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Social Dilemma: A Review

Adithi Mohan

23rd September 2020

A still from the documentary, Directed by Jeff Orlowski (Source: Neflix.in)

A Jeff Orlowski documentary, The Social Dilemma brings to light the threat that various social media platforms pose in the twenty-first century. This documentary-drama highlights the unspoken activities that take place behind the screens of every individual.

The Social Dilemma is a two-pronged documentary. The first brings to focus a group of former executives, engineers, and founders of social media giants who talk about the intricate use of science and psychology behind a screen and the harm inflicted on the human mind. The second prong takes a fictional approach and follows the detrimental effect of social media on a family of four.

The documentary highlights how in reality, various platforms that are primarily mere sources of entertainment are, tools used for manipulation and deceit of its millions of users. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google speaks on how every single social media platform is competing for the user’s attention, in simple — yet powerful — language. 

Jaron Lanier — considered one of the founders of virtual reality – says in the documentary, “It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product”. A shocking revelation made at this point — the users of these applications and software are the products being sold to advertising companies.

The documentary claims that the fuel for these corporate giants, for retaining undivided consumer engagement, is manipulating the psychology behind what persuades people, and building it into technology. Harris points out that applications like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, for ensuring the maximum amount of consumer engagement, exploit the consumer’s psychology to achieve their needs and goals.

The documentary is an eye-opener on mass miscommunication, the epidemic of the spread of fake news, and the complete lack of privacy of users. This can be viewed from the lens of the current scenario. Lack of privacy is one of the main issues that can be seen in today’s age. Shoshanna Zuboff, a Harvard Professor Emeritus and the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, points out that for businesses to be successful, the key factor is having accurate predictions and a large amount of data on the consumers. 

This is the period of surveillance capitalism — capitalism where corporates profit from tracking and monitoring every click, every website visit, every like and comment, and every post. When there is such extensive shadowing of consumer activity that takes place, it leads to a compromise in the private and personal data. 

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than verified news. Even during the current pandemic, numerous conspiracy theories stating the virus does not exist or the virus was created at a lab in China, are spreading fast and wide through many social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

The documentary calls attention to other dangerous and harmful activities that take place due to the functioning of persuasive technology. The effect of the ’like’ and ‘comment’ buttons have increased the number of non-fatal injuries among high schoolers and teenagers. Harris states that technology has exceeded and overwhelmed human emotions which are the root cause of addiction, polarization, and radicalization which have become familiar concepts in this century. For instance, the extreme polarization between the Democrats and Republicans and radical conspiracy theory groups on these platforms have manifested as a result of the manipulation caused by the ‘attention extraction’ technology.

The documentary is a must-watch for every social media user as it makes one aware of the consequences and damage caused by the algorithms, codes, and programming behind various platforms. It begs for a change in the market where ‘human features’ are exploited, manipulated, and traded.

Sources: Netflix

Edited by Mridula Kumar

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