For some time now, we’ve been living in a binary world – the real-world and the world of the internet. Today, one can google an address, a question, a person – anything really – and they have the answer in a matter of seconds; and with the help of social media platforms, one can associate with and reach out to anyone in the world at any point in time.
It all seemed hunky-dory until experts and civil society members started questioning the dark side of technology and social media usage.
Among Netflix’s newest releases is the documentary film‘The Social Dilemma’, which has opened our eyes to the truth of the manipulative and controlling strategies of tech juggernauts like Facebook and Google, who ‘spy’ on individuals and manipulate their behaviour for profit-making purposes.
‘If You’re Not Paying For The Product, Then YOU Are The Product’
The former staff of tech giants featured in the movie highlight the fact that “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product” – particularly with regard to social media platforms. A wide range of surveillance tools and means are being used to target the right audience, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is creating a ‘better’, and more personalised ‘experience’ for users with the help of algorithms fed to them, that try to keep users glued to their screens all the time.
‘Did someone just comment on my photograph?’ ‘I got a notification!’ ‘Hey, a friend just invited me to like a new page’ – these are all ‘attention extraction’ hoots to make people continue checking their devices over and over again – like somebody who’s after a jackpot at a casino.
Not just that, but AI is also capable of advancing those algorithms on their own, which may or may not be understood by the staff who created the whole model in the first place – how scary is that?
How Online Apps Feed Your Insecurities & Thrive On Them
A former president of an American image-sharing and social media service called Pinterest, Tim Kendall, conceded in the film that years ago he couldn’t make himself get off his phone even when he came home, notwithstanding having two little children to care for. “I am going to work during the day and building something that then I'm falling prey to,” he says in the film. “I couldn't help myself.”
Therefore, this nerve-racking truth about a world that everyone knows about but doesn’t have the foggiest idea about – that is, the amount it controls them – is an issue that’s perhaps comparable to the climate emergency.
No matter where you go, nearly everyone is glued to their phone screens. The ones who are engaged in actual human, face-to-face conversation are conspicuous. Several studies show that young adults who spend more time on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms, have a considerably (13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spend less time on the internet.
These online applications feed one’s feelings of inadequacy, isolation, body-image issues, dissatisfaction – that adversely impacts one’s mindset and worsens pre-existing melancholy, anxiety, and stress that can also sometimes escalate into suicidal thoughts.
The ‘filter’ option on apps like Instagram and Snapchat, among others, has had a bad effect on humans in general, as people have started liking themselves better with a filter, and can’t seem to look at themselves without it. How frequently do you see someone posting a selfie without a filter these days?
If You Think Surveillance Is Limited To Just ‘Targeted Ads’ – You’re Wrong. It’s Worse
The amount of manipulation that we face on a daily basis is normalised in our society to a point where no one sees its destructive impact until it's past the point of no return. While a large proportion of people know that they're being surveilled for information when using these websites, only a few acknowledge how profound the larger impact is. In the event that you think the endgame is only getting targeted ads for a favourite dress you’ve been eyeing on the internet, you are in for a shock.
A former Google and Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein pointed out in the documentary film that the ‘like’ button was intended to be an instrument for spreading “positivity and love,” and not the GPS beacon it has become.
Getting more likes (particularly for young people) gives them a high, makes them enter a utopic world, while getting fewer likes than others pushes them into gloom and doom.
I personally think that in light of everything that has already happened, the time has come for individuals to collectively take this issue seriously and demand transparency from tech giants – and insist upon them changing their algorithm and surveillance methods in a way that actually helps humans and cares for their mental health.
(Peony Hirwani is a freelance journalist specialising in culture and lifestyle features. She has written for platforms like Vogue Arabia, Vogue Man Arabia, The Voice of London UK, Metro, and GRAZIA India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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