The social dilemma

The social dilemma

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."

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