The Social Dilemma is a documentary by seasoned documentary maker Jeff Orlowski which takes the viewer on a roller coaster journey, ranging from the effects programming codes have on society to the intricacies of the human mind. This documentary aims to shed light on the addictive nature of Social Media and modern-day internet.
“If you are not paying for the product, then YOU are the product.”
The documentary explains that in the case of Internet websites, i.e. Chrome, Instagram, Facebook etc., the users do not pay any money to the companies. This can mean only one thing that we are not the customers, somebody else is.
That somebody else is the Advertisers who aim to reach more and more eyeballs and influence people into using their products. They pay the web platforms to run their advertisements before the interested users. This form of targeted marketing can result in a serious return of investments.
These platforms have three basic goals:
These tech giants use very complicated Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to manage all these goals. These intricate softwares collect all the data from users’ activities like their interests from their Watch history and use of Like buttons. They render a user model that includes all their likes, interests, things that might upset a user, etc.
These companies then use this data to show us preferable ads according to our changing psyche or recommend us the next funny cat video or picture to our political liking. These modern-day platforms tap into the vulnerabilities of our ancient brains for their benefit.
For example, to increase engagement on the platform notifications are the best tool. Whenever we get a new notification, for example, about getting tagged in a new photo by our friend, we instantly pick up and check the social media feed and end up giving these platforms an hour or so of our times.
Websites like Facebook and Instagram are like vegas slot machines. Every time we refresh, there is more interesting content to munch upon, similar to pulling the lever of a slot machine because we think maybe this time we will get a jackpot. This is called Positive Reintermittent Reinforcement and makes us habitual of repeatedly checking our mobile phones.
According to Dr Anna Lembke, Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University, “We have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people that directly affects the release of dopamine in our brain. Millions of years of evolution work behind this system to get us to come together and live in communities, to find mates, to spread our species. So there is no doubt that a vehicle like social media, which optimizes this connection between people is going to have the potential for severe addiction.”
Social media seduces the human mind and the dopamine release from a mention in an Instagram comment is the ultimate orgasm. This habit of the unnatural release of dopamine can lead to actual physical problems like higher tolerance against this happiness hormone, dopamine deficit state and withdrawal symptoms.
Social media giants use certain features — Likes, Hearts and Thumbs Up — as a virtual currency on the platforms. They create a fake sense of achievement imparted by how many of these symbols one receives on an image posted. They make the users strive harder and harder to earn more of these Likes and Hearts because this ensures our engagement and the engagement of the users reacting to their photos.
This also leaves users hooked to this short-lived, hollow, worthless and fake sense of acknowledgement quite similar to the addiction of medicinal drugs as they leave the victims seeking a short-lived and fake feeling of happiness. Humans have evolved to care about whether other people in our tribe think well of us because it matters. But we were not evolved to have social approval being dosed to us every 5 minutes.
Use of features similar to the Like button starts affecting user’s confidence, self-worth and identity. According to research done by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, since 2010 the number of teenagers admitted into hospitals for inflicting self-harm has gone up by more than 62% compared to the previous decade, i.e. 2000–10. We can see a similar rise in the number of suicide attempts where the number has gone up by more than 70%.
The widespread use of social media and similar tech platforms has essentially trained and conditioned a whole generation of people that we can have this digital pacifier cum entertainer on this small handheld device when we are uncomfortable or lonely or afraid. This habit has severely affected human psychology’s innate qualities to deal with common issues of everyday life. This leaves users more and more dependent on the use of technology and inhibits the development of a person’s natural personality.
The AI engines that these platforms use know what kind of content a particular user likes to see. Based on these predictions and various data models, the AI present only the type of content a person likes to see. They do not show the other side of issues and keep on feeding the user content, which proves their ideology or thoughts to be true.
For example, Youtube recommendations only show the video of issues a person believes in. An ideological rights winger will only be shown content which he is to like. They do not show the other side of the coin. This can lead to the narrowing of the user’s mind and the inability to create a meaningful dialogue.
Instances like Mob lynching in India and Pizzagate in the USA showcases the power of manipulation which social media holds over the common population. Cases like the Russian manipulation of the US elections reiterates the polarising nature of modern technology.
According to the documentary, technology is to blame for all this increasing anarchy today, but we cannot ignore the human role in unwittingly creating this monster.
Overall, this documentary is an interesting watch because it is extraordinarily new and it necessarily underlines the modern-day threat technology poses in front of humanity.
We imagine the harms of AI as something that will affect us in future and will undermine human strengths in the form of Robot wars, etc. But before that stage comes, much earlier in the timeline, a moment has already come where technology has become capable of undermining human weaknesses.