The Social Dilemma

Creators Strike Back

Last week I wrote about the documentary The Great Hack that followed the company Cambridge Analytica. This week it was suggested I also watch The Social Dilemma. This documentary interviews a series of tech professionals who were part of the early days of the internet.

The documentary introduces us to a dozen or more tech professionals, professors, and industry leaders who helped build the social platforms we use today. Not one of these people had good things to say about our current social media usage.

There are quantifiable facts that show how social media is slowly tearing down the fabric of our society by polarizing and dividing us. This wasn’t the intention of the platform creators, but the draw of wealth they’ve enjoyed from it makes a it a hard habit for them to break.

The documentary utilizes a combination of interviews, quotes, and a family simulation to show us the real world effects of our screen consumption.

People As Products

One of the quotes used says, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” And that’s a sobering thought. I may not be speaking for all of us, but there’s a certain unsettling feeling I get knowing that something is actively trying to manipulate me. It’s easy to brush off, but we need to dig into it further.

Your attention is the product being sold. The more the social platforms can capture your attention, the more they can bombard you with content they’re being paid to show you. By creating AI algorithms that zero in on what you like, the platforms are then able to inundate your feed with targeted content that creates an emotional response in you. That emotional response is key. We’re human. Our emotions are how we bond to ideas and to each other.

The problem this has created is that we have moved further and further into a tunnel vision world view. For us, our opinions have become gospel rather than fluctuations of the world around us. We are so polarized into the neat and tidy worldview that makes us feel safe that we can’t even talk to someone who has a varying view from our own. Any assault on the dopamine receptors in our brains makes us instantly back away.

Nowhere has this been more problematic for Americans than in our last two elections. Facebook is absolutely to blame for being allowed to run unregulated misinformation. The grab for money that Facebook prioritized created a country full of polarized individuals. We marvel at the fact that “the other side” can’t see what we see, but social media has made it so they literally cannot see what we see.

Security Risk

All of this manipulation has a real world security risk. We talk about other countries hacking our elections or our social infrastructure. They aren’t actually brute forcing their way into our devices, they’re paying social media for access into our minds.

We discussed the fact that brute force computer hacks weren’t necessary because so many people still click on phishing emails. Social media feeds are phishing platforms. There’s no need for a foreign entity to brute force their military into the US, they can pay social media to infiltrate your ideas. You are the weapon.

And this might all sound hyperbolic and extremist. It’s easy to roll your eyes and say this is ridiculous. We’ve certainly been programmed to shut off things that make us uncomfortable. But hear me out.

Your Data Should Be Your Own

You deserve ownership of your data. Furthermore, you deserve the right to say who can see your data. Social media mines you, creates a profile, and then sells you to the highest bidder. Personally, it makes me feel a little dirty.

So let’s stop giving them access. We had a great conversation here at PC Matic the other day about those popular quizzes you see on Facebook. The amount of data people give away is astounding. One of my co-workers speculated that people would give you their passwords if the quiz was designed the right way.

Someday, that quiz may be designed. And you may take it. Once you do, however, it won’t just be your data. There’s a very good chance that, if you continue to allow yourself to be sold and manipulated, your bank accounts and identity could be the next item up for grabs.

How Do We Stop It

Right now, as it is, we can’t stop our data from being harvested. Even those people who don’t use social media still are a part of the machine. What we can do is lobby our government to put stricter rules on tech giants who see us as profit rather than people. (And if me writing the word “government” gave you any sort of negative feelings, consider what you’ve been bombarded with to make you feel that way. Because you have been made to feel that way in our current day and age.)

We can also fact check everything coming across our screens. As imperative as it is to know what a phishing email looks like, it’s also that necessary to know what a factual website looks like. The emotional response you feel when you see a headline that aligns with your carefully cultivated worldview could make you click something harmful. We’ve seen tons of viruses and malware strains embedded into websites with clickbait titles. The social media manipulation has real world consequences.

Also, step away from the screen from time to time to have an actual, human conversation. It may even be beneficial to do that with someone you fundamentally don’t agree with normally. Because until we stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated, we’re opening each other up to further technical weaknesses. If we want a solid, technical infrastructure, we have to be able to talk to each other.

Technology Isn’t All Bad

Listen, I know this sounds like doom and gloom, but all tech isn’t all bad. Being able to see the faces of my friends and family while in quarantine has been afforded to me via technology. I found a pizza cookbook in a Facebook group that has made my cooking ability exponentially better. Instagram sharing helped my friend’s new salon become successful.

The technology that we have has made our lives better. We’re more connected. It has the ability to actually do good. It’s our responsibility, however, to be better gate keepers. It’s also our responsibility to use it in moderation.

Go outside. I know it’s getting cold, but there’s still a world full of nature even when it’s buried under snow. Or you could close your laptop, put your phone in a drawer, and play a game with your loved ones. Shut off the news and read a book (I swear I say this to my mother at least once a day.) Spread a little positive verbal affirmation to the person delivering your quarantine groceries.

And don’t worry, while you’re out enjoying nature and human conversation, PC Matic will be protecting your devices until you need them again. Our top priority is making sure you’re safe, so stay safe out there.

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

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