The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, peels back the shiny surface of social media to reveal what lies beneath. Much like Black Mirror (2011), the horror it presents comes down to the reality of life. By focusing on the “alienating” truth, the documentary is achieving exactly what is set out to do. It’s forcing us to rethink our dependence on immaterial identities.
The documentary shows how the ethical questions it poses led CEOs and engineers responsible for designing social networks to leave their high-status positions. Their sudden change of heart, as they explain, came down to the realization that the world they were responsible for shaping lacked a vital conscience. Without it, we are left dealing with the erosion of a societal system we once dreamed for ourselves.
This bubbling problem within the tech company is permeating our lives, implanting thoughts we never intended to have, and manipulating our beliefs to the point where our identities depend on the whims of algorithms, detached and emotionless by nature. Worse still, they are only getting smarter.
With fake news traveling faster than fact-checked journalism, as the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered, it’s no wonder we are left confused by such conspiracy theories as “Pizzagate”, “The Reptilian Elite”, the faking of the Moon landings, and many more.
But how is it that our minds are so easily manipulated? The reasons seem endless. Social media is known as the prime weapon of cognitive warfare and remote-control warfare thanks to its attention-extraction model, which monitors and feeds on the responses of its users.
Tech companies have gone from selling software, like Microsoft and Apple, to selling users. As the documentary points out, it’s not just about the data. The initial shock came in the form of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. We have become products in a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures, as Shoshana Zuboff points out.
The power of cognitive warfare lies in its subliminal ability to change its victims’ behaviour and perception, mostly by using the fundamentals of psychology to tap into human nature, with its curiosity and primal need to live in communities. By exploiting our vulnerabilities, they have the power to influence everything about us. We are changed. We are manipulated. This is all thanks to a modernized representation of George Orwell’s idea of the dystopian and ferocious Big Brother, forever watching and recording us. Everything that is typed into your search engine is being watched. Every image’s influence on your emotions is being noted.
As Tristan Harris points out, we were not evolved to experience social approval every few minutes. And yet, that is what we have come to expect. Gen-Z is the first generation to have experienced the daunting side of social media in as early as middle school, when the still-forming brain is most susceptible to unquestioned consumption.
The most alarming usage of social media comes down to political gains. In Myanmar, the military used Facebook to incite murderous rage and subsequent genocide. In the United States, the recommendation engine algorithm’s manipulation of the users’ perceived reality has led to increased polarization in society.
The most prominent example of the merging of social media and absolute political power comes in the form of the news released on September 14th 2020, stating that TikTok’s operations were acquired by Oracle, which was founded by Larry Ellison, a strong supporter of president Donald Trump. This information is unveiled in the midst of an ongoing conflict between TikTok and the Trump Administration.
What we need to remember is that we are the ones responsible for shifting our short-term thinking from financial gains to prioritizing our own good. As Tristan Harris observes, “How do you wake up from the Matrix if you don’t know you’re in it?”