, each person with their own reality and their own facts”.
According to Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news. We have created a system, it says in the film, which is biased towards false information because truth is boring. False information makes more money for internet companies. An example cited is of #Pizzagate. The rumour spread on social media that ordering a pizza meant ordering a trafficked person. It ended when an armed man stormed a pizza shop to liberate imaginary children from its imaginary basement.
Although the documentary was enlightening, I did wonder whether the makers were exaggerating the truth. In other words, were they propagandising the propaganda? After watching the film, you tend to see conspiracy theories everywhere. The fictional segment of a family whose son is being controlled by social media, being fed just the right information to keep him engaged, was suspicious. But if it is really happening, it is time we woke up to the fact. As Harris said, how do you come out of the Matrix if you don’t know you are in the Matrix? And how many of us are going into this with our eyes open? Somewhere mid-way through the film, my phone beeped with a new notification. I thought twice before checking it. And then I did it anyway.