Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’: How Today’s Social Media Is A 50/50 Gamble On Impending Disaster

Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’: How Today’s Social Media Is A 50/50 Gamble On Impending Disaster
Shreya Takodara for Homegrown

The year is 2020 and supposedly, the world is closer than ever. ‘Global Village’, we call it. Our views and opinions reach the other side of the world quicker than it lands at the feet of those it concerns. Our knowledge in cultures from afar is far more pronounced compared to what it was about two decades ago. We are what we share online, and we share what we are. So, it is nearly impossible for the world to not be closer than ever, isn’t it?

In the early 2000s, the world was in for a revolution like no other. The introduction of social media into our lives seemed to bring in a whole new vocabulary — interconnected, accessible, free, powerful and the like. Admittedly, social media does hold such qualities and does a fabulous job of not just maintaining those attributes, but also of proliferating them over the years. Finding an old friend on Facebook, starting a small business on Instagram and having meaningful discussions on Twitter was what it was all about. Today, it is far more than that.

Netflix’s latest original documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski puts forth perspectives we, as a society are already well-aware of. We knew that social media is in the process of, if not already, consuming our lives. We possess the knowledge that social media’s definition is not solely limited to ‘websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking’ as Google would suggest. A dark side of this network exists and yet, we choose to walk into it. The documentary attempts to explain how.

We assume that the human brain has evolved alongside technology, and while that may be partially true, we are not nearly at the same level. There is a prominent saying that has been around for years now, and makes an appearance in the documentary too: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product”. We could lay out all arguments about how big tech companies are fighting for our data when in reality, it is our attention. Our attention and its varying durations are sold, just like products, to advertisers that aim to bring about slight, gradual and imperceptible changes till we perform the task they want us to. Arguably, what is the big deal? A user may make a purchase or two, try out a new shampoo or take a trip to Bali as recommended. Where is the harm?

It is at this point that we must understand that advanced social media technology and manipulation are now tied together. In the documentary, this technology is referred to as ‘persuasive technology’ wherein every action one performs is not random, but carefully calculated and manipulated to inspire better prediction and enforce decisions that only seem voluntary.

Facebook has been under scrutiny for a while now, regarding its hate-speech moderation and propagation of certain political values. The debate spilt over to India when similar activities came to the fore regarding the platform’s not-so-clean intentions with the country’s electoral democracy. Its tryst with the government in power and attempts to further their political beliefs, unfiltered and unabashedly, are alarming at the least. With no independent body to regulate or simply check on what content, whether true or false, makes its rounds on Facebook, it is difficult to halt the easy polarisation of the masses to a far-right narrative.

To an extent, such platforms have democratised the nature of content but we are now in a sphere where the fall of democracies is not just possible, it is probable.

Even apart from Centre-level politics, India has recently seen a growing disdain over cases such as that of Sushant Singh Rajput’s unfortunate death and its follow-up events, the initiation of the building of Ram Mandir and the like. The logic of social media here is that once you give in, you are bound to find more and more information which could very much be false. Opinions based on fake news should not be valid opinions, but those lines are past blurred for us now, considering fake news has the capacity to spread six times faster than genuine news. To put it across pop-culturally — imagine social media to be Black Panther’s suit. With an increase in interaction with it from the outside, it is capable of lashing back with worsening blows. The salient difference here is that Black Panther would knock you out in seconds, but social media would sneakily bring about defeat by tweaking your psychology bit by bit.

Discussed elaborately in The Social Dilemma is the question — what is the problem here? Considering the entire world is based on a model to be more financially profitable, it is safe to say that the biggest deterrence to fair use of social media is its overall business model. If people don’t give in to their rabbit holes, the advertisers are left with no money to offer. The ‘religion of profit’, as the documentary refers to it is hugely damaging to society. To monetise a business is the most natural course of action, but you know something is wrong when it begins to sway political activities wrongfully, deafen worries about real threats such as climate change and prey on insecurities of humans, all for monetary benefit.

This is not the kind of problem where pulling the plug on it will solve it. In fact, that would do more harm than good. It is the kind of problem that is desperate for reform and reasonable action. A form of accountability similar to those of media houses coupled with repercussions not far from those that flout acceptable ethical and moral codes is absent in the world of social media. Maybe we should begin there — by holding the defaulters accountable for their actions.

Algorithms and codes were never our friends. They were always designed to get us to perform an action, perhaps in the favour of a third person who might be benefiting from those in unfathomable ways. In no way, must we deny all the good that social media introduced us to, but it is high time we acknowledge its dark side and transform our social dilemma into a decision.

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