THERE has been much said and written about the impact of social media on modern lives and what this impact might translate into when it comes to life on the planet a decade or so from now. At the one end of the equation is the consumer, while at the other end is the entire technology industry that is trying to shape the future for its own narrow interests.

Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is based on abuse and addiction of social media, and reveals some shocking facts about the technology industry.

Firstly, the business model of these industries is to keep people engaged with the screens. There is a quote in the beginning of the documentary, saying: “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product”. This is what it is.

The technology companies mainly have three goals: engagement, growth and advertising. These goals are powered by algorithms to figure out what to show to the people, the models that predict our actions through systems based on artificial intelligence (AI). They have more information than anybody ever imagined in human history. Basically, our intention is the product to them.

Secondly, addiction to social media is on a rise at an alarming pace. Social media services are becoming a cause of depression and anxiety among the younger generations. The technology companies have trained and conditioned the new generation of people to the extent that when they are uncomfortable, lonely, uncertain or afraid, they depend on the digital pacifiers created for them by the technology companies.

This is actually kind of depriving one’s own self of the ability to deal with such real-life situations with a real-life approach. Right now, real-life situations are often confronted with virtual-life solutions, resulting in an increase in depression and anxiety, especially among people aged up to 15 years. In the United States, nearly 100,000 girls are admitted to hospitals every year due to self-harm. Digital pacifiers are hurting people and are even leading them first to the path of self-destruction and ultimately to the path of their own physical elimination, according to the said documentary.

Thirdly, the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories has accelerated through social media. Fake news on, say, Twitter spreads six times faster than truth, and companies make more money through it than actual news. People believe more on fake news that is basically a threat to democracy because of a crisis of confidence among the people and consequent political polarisation.

Technology industries, according to the documentary, have created the tools to destabilise and erode the fabric of society in every country.

The reports of Russian interference in 2016 US elections and manipulation in results were evidence of abuse of these tools. The Russians did not hack the Facebook; they used the tools that the Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, but they applied these tools with nefarious designs. It is like a remote-control warfare without invading or even attacking the physical borders.

It is an eye-opening documentary that social media users must watch to have some idea of what is happening around them. The technology itself is not causing an existential threat to societies. The problem is that of technology’s ability to bring out the worst in societies, and the intention of the few to make money and gain power by exploiting this potential at the cost of the masses.

It is the responsibility of technology-creators to resolve these problems, otherwise the outcomes will be devastating for societies in the future. There are possibilities of the destruction of civilisation through wilful ignorance, probability of failing to meet the challenge of climate change, of degrading global democracies and ruining the world’s economy. One wonders if there is still a way to get back to the basics, or the die has already been cast.

Iftikhar Ahmed

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2021



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