Addiction, depression, anxiety and heightened self-consciousness all make up part of the dark side of social media – most of us are familiar with this in one way or another. However, are these mere side effects of the software we use, or is there something more sinister at play?
In the newest Netflix documentary-drama, The Social Dilemma, Jeff Orlowski is clearly showcasing how these dysfunctions are not simply accidents but come from an assumed desire to manipulate user behaviour, revealing how deeply these dark feelings and emotions are triggered, for the pure interest of increased monetisation.
What started off as something people genuinely thought would turn out to do good – creating real, meaningful, systemic changes, ended up becoming unethical. The algorithms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even Google are added to provide the human brain with the dose of dopamine necessary to make them addictive. These social media platforms all profit on user attention, which is paid for by advertisers. As the documentary showcases, the advertisers are therefore the customers, making us – the users – the products being sold to those customers.
In the documentary, Jaron Lanier goes further in arguing that it’s not only our attention being sold as the product, but rather “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product.” Advertisers do this by changing the way we think, what we do and who we are through a very gradual change in what we see on our screens. In order for them to do that, they need a lot of data, which they get through constantly getting us to log in to online media platforms. What can be dangerous about this constant need for online attention is that we as users can very easily be drawn into addiction.
Tristan Harris, the president and a co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, explains that tech companies have three different goals:
- An engagement goal – to drive up our usage and to keep us scrolling.
- A growth goal – to keep you coming back, whilst inviting more friends.
- An advertiser goal – to make sure that the first two goals are happening in order for these platforms to keep making as much money as possible.
These goals are all driven by algorithms that track and record our usage. This means that advertisers can bombard us with as much information as they want through the apps we use, whenever they want. What is most intriguing is that whilst we created a huge privacy scandal out of fake plumbers wiring the office of a political party during the Watergate Scandal, citizens around the world now voluntarily surrender all their personal information and their usage purely in exchange for the pleasure of using these apps. This thus can lead to surveillance capitalism – a new way in which our culture and politics are shaped without us even noticing it – through the use of targeted ads, notifications and other tactics. The real question to ask now is – if everything we see and do on our screens is monitored and manipulated – do we really have the ability to form our own opinions?
The very meaning of culture and communication we are now so accustomed to is based around manipulation. There is a much bigger part at play than just reaching for your phone to see if you have a notification – we’ve only been programmed to do that because tech companies have invested in psychological researchers whose job it is to programme us into doing so. This brings us back to the original question – do we really have any control over what we do, or are we all becoming robots controlled completely by these tech companies for increased profit?
Sean parker, ex-president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster, explains that social media platforms would exploit the vulnerability in human psychology consciously, in order to get more user participation. This links back to the correlation between mental health decreasing with increased social media usage. As the documentary states, suicide rates and self-harm has only been increasing drastically since about 2011/2013 – right about the time social media platforms were on the rise. We end up curating our lives around false senses of perfection for short-term gratification, comparing ourselves to unrealistic standards of beauty and getting confused between likes on a post and real-life connection.
The ongoing spread of fake news is also a dangerous side effect of social media. As highlighted in the documentary, an MIT study shows that fake news on twitter spreads 6 times faster than real fact-checked news. Therefore creating a disinformation for profit model, increasing the money made by tech giants through users spreading and propagating fake news on their platforms. This can, in turn, lead to increased polarisation, and tribalism. With the rapid spread of fake news on social media sites paired with a shared interest in believing misinformation, where is the need to compromise with others who might not share the same opinion as us? This makes it even harder for people to see eye to eye and to talk and discuss potentially hard topics. A perfect example of this is the mass amounts of misinformation being spread about COVID-19 and how we can overcome it, leading to anti-maskers protesting because they would rather believe a fake post on Facebook over scientists with PhDs.
Due to the decreasing personal control we have over what we look at on our screens, it is extremely easy to have our beliefs skewed through social media. It is mass manipulation of public opinion at its core, leaving close to no space for users to self-determine what they genuinely believe. But are these online platforms really all that bad? Certain people advocate that without implementing strong measures like dismantling or even banning them, a second chance at a better future is no longer possible. Fiscally, there is absolutely no incentive for these tech companies to stop what they are doing due to the clear goal keeping them going = profit at all costs. It’s inherent capitalism – putting the interest of the big corporations before the needs of the users being affected by these problems. However, it seems that certain stakeholders remain hopeful, voicing that through the implementation of tighter regulations, it is indeed possible to preserve the positive sides of social media whilst eradicating the negatives.
What we need to remember is that this is not new. Radio, for example, is credited to have supported the raise of Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s, exploiting an economic and social crisis. We also need to be conscious that history tends to repeat itself, and that this is often amplified through the creation of new systems. Whatever your opinion is on social media, if there is one thing we can all take from watching The Social Dilemma it’s that we all need to be more critical and aware of the dangers of these systems, and try our best to do better to break away from toxic habits that come from using them.
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