Saturday 19 September 2020

Streaming on Netflix - Rod Bishop reports on 'the most thought provoking documentary of the year' - THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Jeff Orlowski, USA, 2020)

If you’re wondering how QAnon came about or what is motivating the “Karens” and other loopy conspiracy advocates, this film from Jeff Orlowski throws a great deal of light into these shadows.

In The Great Hack, one of last year’s best documentaries, we saw Facebook accounts mined of personal data and account owners targeted with political advertising and fake news feeds.

They were called “the persuadables” in the UK - those on-the-fence voters who might sway the outcome of the Brexit referendum. 

The Social Dilemmatakes a wider look at the insidious way human behaviour is manipulated by social media platforms. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and now a fervent anti-social media crusader claims:

Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals and it has its own means of pursuing them…” 

Most of us know social media harvests our data and sells our information to advertisers who target us with ads for products we may - or may not - buy.

But the privacy reach is far more cunning than simply seeing advertisements for clothes you buy online. 

More than a dozen of the talking heads in The Social Dilemmaare former executives of big social media outfits and creators of cutting-edge technologies. Google, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Apple and Firefox are represented but the interviewees also name WhatsApp, Snapchat and Pinterest.

All of them are now utterly disillusioned with the social media they helped create and the business models they started with the goal of giving us dopamine hits to our brains. 

How many ‘likes’ did I get? How many followers do I have? Am I an influencer? How many approval emojis did I get? 

The need for social approval answered every five minutes.

These former executives now recognize how their strategies to keep users online - teens and pre-teens in particular – have created a chronic social media search for personal approval, one unrecognizably different from addiction.

Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Vice-President of Growth at Facebook:

“We get rewarded with these short-term signals – hearts, likes, thumbs-up – and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead what it really is…is fake, brittle popularity that’s short-termed and leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty than before you did it.”

Jonathan Haidt from New York University’s Stern School of Business points out that since social media became available on mobile phones in 2009, self-harm requiring hospitalizations among teen girls has risen by 62%, and 182% among pre-teen girls. Suicide figures are just as bad – 70% greater among older teen girls and 151% among pre-teeners.

Palihapitiya is quite upfront about what happened:

We wanted to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it.”

Sean Parker, former President at Facebook expands:

You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. I think we…the inventors, creators…it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom at Instagram, we understood this consciously…and we did it anyway.” 

Then come the algorithms, some of them virtually indistinguishable from artificial intelligence. They sort the data out to predict our future actions.

The dissident former social media executives in The Social Dilemmatalk of “growth hacking” “persuasive technology” “manipulation technology” “email and text addiction”, “weaponising social media” and “digital pacifiers”.

Among these tech-talk words, it’s the innocuous sounding “recommendation engines” that is the most alarming. Although this documentary uses some rather silly dramatic scenes to illustrate this, the point is very clear.

“Recommendation engines” target – let’s say - someone with an interest in conspiracy theories, then load up their social media accounts with links to people with similar conspiracy interests and then take them on to conspiracy organisations who might be politically active on the streets and elsewhere.

As the targeted individuals probably don’t watch television news, read newspapers, listen to talk radio, or pay much attention to politics at school or at work, they are easily drawn into a bubble where all they hear and believe comes from an algorithm feeding their click-bait desires and validating their beliefs. True self-fulfilling prophesies. 

As Tristan Harris observes: “If the product is free, then you’re the product.

Like The Truman Show,in the world created, they have their own truths, but their world is only one of many worlds created by social media manipulation engines. Everyone has their own facts, or in the words of a former White House assistant, they have their “alternative facts”. With no consensus over truth or socially shared truths, the community fabric is fragmented, those in their social-media-enabled bubbles are not talking or listening to those they see as infidels.

One of the former social media executives envisions civil war as a result.

On top of all this freewheeling, unregulated social media world are the “state actors”, with their intellectual property theft, their social media hacking and their creation of fake news. They target vulnerable individuals and institutions to attack and disrupt entire countries and their political systems.

For all their apologies and guilts over what has happened to their out-of-control, unregulated social media platforms, these former execs are a pretty weird bunch.

They look about the same age, they seem to live in interchangeably identical houses and apartments, they are all impressively eloquent and their words could be coming out of the mouths of any one of them. Sort of Silicon Valley exec speak. It’s like looking at, and listening to, apparently identical cultists who have seen the light and escaped. Having created these monsters, these ashamed cultists have left with millions, if not billons, in the bank.

The one exception is Jaron Lanier who is credited as the Founding Father of Virtual Reality. Lanier looks like a Rastafarian elder come down from the mountains above Kingston, Jamaica and certainly doesn’t look or sound like any of the others. Among the future shock warnings from these former social media barons, his is the direst:

If we go down the current status quo for, let’s say, another 20 years, we will probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance. We will probably fail to meet the challenge of climate change. We will probably degrade the world’s democracies, so that they fall into some sort of bizarre autocratic dysfunction. We will probably ruin the global economy. We probably don’t survive.”

Maybe not the best doco I’ve seen this year, but it’s easily the most thought provoking.

Watch the trailer IF YOU CLICK HERE

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