Home Art & Culture Weekend Watch: The Social Dilemma

Weekend Watch: The Social Dilemma

Is it just me or do y’all find Facebook toxic as well? Ever since the boomers and the political propaganda took over, Facebook hasn’t been the same. Facebook no longer has any aesthetic appeal to it either – it’s literally littered with ads and sub-par content – it’s appearance and interface feel repulsive – you just don’t like Facebook when you look at it anymore. I quit Facebook a few years back and have been on and off it since. The only time I ever log back in is for work or to just get a sense of what the masses are up to. I made the switch to Instagram exclusively because at least there – you see only what you want to see. I mean, wasn’t the internet designed to be a cool place for cool people to hang out – well, whatever happened to that?

But why am I talking about social media? (Just in case it isn’t obvious enough from the title.) This week’s recommendation is a documentary – and no – it’s not boring. If you think documentaries aren’t fun to watch, maybe you haven’t watched the right kind of documentaries yet. Now, if you do bear any prejudices against documentaries, I’d suggest you watch some old-school Vice stuff and then decide if you still feel the same way. Now I do have to admit that Vice has lost its edge lately – all it seems to care about these days is cannabis – but the real content that Vice started out with – the content that earned Vice its notoriety or cult status, is still out there – free and accessible on YouTube! Watch some of Vice’s OG documentaries from North Korea or the Middle-East to just get a taste of how cool documentaries can be – thank me later. But, anyway, we’re talking about The Social Dilemma today. You know, I’ve been so invested in this subject that it’s going to be really difficult for me to talk about it without giving too much away – still, let’s try. This is my third attempt – I’ve already discarded two drafts before this.

This documentary is more interview-ish. Director Jeff Orlowski invites a bunch of ex-employees from giants like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Google etc. who previously held key positions there and played a role in how social media has panned out today. They all talk about how such platforms collect your data in order to predict your choices. But, conveniently enough, no one from Netflix is part of the conversation (wink wink) – Netflix cleverly dodges this even though it does the exact same thing. The entire recommendation algorithm requires the AI to track user activity and collect user data to predict user behaviour so they can tell what you’d like next. However, for Netflix, there’s a redeeming difference.

The difference is that Netflix is behind a pay-wall. But you don’t pay to use Facebook or Instagram, do you? Yet, Facebook earns a shit-load of money – way more than Netflix for sure. So, where does all this money come from? It’s obviously not raining from the heavens. The answer is data. Data is the oil of the 21st century. There’s this classic saying – if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. That is exactly the case with social media platforms. They allow you on their platform for free and then they do everything possible to keep you there – so they can show you ads. The user is the product – the advertisers are the customers – that’s the entire business model for social media. The idea is not purely to facilitate communication, but to coerce engagement. There’s this part in the documentary where an interviewee Jeff Seibert talks about tagging. He says the platform could’ve just showed you the photo you’ve been tagged in, in the notification itself. But it doesn’t. Why? Because it wants you to log in – because once you’re in, you’re gonna be there for a while – and it wants you to be on the platform as long as possible – because the longer you’re there, the more ads you see. What you’re missing out on in life by doing so – that social media platforms don’t care about. Let’s say, had Facebook been a paid service – it’s UI/UX would’ve been tailor-cut to suit us. But why go for a paid model when the unpaid one is so profitable? Netflix has no such obligation because the user pays for it directly and so it doesn’t need advertisers.

Personally, I’ve tried to shift to as many paid platforms as I could. I pay for my news, music, entertainment and even certain utility apps. You see, quality comes at a cost – no good product ever comes for free. In fact. TV News and other channels also have the same business model as Facebook – subsidize the viewer and earn from the advertiser. The modus operandi is to engage, not enlighten. As long as you’re hooked, they’re in profit. Here’s a popular quote – “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’ – illegal drugs and software.

