At the peak of the health crisis, social networks allowed us to continue working, communicating with our loved ones and having fun – at least a little bit. These technological advances have shaped our current societies and our interactions for a while now. To what extent will they influence tomorrow’s societies?
This is the question posed by The Social Dilemma. Between documentary and fiction, this film now available on Netflix, paints the portrait of our societies under the influence of new technologies. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, experts from all the biggest platforms appear on screen and come to the same conclusions: we are being manipulated by social networks. And we’re letting it happen.
Why ? First, because we are not sufficiently aware of the issues surrounding personal data and the power that these platforms have, and second, because we only see the benefits that these apps and platforms bring us. We no longer need a map to find our way around, an address book to keep in touch, television or newspapers to keep informed. All you need is an internet connection. Of course, these tools simplify our lives, but at what cost?
“If you don’t pay for the product, then you are the product.”
What is the problem with social networks? If the people interviewed in the film struggle to find only one answer, the most cited is the business model of free access subject to the broadcasting of advertising. For Tristan Harris , ex-designer and engineer at Google, the logic is very simple: if you don’t pay for the product, then you are the product. And by you, we are talking about your data, which today constitutes a real market, also called surveillance capitalism. Thanks to the data collected, the algorithms of these applications analyse the consumer’s profile and target the most relevant advertisements accordingly. Collecting a maximum amount of data then makes it possible to draw up an accurate portrait of users and thus ensure the success of their campaigns for advertisers. And the greater the impact of the advertisements, the more the platforms are remunerated. The challenge with personal data is therefore the need to centralise as much data as possible, even if it means treating this sensitive and human data like any other industrial sector, without taking into consideration issues of privacy or individual liberties. In order to continue collecting personal data, the strategy of these platforms is simple: attract our attention for as long as possible and get more and more subscribers in order to increase their profitability.
Social networks, a planned addiction?
Artificial intelligence and algorithms put in place by the giants of the web have turned our focus and attention into marketable data through advertising. These applications have been designed by experts in “captology” or attention economy, geniuses of behavioural change. From the creation of emojis, to the tagging of a person in a photo, to the appearance of suspension points when we are written to, everything has been thought out to keep us on the networks. And it works. We can no longer do without them, turning our screens into a new addiction even as they exploit our vulnerabilities. « clicks », « seen » and « likes » won over our need to belong and to be socially validated, over our fears of boredom and loneliness. We are addicted to our screens because they were created to provoke addictive behaviour.
Silicon Valley experts can also attest to this: even though they know the strategies of the networks, they too have fallen into their trap and forbid access to their children. This is actually one of the stakes of the film, protecting children from the screens. The impact on the generations that have grown up with new technologies is frightening: the appearance of social networks in mobile form would coincide with the increase in the number of depressions and suicides among adolescents and pre-adolescents. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, between 2011 and 2013, there would have been a 189% increase in the number of depressions and a 151% increase in suicide attempts among 10-14 year olds in the United States. By promoting the cult of personality and perfection, social networks have an impact on children’s mental health. And yet, they are not subject to the same advertising regulations as other media.
From the protection of children, through the manipulation of public opinion to the risks for democracy, this alarmist film offers a clear vision of the problem but also of some potential solutions all relying on the idea that the market for personal data should not be considered as any other kind of market and should be more regulated
Even more surprisingly, the polarisation of American political life and the growing gap between Republicans and Democrats from the 2010s onwards would be one of the side effects of the virtual self and increasingly personalised content. News feeds suggest content that reinforces our ideas and shows us what we are most likely to want to hear and see. But artificial intelligence is not yet able to identify verified information, so the suggestions proposed spread false information and hateful content on a massive scale. According to a Facebook report from 2018, 64% of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook did so as a result of suggestions made by the algorithms.
According to Tristan Harris, conspiracy theories are spreading more than ever as they can spread six times faster on the networks than information from news websites. The functioning of social networks then favours the spread of false information and actively participates in the disinformation and manipulation of public opinion. To the point of threatening the stability of our political systems, in particular democracy. These platforms are being used as sources of information, whereas they are merely the relay of commercial interests where sensationalism sells more than the debate of ideas. This issue is particularly important on the eve of the American elections.
From the protection of children, through the manipulation of public opinion to the risks for democracy, this alarmist film offers a clear vision of the problem but also some potential solutions all relying on the idea that personal data should not be considered as any other kind of market. They must be taxed and regulated and digital rights must be considered are human rights, which must be protected like any other individual right and right to privacy. Having established this, it is now time to take action.
“This technology that brings us closer….”
If the mobilisation around the film is the central pivot of the action, the experts present in this documentary, all repentant from Silicon Valley, are at the origin of initiatives in favour of a more ethical technology. Indeed, they believe that « another technology » is possible. More accessible, human-centered, transparent, representative and equitable. A technology that can be trusted. These are the guiding principles of BEACON, a social innovation organisation that fights for more ethical and consumer-friendly networks. Created by Joe Toscano, this structure formulates concrete proposals to regulate the data market. Its action is organised in partnership with other social innovative projects such as the Digital Future Initiative, which offers open access courses to educate young people about digital citizenship and how to build healthy relationships on social networks. Tristan Harris, a leading figure in the documentary, chairs the Center for Humane Technology, whose mission is to put people back at the heart of technology. His more global aim is to raise awareness among the public but also among political decision-makers and to support change within digital companies.
This alarmist documentary – somewhat American-centered – tries to create awareness. In the process, tt also manages to provide solutions, notably through the various educational content offered and the idea that a strong mobilisation would allow the activities of the digital giants to be framed. The main goal here is to restore meaning to these technologies, capable of the best and the worst, and to think of digital rights as a human right.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.