There is a ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t’ coin trick performed by tech ethicist Tristan Harris a few minutes into this Netflix documentary. I think it signifies a lot of how I feel about the information presented by it.
We’ve all been vaguely aware of the dangers of living in an environment controlled by countless algorithms. You text a friend about those cursed spring vacation plans and suddenly travel agency ads on websites have slashed their flight ticket prices by 20% just for you.
You briefly exchange cute cat videos on Instagram with someone you met on a dating platform, and now the platform has pinned their story as the first thing you’d see every morning.
These are things vaguely visible to us. There is no sleight of hand here.
If you were to grill Mark Zuckerberg over all of this, you’d get a PR tested reply somewhere on the lines of — “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies like us, with the advertising model, that work hard to charge you less.”
And that’s fair. The advertising model does help a lot of independent platforms sustain. It also in turn makes a lot of independent businesses thrive. And if a platform makes algorithmic changes based on the interactions you have, well then that’s for the user to have the best possible experience in it.
These are the things we can see.
And then there’s stuff we cannot see. The actual trickery behind the ‘magic of connecting people around the world’- is that big tech, like any other industry, does not care about us.
And a truth presented by the documentary which is hard to digest is that social media companies work every single day to increase consumption of their platform. And like any other industry, they hold no regard to the consequences of it. The algorithm does not care if it leads you to anxiety surrounding your body, or about the amount of time you spent stalking the profile of your partner’s ex.
And the scary part about it was that a lot of it is governed by things beyond our control. There is a system at play here that works day and night to monetise our attention.
And what they’re selling is their ability to manipulate you.
Or as Jaron Lanier puts it: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception. It’s the only thing for them to make money from: changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
But then again, the question remains, doesn’t this fall in line with how most industries function? Isn’t capitalism a machine which is constantly running and is only fuelled by its utter disregard for human life?
And if you were to put a cap on it, would you do the same to the amount of packet of chips being sold in the world because kids have reportedly high obesity rates? And isn’t regulation the same radicalisation as say banning the release of an Anurag Kashyap film because of its abusive nature?
And if Facebook has led to a disproportionate increase in racial biases, isn’t it only amplifying biases already present in the society?
And the answer is- I don’t know. I think a lot of us don’t because a lot of cards aren’t on the table. It’s an unfair fight of humans vs algorithms. And just like the coin trick, what we can see is a tiny tip of the iceberg to what we cannot.
What I can see:
The appeal to delete Facebook and other social media apps because it keeps track of all my information and then monetizes my attention and decreases my productivity.
What I cannot:
Even if you delete your Facebook account, it keeps track of your information via a shadow account. Even if you don’t have the app on your phone or haven’t visited their website, every time you visit any other website that has the Facebook share button, it would leave a cookie on your browser that keeps track of your data and dutifully reports it back to Facebook.
What I can see:
Facebook has led to the spread of misinformation due to its algorithm, thereby rigging elections in Russia, the US and countless other countries. The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was because of Facebook’s inability to spread falsified information in the country relating to marginalised groups.
What I cannot:
The lynchings in India, in Karnataka and Delhi, were due to Whatsapp based groups spreading misinformation, something that isn’t controlled by Facebook’s algorithm. And condemning the platforms for this comes “uncomfortably close to admitting that mobile communications pose fundamental challenges to societies across the world.” There’s a fair case for that, but a case with much more alarming implications.
What I can see:
A timely Netflix documentary during the Pandemic targeting big tech and leading to mass public outrage of already pre-anxious lockdown brains.
What I cannot:
Netflix, too, is big tech. It has relied on the same platforms to incessantly promote its content. It does not care about my outrage or well being. The CEO of Netflix himself in a public statement said that the service’s biggest enemy isn’t outside competition- but human sleep.
The greatest thing I’ve read on the internet relevant to this Netflix documentary was this tweet:
Which is true.
It is sad that social media platforms today are able to exercise enough control over us so as to manipulate our entire being- our daily lives, our political affiliations, the anxieties surrounding our daily lives and political affiliations.
It is also sad that the only place we can lament over it is- turns out- social media.
The internet, for better or for worse, has given us a community. A place of mutual understanding where our deepest, darker sorrows are validated by strangers. It is all the memes we’ve double-tapped; tweets we’ve outraged to; the lyrics of a song we’d found in the backdrop of a TV show that has now stuck with us for life.
And the appeal to delete or regulate a part of it- the core, significant crux which is the social media, seems like nothing but a cry for help. Something you could only wish for someone you deeply care about.
And maybe it is time that the giants in Silicon Valley, that now run platforms the size of countries, start acting like a government in the best interest of its own people.
Quoting Lanier from the documentary again
“It might sound strange, but it’s my world. It’s my community. I don’t hate them. I just wish to reform them so they don’t destroy the world.”
Deletion is easy. Deletion avoids responsibility.
Staying on these platforms and fighting the good fight, that would be the true sign of resistance.