Social media is a powerful tool. Emails, texts, tweets, snaps, stories, you name it, we have them all. They give us a sense of connection to our friends, family, and overall environment. However, have we felt how they have slowly changed our behaviour?

Take a moment to think: How many minutes can we actually be online without even realizing? Call it procrastination if you want, but isn’t it the application’s goal to keep people hooked on their product? In fact, what are we actually consuming? Are all the products we use and see actually free? If not, what am I consuming and who is paying for it?

These are some of the questions the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma tries to answer. From one of the co-creators of Google Drive to the ex-president of Pinterest, we get to see an overwhelming number of former employees of the big tech companies, who worry about the real effect of social media in people’s lives and highlight some concerning unethical issues they have seen. They explain how their work is been used today and want us to realize the real amount of power the tech industry has, not only to our lives, but to worldwide decisions.

But what really is the problem?

Device addiction, fake news, cyberattacks, polarization, and mental health issues, just to name a few. There is no way to pinpoint one single problem within the tech industry, and for the same reason there is no one guilty individual. The amount of information and exposure out there is so vast, that it is hard to distinguish between what is right, wrong, or even what is real and what isn’t. Thus, information has become uninformative for people.

Is the tech industry aware of this? Most probably yes. But this is all part of their intelligence systems to get users hooked on their product. The famous algorithm (that we might have heard of before) is able to read users completely. It slowly gains information and power over what we like and see on social media, plus is able to continue the display of similar content, to makes us think our surroundings see it too. Maybe an example would be helpful: Imagine you like cute puppy dogs, you google them, follow accounts that show videos and pictures of them, even join online groups that meet with other people who like them as well and other activities as so. The algorithm will learn that you prefer this type of content, and it will continue suggesting other pages with a similar tone, like cute kittens or baby otters. Eventually, you will have most of your social media surrounded by cute baby animals, making you think that your surroundings also like them.

Now, what is harmful about baby animals? Nothing, but the problem lies when these become more crucial topics like climate change, racial disputes, gun control, vaccines, Covid-19, political ideologies and more. In consequence, polarization emerges by creating this gap between “two sides” who are in complete disagreement with each other. In worst case scenarios, it leads to conspiracy theories, just because we cannot see how social media is showing us one side. This way, the whole system of the tech industry becomes unpredictable (and sometimes uncontrollable), leading to real-life consequences in occasions.

Now, SPOILER ALERT! I want to highlight the main reasons tech companies have become what they are now.

First, they know everything about everyone.

You read that correctly: everything and everyone. They know when you are happy or sad, what type of personality you have, how many seconds you spend watching a specific picture or video, whether you scroll too quickly on an ad, and so much more. Tech companies do this to build the aforementioned algorithm about you and replicate the process millions of times for their other users. This industry has huge amounts of data from everyone around the world, which is something completely unprecedented.

Of course, this is not really ground-breaking for us, because we kind of knew about this. But what we do not know is this situation is allowing tech companies to read and predict actions of their “community”, thanks to their very extensive and complicated models (which are very well displayed in the documentary by the way), whilst creating this data base that can be “sold” afterwards to the best bidder; making us the tradeable and highly lucrative product.

Second, we are the product.

How can a person be a product? Well, tech companies do not sell anything to you; they sell you (and all data access of their users) to other companies. Our attention is the product being sold to the highest bidder. Most social media apps compete for it in order to get more financial profits from and to their partners. Thus, places like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and so on, measure the amount of time and attention you spend on their platform, see how you react to a few ads, showing us more content that we might be keen to, learn from it to give you more or less, and voilà – a lot of money was made just in a few seconds. And no, we (the users) are not getting any of it. Probably is not the tech industry’s intention to “sell” us, but in crude words, it is what they do.

Finally, they sell certainty on human’s futures.

There is this concept called surveillance capitalism, where tech companies keep track of everyone everywhere with the help of their algorithms, pile up the data and sell it, as I explained before. But, in the meantime, the tech industry has created this new market where they are trading human’s futures (and by that, I mean future actions and behaviours) to any business that is able to pay.

