I am not a big fan of horror films, but the few that I have watched – including masterpieces by Hitchcock as well as overly contrived kitsch films – have left me with a distinct feeling of cognitive dissonance. A strange mixture of being unnerved yet engrossed. Terrorised yet tempted. Perhaps it stems from a peculiar form of schadenfreude, where I can relate with a disturbing experience, even relish it, knowing I do not actually have to face the consequences.
But what happens when the horror on screen is not part of some fictitious plot but the result of reality unraveling itself, bit by frightening bit? For my part, I happened to be speechless, shocked and scandalised in equal measure. The horror film I had watched is Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, a docudrama directed by iconoclastic filmmaker Jeff Orlowski.
This is not a film that shows sci-fi zombies hunting down unsuspecting humans or instills fear by exposing the tyranny of time-warped relationships, à la Dark. This is a film about us, about the close to four billion people that function as lab rats for social media platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram, among a select list of guilty others. It is about how the emperors of Silicon Valley control our virtual lives, turning human beings into products by aligning surveillance capitalism with artificial intelligence.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much been dictated by so few for so many.
Orlowski combines interviews from former Silicon Valley insiders turned penitents with elementary but effective dramatisation of seemingly mundane everyday scenarios. The chilling testimonies from the likes of Tristan Harris (ex-design ethicist at Google), Bailey Richardshon (one of Instagram’s first ever employees), Jaron Lanier (self-styled ‘tech oracle’), and Justin Rosenstein (the guy behind Facebook’s ‘like’ button) make three things clear at the outset – nobody starting out at any of the social media giants could have predicted the exact nature of what they have created; social media users are the commodities that are sold by the platforms to their advertisers; and the addictive nature of the virtual space is not down to the inadvertent foibles of technology, but is the direct outcome of deliberately designed features.
Among the details I found most unsettling in the film are examples of how the Google search engine really works. Depending on our previous search history and the location of our server, search results are manipulated, ensuring that there is no predominant narrative that everyone has access to, unlike, say, with profiles on Wikipedia. Case in point: if we type the words “climate change is” into the Google search box, some of us will see “climate change is an existential threat” while others will see “climate change is a hoax” top the suggestions.
Similarly stupefying are the scenes where Vincent Kartheiser’s anthropomorphised algorithm depicts how Facebook lures us into checking tagged photos, posts, and comments incessantly. This is where the viewer begins to realise that user choice is largely manufactured online, and that no interaction is possible without the invisible yet insidious presence of the algorithms which, to borrow the words of the film, are “opinions embedded in code”.
There is the helplessness with which the minds behind the madness confess that they cannot help falling prey to their own creations. Aza Raskin (previously at Firefox and Mozilla Labs), in a peculiarly powerful confession, admits to rewriting code to dissuade himself from getting addicted to Reddit.
Finally, there is grim evidence of how social media reinforce flat-earthers and white supremacists, increase depression among children and teenagers, aggravate hatred as in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and disseminate disinformation as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lasting a little over one and a half hours, The Social Dilemma is the sort of film that would have been dismissed as a dystopian fantasy at the start of the century. But, standing in 2020, it is very much a dystopian reality.
And yet, after a harrowing 90 minutes of viewing, the first thing I did after finishing the film was to check Facebook and Instagram. That was followed by trawling for updates on Twitter and telling a few of my friends about the film on WhatsApp.
Had I instantly forgotten the most glaring observations from The Social Dilemma or am I so hopelessly given to social media that no amount of chastening facts can convince me to stay away?
The answer is this: the thought of quitting social media never crossed my mind. Because quitting is not part of the solution, it is simply a cop-out that does not address the central issue. One of asymmetrical knowledge.
The reason why social media platforms are able to pull off all the ghastly feats that Orlowski documents is because they know us better than we know them. The key, therefore, is to acknowledge this knowledge deficit and try to reduce it, even if eliminating it altogether is impossible.
It all begins with the baseline assumption that we need social media in the first place. I do, because I find it far more convenient to get news updates through the Facebook pages of the various news portals I follow instead of having to visit their websites separately. It is far easier to share my views on a subject at one go with my Twitter followers instead of individually emailing or texting them.
Yes, there are filter bubbles and echo chambers to contend with, but they can be tackled by relying less on recommendations and going out of one’s way to look for a wider variety of content. Proactive searching is the antidote to getting boxed within a single school of thought.
Fixing a particular time cap on daily usage is another useful tactic, one that is difficult to initiate but rewarding when done diligently. My personal target for this month is to spend less than half an hour per day on Instagram.
Blocking and unfollowing pages that do not provide any valuable insights is one more way of handling the knowledge deficit. That way I don’t have to see a cat video and get distracted immediately after seeing a clip about the Beirut explosion.
My way of dealing with the omnipotent advertisements is to perform a psychological trick on myself. I know I won’t always be able to resist clicking on an ad or exploring a purchase, but by linking a defunct bank account to my Amazon membership, I can force myself to reconsider, and manually insert the details of an active account only when I really need to buy something. It’s not a foolproof method, but it works more often than not.
Lastly, there is the rule of three that I have learnt to follow, which means that I give myself three seconds every time I have scrolled past three successive posts that I haven’t interacted with meaningfully. I use this time to ask myself – do I really want to continue scrolling or should I move on with something more constructive? It is an annoying rule to begin with, but over time, my mind has been programmed to its existence. It has almost become an instinct now.
Have all these habits made me immune to the problems cited in The Social Dilemma? Of course not, but I believe my adjustments have given me a fighting chance in combating some of the ills.
Social media, to me, is a classic case of a necessary evil. And a revelation like The Social Dilemma is another reason to rethink my approach to social media, to imagine healthier ways of engaging with the platforms, instead of abandoning them altogether.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Featured image credit: Netflix