The documentary focuses primarily on how social media affects our personal and political lives. Let’s start with the personal aspect. People no longer talk to each other. Even in families, everyone starting from the parent to the child is on their phone all the time. But how does this virtual world of social media affect our perception of ourselves, our self-worth and our self-esteem? And what about children? For those of us who grew up without the internet, we still know the difference the real and the virtual? But what about children who were born and raised in the age of the internet itself? Will they be able to tell the difference? Also, what about accountability? Can anyone say anything on social media and get away with it? Not everyone has a thick skin and people do affected by mere words also. Trolling, smear campaigns – it’s a literal purge out there – fuelled by mindless and chaotic outrage. And no, let’s not pretend to be so naïve – social media cannot filter hate speech or misinformation – daily uploads on such platforms figure in millions – so it’s not humanly possible for them to sort through all of that for regulation – and irrespective of what anyone tells you, AI still cannot form nuanced moral judgment.

The documentary also discusses how social media has influenced politics – democracies are jeopardized. Democratic societies are viciously polarized today. People can’t see eye to eye. You look around and you see the rise of populists all around. You see democracies become more and more majoritarian. You see people confining themselves within echo chambers. The majority and the minority, be it religious or ideological, are at each other’s throats – and there’s no common ground at all. Liberalism is being stifled by Populism. But you don’t see this sorta fissure in societies which do not have a free internet – Iran, Russia, China etc. This polarisation is only happening in liberal democracies. So, has democracy been hacked? That’s the question. Facebook & WhatsApp are already hotbeds of propaganda and Instagram is also turning into one. What is the future of democracies then if healthy progressive societies crumble like this and social cohesion falls apart? Let me pose a question for the emotional fragile, do you see your insecurities and fears being reinforced on social media? Do you see yourself being led down a rabbit hole of propaganda and conspiracy theories? Do you trust or even listen to people in your political opposition on social media? If you don’t do any of these, where on earth is the communication? The purpose of communication is to bridge intellectual gaps and to collaborate and cooperate, right? But when people don’t trust each other anymore and refuse to come together, doesn’t the nation fall apart? One interviewee even fears that a civil war could be a short term possibility – scary, right? To realise how serious this is, just look at every liberal democracy – India, USA, UK, in fact, most of Europe – all of them are falling apart. In fact, watch The Great Hack and Brexit – can’t recommend these enough if you want to realise the gravity of what I’m talking about.

So, why should you watch The Social Dilemma? Watch it to realise that you’re possibly being manipulated – to see how easy it is to fall for propaganda – to judge if you’re being led down a rabbit-hole of unverified information that suits your confirmation bias – how you’ve probably been reduced to mere pawns who can be mobilized at will. Think about it, if an AI has been collecting data about your behaviour for years now, do you really think it’s so difficult for it to predict your future behaviour? The momentary threat from AI is nowhere close to what we’ve been watching in the Terminator movies. AI still can’t think, but people can – especially people with political ambitions and enough money. Why use guns when you can just use an AI to turn people against each other or even to just shift the political discourse in your favour with such pace and precision? So, if you want to wake up to the reality of how much control social media has on our minds and our lives – watch The Social Dilemma – now streaming on Netflix.

(You can follow the columnist on Instagram @digvijay_g)

About: If you’re looking for a review, this isn’t it. I do not believe in the entire act of reviewing cinema – I mean, is that even possible? Cinema can be analysed or even critiqued but not rated on a numerical scale. I mean, how do you quantify a feeling? Look, there’s two types of cinema – one where a shit-ton of effort is visibly put into audio-visual story-telling – and the other that’s just outright lazy. Now, I have no interest in watching or even talking about cinema that’s made with a petty retailer mind-set that blatantly disrespects the audience’s intellectual capabilities. But even beyond that, cinema that’s actually good can leave audiences divided. What might bore one to death could actually have profound meaning for another. Cinema is subjective, and many a times, can cater to niche factions within the larger audience. So, how do you tell which one suits your taste? Well, this is where this weekly column of mine comes in. My role here is basically to tell you what exactly is fit for watching for the week – especially on streaming and what to expect from it. Oh, by the way, the movies or shows I recommend won’t necessarily be latest releases.