The social media dilemma

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One show that has been trending on Netflix in recent weeks and is worth a look is the documentary “The Social Dilemma” by Jeff Orlowski. The 1.5 hour documentary attempts to discuss the frightening impact of social media and its algorithms on our world, illustrating the damage being done to our society by social media giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The documentary which includes interviews with key former employees of the tech giants, industry critics and academics, amplifies the largely ignored alarm bells that have been ringing for years as far as social media is concerned. Anyone who watches the film would be terrified and consider logging out of social media for at least a couple of hours.

To be fair to social media, it did start out with relatively innocent intentions. It was supposed to forge better connections among humans and if you come to think of it, our quarantine experience would probably be vastly different if it hadn’t been for the social media apps that have allowed us to stay connected to everyone, from close family members to random strangers selling cupcakes or potted plants while being stuck at home for what has felt like forever.

Of course, as with all things, money ruined it all. Once it was discovered that successful social media platforms can generate massive profits from targeted advertising, there was no going back especially after the algorithms and AI bots were unleashed upon the unsuspecting and busily scrolling human race.

One often-used quote that popped up in the documentary went something like “If you are not paying, then you are the product.” This is something we should’ve realized from the beginning but the combination of a “free” service that provides unlimited tsismis was too irresistible for many of us so we skipped ahead to the bottom and agreed with the terms of use and willingly became the product because we thought it was all harmless fun anyway.

It was all harmless fun when the advertisers were selling sneakers and toothpaste. The data the social media apps collected on what we liked, what we read, what we stopped to view, and probably even where we were and who we were with allowed advertisers to get a better hit ratio than any other advertising media out there. The successes in customized ad targeting allowed social media companies and their advertisers to enjoy and grow the business while we had our good, clean fun. It was win-win for everyone.

The trouble started when advertisers with more nefarious products started exploiting the widest-reaching market in human history and its unprecedented targeting technology. Instead of sneakers, they started selling ideologies and personalities. Instead of convincing people to switch toothpastes, the new breed of advertisers were using the marketing tools to back authoritarian regimes or justify and normalize crimes against humanity. It didn’t take long before elections were being manipulated and democracies undermined through interference operations run exclusively on social media.

What makes social media effective as a tool for misinformation and sowing division is it does not have any concept of truth and lie, of right and wrong. It can measure clicks, views, viewing times, scrolling speeds and cross reference with voluntarily provided or AI deduced background information such as interests, geographical location, educational attainment, or political leanings.

The advertising or engagement AI is designed and programmed to deliver content that engages the user, meaning keeps eyes on the screen for as long as possible. It does not care if the ad or video delivers is factual, truthful, or morally right. All it matters is holding as much of the user’s attention as it can and delivering the ads when multiplied by the awesome number of users, ultimately generate billions in income.

The money-making AI may be able to predict what will be interesting for any particular user it has gathered enough data on, but it is helpless against propaganda because its nature is to push advertising, not control its flow. If any shoe company can claim to make the best sneaker for any season or occasion, so can the advocates of political personalities or ideologies and even wild conspiracy theories claim to be on the right side of their version of the truth and history. The AI will deliver content for as long as the user is engaged, not caring if it is serving up rubbish, especially when the user’s tendencies indicate that they prefer trash over truths. And based on what most people of the world is lapping up and believing these days, majority of us gravitate toward crap content.

The people and groups who have figured out how to game this system have succeeded not just in selling sneakers or toothpaste, but in dividing nations, shaping public opinion, and nudging the outcomes of elections. All because social media and its business model provided the tools that made it possible.

With most democratically elected governments in place because of this exploit, there is little chance that governments will be regulating social media to make them less “effective” in the near future. It is therefore up to us to regulate our use of social media and the information we consume. The necessity of being more conscientious and circumspect when it comes to the content that is “recommended” for us by the AIs will make social media less fun and more of a chore but if our society is going to survive this onslaught, it is something we need to start working on as soon as possible.*


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October 2020