Thursday, February 29 2024

With a very pressing, very American style of storytelling, the documentary The Social Dilemma gets straight to the crux of the issue it is
aims to address. Tristan Harris opens with a very poignant phrase: “If the
service is free, you are the product.” Professor Shoshana Zuboff (author of
the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) urges: “Internet
companies are the richest in history.” Why? Because every company wants to
have the guarantee that its advertisements are targeting successfully and
the internet makes those paying for such advertisements certain of this.
But in order to obtain it, it is necessary to make good forecasts which
requires collecting a lot of data: “It is a new market that sells futures on the human being.” So everything we do online (chatting,
posting photos, “liking,” navigating with Google Maps, joining an opinion
group, …) is observed, recorded, and evaluated. Thanks to a thorough use
of Artificial Intelligence, predictive models are built for each individual
or group of individuals (this is the task performed by Google Feed and
Facebook Feed, loaded on all Android and Apple devices). The proposals to
add new friends and new groups, are made in line with the profile with
which we have been labeled. This is all aimed at increasing our
involvement, to grow homogeneous groups of internet users, and at this
point, place an advertisement consistent with our interests. “They have
learned to influence behavior and emotions”: says the Harvard professor.

All this is already conventional wisdom among media experts, but what is
the impact on individuals and societies? There are many: we tend to group
ourselves into tribes of homogeneous thought without considering those who
think differently. This can create – especially in young people – anxiety,
causing them to believe they are only worth as much as they get more
“likes” on photos, or comments on their social media posts. This kind of
anxiety for social participation has in fact opened the door to change
behavior. There is a tendency to exchange not meditated thoughts but
immediate feelings, gossip, or uncontrolled suspicions or conspiracy
theories. More and more fake news is spread on the internet, which is then
shared directly with each individual’s followers. The documentary recalls
the cases of Kyrie Irving, a basketball champion who confessed to joining
those who believe the earth is flat and Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that
went viral during the 2016 US presidential election. In the latter case,
the rumor was that senior U.S. Democratic Party officials and several U.S.
restaurants were involved in alleged human trafficking and child abuse,
causing a pothead to fire a shotgun into a restaurant.

Facebook itself admitted to having played a role in the hate and racist
campaigns that broke out in Myanmar, where violence was born as a result of
false news published through its social network. In general, in all Western
and non-Western countries, the use of social networks during the elections
ended up enhancing the most visceral debates, instead of promoting a
reasonable confrontation.

Tristan Harris makes a very acute observation in the documentary:
“Technology itself is not the danger, but rather technology’s ability to
bring out the worst of us.” Our only salvation is to seek the truth and
share it. “If we do not agree on what the truth is or if the truth exists,
we are doomed. And this is the problem of problems.” This docu-fiction has
the undisputable ability, as The Great Hack did on the Cambridge
Analytics scandal, to stir up doubts and criticism, even if it all too
often draws quick conclusions and leaves a catastrophic impression in the
viewer’s mind. There is no doubt that a problem exists, but it can only be
solved with the establishment of international supervisory bodies and with
an education aimed at stimulating discernment in the use of social
networks.

Facebook, the major platform that comes under fire in this documentary,
recognizes that it has an ads supportive policy in order
to be able to offer its services for free and has denied the docu-fiction’s
allegation, claiming that its Facebook Feed does not create an addiction.
Rather, it asserts that it is designed to be a useful tool for the user to
choose what they view. “We removed, in the second quarter of 2020, over 22
million hateful phrases.”

As the producer Dario Nuzzo justly points out, “The Social Dilemma
is a beautiful product, a practical and literal representation of
everything it says, because it is able to hold the viewer’s attention for
90 whole minutes. The key, to me, is understanding the ability of social
networks have to capture their users like a magician does with his
audience. Although highlighted only in some points of the narration, magic
is actually a correct parallel with the dynamics that creep into the use of
the web… it is always the magician who chooses where to take his game by
deciding which alternatives to present for a choice that the spectator
believes he is making on his own.”

Note: we wish to thank the website Familycinematv.it for the kind
permission to share this article. The link to the original article is here.

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