For example, imagine you are ABC company and you tell Snaptweet: “I will give you 10$ million if you get 1% of your population to start watching/buying/using my product/service by the end of the year”. Overtime, Snaptweet will gradually and consistently influence the users that are more qualified for ABC’s market, and eventually change their behaviours. Thus, the tech industry sells the certainty that they will successfully shift their human users’ behaviour and actions to one that is more suitable for ABC company’s goals. Thus, it is them who are making decisions for us, without our knowledge and, even less, consent.

Why is this important?

We can confidently see that there are ethical issues being mishandled in this market, to which there must be someone checking and taking care of it. In fact, if you have been aware of the news in the last couple of years, we have seen tech industry’s CEOs go under the radar due to issues in their privacy policies and security breaches. (We all remember Mark Zuckerberg’s speech in front of the U.S. Congress at the end of 2019 and how his face became a meme on trying to explain the internet to an older generation of politicians.)

Nevertheless, there are two reasons why this is crucial to understand.

First, we need to be aware and learn to differentiate between our preferences and when we are being manipulated to prefer some content.

Everything you see online is there for a reason. It has been built and design specifically for you and to get your attention. We understand this already, right? However, we need to be careful of the persuasion mechanism we are in. If we think something is supposed to be truth, we need to question it all the time. If not, we might just be seeing what the algorithm wants us to see, and how can it know what is true or false? It can’t, because the computers behind it are just calculating what they think is the best content for us.

Second, we need to protect the younger generation, because they are the ones at stake.

When we reach adulthood, we get to a point where we can understand the market we live in and even make excuses for it, such as: “This is the world evolving today, and we will adapt to it eventually”. Yet, how do you explain this market, or the whole tech industry logic, to a teenager? Specially one that believes everything they see online? A whole generation is growing up with this type of technology and social media manipulation, and many times thinking that the amounts of views, likes, shares, retweets signals their own personal value.

There is this quote from Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of Growth at Facebook, in the documentary:

“We curate our life around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get short-term rewards in likes, hearts, etc. We confuse these with value and truth, when it actually is fake popularity that leaves us more empty than before even posting anything.”

So, let’s admit it. How many times has anyone got that rush of dopamine when they see their followers or likes go up? It is highly addictive, because once the effect is gone, we need to find a new way to get it back, to feel valuated and “loved”. Therefore, social media has completely become a drug for us. Now imagine this same scenario for millions of teenagers around the world, who make the same manipulated introspection exercise in their still-developing brains. This situation leads them to think they need the validation of strangers, through likes, followers, shares, etc. just to get some value in their lives. So, is this what success looks like to them? Maybe, but it gives teenagers this unnecessary extra life pressure on how they should look, dress, behave and seek attention just to be included; instead of letting them be their own selves and grow up as a normal kid should.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

Am I supposed to close all my social media accounts and never log in to anything ever? No, because whether we want it or not, we need social media, there is always something good in all the bad. But there are a few things we can try to glitch the system.

  • Log out from time to time. Especially, from those apps whose goal is just to distract you, because they are not helpful at all. The more you are offline, the more the algorithm loses power over you, the more the tech company loses profits out of you.
  • Avoid the “open this and lose time” notifications or delete notifications completely. When you do not check your device for a certain amount of time, you will find a bunch of empty little announcements or recommendations that the systems throws at you. This is just a mechanism to get your attention, so try and ignore it; or better yet disable them. All apps ask you for permission to send you push notifications, get rid of them.
  • On terms of privacy, do not overshare. Everything you upload, send, like, follow, will stay in the system’s memory and build a better algorithm of you; thus, try and reduce this content. This way you can also show your little cousins, siblings, overall the younger generation; that there is more to life than just being hooked to a device.
  • Finally, always question the “truth”. Do your own research, follow and listen to different points of view from yours, make your own opinion by not falling into the trend; because like it or not, what you “see” might not be the reality at all.

For more information about this topic, watch the documentary or find them on www.thesocialdilemma.com, where you can find a lot of information on the issues social media has already caused and start the conversation. The more we talk about this, the more we can actually begin to make a change.

Mariela Chacaltana Bonifaz
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