A couple of days ago, I watched the Social Dilemma, on Netflix. It’s being referred to as a ‘docudrama’ (which is a relatively new word for me) and has really gotten people talking about the negative impact of social media on our society.
I didn’t really have any ‘aha’ moments whilst watching the Social Dilemma. The documentary reiterated that our every move is being monitored online, the algorithm keeps giving users more of what they seem to like to maximise engagement, and that the companies require this in order for their business model to be successful (all the big tech companies seems to have one business model – and that is: maximise engagement to sell ads). I already knew all of this.
However, there were a couple of concepts articulated in the Social Dilemma’s that I’d like to touch upon here – and these are – hyper exposure, and the transformation of truth into opinion.
By hyper exposure, I don’t only mean too much exposure to information – which is likely a problem too (and a topic for another post) – I also mean exposure to people. At one point in the documentary, it is put forth that, perhaps we are not yet developed enough to have the mental bandwidth to cope with thousands of likes and shares on our posts OR personal photographs (when else in history have regular folks had hundreds of people look at their pictures and comment on them?). And more importantly, maybe we aren’t ready to cope with the lack of likes and shares, either. The phenomenon of sharing (or oversharing) your life on social media has already tilted society in that how people perceive you somehow is related to your self worth. Now, this is not new – most of us care what people think about us. But thirty years ago, regular people who weren’t celebrities probably cared what their friends and family members and coworkers thought of them. Today, you can become really invested in how your hundreds of followers or contacts react to your latest pic. And for Zoomers, it is proving catastrophic. Maybe, as the documentary highlights, we just aren’t meant to ‘know’ so many people.
The more sinister concept put forward in the documentary is what seems to me to be a slow transformation of truth into opinion. The nature of the algorithm is that it gives you more of what you like, or believe in – so you stay glued to your device. So, whether you’re scrolling through Facebook or searching on Google, what you find is not determined by an objective truth – like the earth is round – but by what will keep you on your device. So, if you spend some time looking up that the earth is flat, you will keep getting more of that. Similarly, it is likely that no two people will get the exact search results for the same search! Essentially, if you believe something that is factually untrue, your social feed is probably not where you will realise that – on the contrary, your feed will indicate to you that there are many people who hold your beliefs as well. Add to the mix that there are people in extreme positions of power that regurgitate the same conspiracy theories that are passed around online, objective truths might just become a thing of the past.
Descending into a world where ‘truth’ becomes opinion is highly problematic. The matter of climate change is not a matter of opinion. The scientific community, i.e the experts in the field, have a consensus on this topic. Social media platforms allow certain outlets and individuals share that climate change is not real, or if it is, it is not caused by human activity. The tech platforms treat these two opposing statements as equal – and that is a big problem – because they are simply not. One is a fact, and based on scientific study (years of it) – and one is based on opinion. Some things cannot be matters of opinion – and the tech companies should have some ethical responsibility to ensure that. Misinformation is not information.
I don’t know what will happen if we continue down this path. But I cannot see how putting digital walls around ourselves and making it impossible for ourselves to conceive of others having different opinions, and thus making it impossible for us to have reasonable discussions, will be good for humanity as a collective. And, regardless of how we lead our lives on social media, we are a collective.