The dark side of social media and why you should be worried

Over-connected, the world has become a rich hunting ground for manipulative messaging. [Standard Graphic]

For many people, the phone is the first thing they wake up to; checking for texts on WhatsApp, notifications on Facebook and endless feeds on Twitter. 

After a few minutes in bed with their phone, many move with the gadget to the bathroom and watch some recommended YouTube videos or skim through WhatsApp statuses without really knowing why.

This back and forth from app to app will be the order of the day and at night before we fall asleep, many will go through Facebook, Instagram and a good chunk of WhatsApp statuses before sliding the phone under the pillow only to wake up to the same routine the following day.

It is this idea that marks the first level of the problem in Netflix’s recent docudrama, The Social Dilemma. The documentary explores the different tiers of how social media has become an internal force that has taken hostage many people who aren't aware they are no longer in control but still think they have power over what they choose.

The documentary pieces together testimonies from Silicon Valley geeks who built social media platforms into what we see today.

 These include founders of Mozilla Labs, Instagram, the Facebook Like, former President of Pinterest, Senior Vice president of engineering on Twitter, inventors of Google Drive and Gmail Chat, actors and professors of social psychology.

It's interesting to see how the creators of technological inventions that have shaped the world to what it is today come and crucify the same brainchildren they exalted many years back.

“There were meaningful systemic changes happening around the world because of these platforms; they were positive. I think we were naïve about the flip side of that coin,” explains Tim Kendall the former president of Pinterest kin the documentary.

The problem

In the simplest way possible, many problems are leading to even greater problems. The first would be the fact that social media apps are not the product but you are!

According to Justin Rosenstein the Co-inventor of Google Drive and Gmail Chat, we are the product and our attention is the product being sold to the advertisers. None of the apps we download for free are free because they are not the product.

Unravelling Social Media: The Netflix documentary.

“If you are not paying for the product then you are the product,” says former Google design ethicist and product philosopher Tristan Harris in the documentary.

To make that more elaborate, the founding father of Virtual Reality Jaron Lanier takes the audience to the next bigger problem.

“It’s the gradual slight imperceptible change in your behaviour and perceptions that is the product. Changing what you think, what you do, who you are,” explains the computer scientist.

What the documentary reveals and what Lanier means is that every video you watch, every word you google, every picture you like, every channel or page you visit is recorded while an algorithm studies you to the point it knows you better than you will ever know yourself. 

With Gigabytes of data on you, the algorithm will be able to predict your behaviour and it’s that information that is sold to advertisers thus trillions of dollars that have made internet companies the beasts in the business.

The Social Dilemma shows the other side of social media; a weird blend of manipulation and persuasion, choice and control which most users (a word used for drug addicts), not customers, are oblivious about.

“This is what every business has always dreamt of. To have a guarantee that if it places an ad, it will be successful. That’s their business; they sell certainty. To be successful in that business, you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative. You need a lot of data,” says Shoshana Zuboff, author of Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Not worried yet?

The danger in all this comes from the fact that social media gives people only one view of the word and that is your view. When different people google the same phrase on their phone or computer, the results or suggestions will be different depending on what location you are in.

This is similar to Facebook where your news feeds are never similar to anyone else’s. This simply means the algorithm gives you information based on what you are interested in; just like someone who tells you what you want to hear and not what you should hear.

A smartphone menu: Some items encourage addiction. [Wambua Sammy, Standard]

If you are a Jubilee or NASA supporter then you will get more feeds about what you support and this gives you an unreal version of the world where you think almost everyone agrees with your worldview. This inaccurate presentation of the world makes people accept the reality of the world with which they are presented. Thus, many of what you believe and continue believing is being shaped by what you consume on social media.

“Over time, you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you because everyone in your newsfeed sounds just like you. Once you are in that state, it turns out you are easily manipulated; the same way you would be manipulated by a magician,” says venture capitalist Roger McNamee.

You may think you are immune to this form of new-age voodoo but It is this manipulation strategy that Cambridge Analytica (CA) used to influence the 2016 US presidential election and Brexit; both of which happened in 2016. 

With about 67 per cent of Kenyans being connected to the internet and approximately 7 million on Facebook, the platform has been an easy playground for a political chessboard and Kenyans as pawns. As reported in an article by CNBC and in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, Kenyans were some of the many oblivious victims of manipulation by Cambridge Analytica during the election process of 2013 and 2017.

In simple terms, Cambridge Analytica collects data of millions of Facebook users and bombards them misinformation and political messages without their consent or awareness that they are being manipulated. This leads to voters making decisions based on fake news and politically reinforcing messaging. You may not know it but the choices you end up making depend on the messages you consume.

According to CNBC, the Cambridge Analytica website describes its work in Kenya in 2013 as “the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa,” which enabled the crafting of a campaign “based on the electorate’s real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).

The documentary also explores the fact that there have been increased cases of depression, anxiety and suicide among teenagers in the United States; a spike that is under a decade-old. 

This phenomenon can as well be duplicated in other countries which have seen a rise in young people overly concerned with what people think about them and the hunger for the empty validation through likes, thumbs up emojis and heart shapes on social media.

When it comes to how social media has transformed the fabric of societies and how people have come to relate to the world and those around them, it is clear that it dresses both as a utopia and a dystopia that is changing who we are and how we would normally think as a species.

For the likes of Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, the Surveillance Capitalist markets that harvest people’s data need to be outlawed because they undermine democracy and freedoms and will lead to inevitable consequences.

By showing the audience the power internet companies and social media wield on people, The Social Dilemma opens the audience’s eyes to the strings that control thought and action and give them the first steps in taking charge of what you consume and how to try and avoid such manipulation.

The film posits a huge challenge to the human race; the idea of being able to think about the bigger picture of influence that technology has on us and for corporations to hang the religion of “profit above all else” that has led us to the brink of a climate and environmental catastrophe that doesn’t seem to push many to action.

It also calls for governments that will be able to pass legislation that will not only protect people from manipulation but also hold the internet companies accountable for influencing how people think.