PS: Pratik Sinha, the techie
SS: Sumaiya Shaikh, the neuroscientist
Soon after Facebook was launched in Australia in 2005, I (SS) had the misfortune of studying an undergraduate degree course at an Australian university. I (SS) joined Facebook around the same time owing to increased online learning on the university portal. This radical change suited the emergence of a new business model at semi-public universities across Australia that emphasised on profits by reducing expenditure as compared to extensive face-to-face teaching facilities. This change was before urban 20-somethings checked their email as soon as they received them.
Since every announcement, timetable, class selection, exam result and group assignment was conducted online, we soon moved to creating Facebook accounts to interact and share information, to fill the gap where the portal was deemed inadequate. A few years later, Twitter arrived. I (SS) do not remember when I started checking my notifications two to three times per hour.
Five years later, when I (SS) started teaching, the new normal was students forming secret groups on Facebook to inform on class absentees or late arrivals. Fifteen years later, in 2020, many have uninstalled or limited social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and several others have found themselves addicted to it.
The recent release of Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has skillfully visualised the events and experiences that caused the addiction of social media’s millions of users to it. In the past, there have been other films which have tried to highlight the perils of social media. The Great Hack, that talks about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was one such example. Despite being important, it was unlikely to leave a strong enough impression on its audience. It is clear from the positive recommendations that have poured out for The Social Dilemma on social media that the movie has made the desired impact.
The Social Dilemma segues between three kinds of scenes: interviews of ex-employees, investors and critics of California-based tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter; a dramatised version of a five-member family whose lives are being affected by social medial and a videographic attempt to show the inner workings of the recommendation engine — a piece of software that decides what you view on your social media feed.
It portrays the recommendation engine through multiple clones of actor Vincent Kartheiser, and the film does a decent job of showing what it'd look like if a human being were making the decisions that AI does (mostly) without human intervention. It is this recommendation engine that is the evil protagonist of the movie.
Why is this recommendation engine such a big issue? To understand that, we have to look at how social media platforms have developed over the past decade and a half. When social media platforms first came about, they were mainly a cross between blogging platforms and discussion forums.
How did it work back then?
Let's say Harry, Sally and Sam are college friends who created accounts on a social media platform to keep in touch with each other. If Harry creates a post at 9.51 am and Sally creates one at 9.55 am, then Sam, upon logging on to his social media account, would first see Sally's post, and then Harry's. Sam may respond to any of them and then go back to doing his college homework in a few minutes.
Now, it’s not so simple.
Today, Sam may not see Harry and Sally's posts at all. Instead, he might end up seeing a series of viral videos. Today, a recommendation engine that has learnt Sam's likes and dislikes based on his historical activity on the platform will decide what he will see on his social media feed. It is this recommendation engine that will ensure that Sam stays hooked onto the platform for several minutes, and sometimes hours.
In this time, Sam will also end up viewing several advertisements of products and services that the recommendation engine thinks Sam is most likely to spend on.
The algorithms that form the backbone of the recommendation engine are not mere pieces of software but, as the interviewees in the film confessed, are designed to work at a neuropsychological level to change human perceptions. The platforms generate push notifications that are delivered at carefully selected timings using a concept called “intermittent reinforcement”. Instead of showing all notifications, you’d be shown about 50-75 percent of the notifications. The calculated delivery of notifications activates the pleasure-reward circuitry of the brain, and the key to activating this is delivering the reward (notifications) almost every time, but not always.
The anticipation of the reward, along with the pain of not having the reward occasionally, causes the release of dopamine in your brain, also known as the dopaminergic drive. Dopamine is a molecule that makes you seek the state of pleasure even more. This leads you to engage in behaviour like scrolling next on every news item, refreshing your timeline, and repeatedly viewing posts of yourself to track the amount of likes and comments received. The more you scroll, the more dopamine, or rewarding transmission, is generated.
The movie also talks about the design of the “like” button. The human brain links validation from peers in the form of likes, shares and comments with the phone vibrating or the LEDs blinking on the arrival of a new notification. Studies in cognitive neuroscience, in both animals and humans, have suggested that rewarding or positive social interaction such as peer validation of ideas can lead to a higher dopaminergic drive than when an addicted person gets access to drugs.
The core of the problem is that the profit margin of the social media companies is directly proportional to the efficiency of this recommendation engine in keeping its audience engaged. What you view on your social media feed is not tailored for you, but tailored to ensure maximum profit for the company.
The Social Dilemma establishes the length and breadth of this addiction problem through interviews with several ex-employees of companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, who reveal the acts of omission and commission by these Silicon Valley tech companies. While many of the issues highlighted through the course of these interviews have been written about in the past, it makes a huge difference when the insiders themselves reveal these details, as opposed to a critic of the platform raising the issue. The film has done a good job of bringing together many such prominent individuals, and explaining the concepts that they're talking about through dramatisation.
The film also has its weak moments. At one point in the movie, one of the interview subjects talks about how a bunch of individuals sitting in California are making decisions that are impacting the entire world. That is very true. But that also means that a bunch of individuals who previously worked in these Californian companies can never have the understanding of how to solve this issue at a global scale.
The recommendations that the interview subjects provide to get over the issue — such as “switching off notifications” and social media curfews for young children — are naïve at best. Large monopolies driven purely by profit motive cannot be defeated by these methods. The irony that people who are recommending the movie have no space to recommend it other than on Facebook and Twitter shows the scale of the problem that we are facing.
The way forward would be to use and encourage alternatives to these organisations, unless they decide to reinvent themselves and their business models, which is unlikely. Good journalism, which looks at these organisations critically, is also essential to enforce them to follow at least a basic set of ethics, while the alternative solutions become more mature.
Despite its few shortcomings, The Social Dilemma is a must-watch film, and is one of the more important documentaries made in 2020. As a person who has been working in an organisation that focuses primarily on the issue of hate and misinformation on social media platforms, I (PS) see many more folks on my social media feed talking about the issues highlighted by the movie. This is heartening because the next time I (PS) raise an issue, I know I'll have many more ears.
Which is why I'm very glad that this film was made.
The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today.