democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Social Media and the "repentant" of Silicon Valley

The documentary The Social Dilemma presents the issue of social media addiction and the rise of hate speech. The documentary rejects the conspiracy theories that "emerge on social media,” yet also appeals to one of them: the one that holds the "Silicon Valley villains" as responsible for everything.

Mariano Vázquez
15 October 2020
Screenshot from Netflix

The Great Hacking (2019), a Netflix's documentary on Cambridge Analytica, begins in an interesting way. David Carroll, associate professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, sits in front of a small group of students and asks:

-Who hasn't thought about the possibility that your microphone is listening to your conversations after seeing an advertisement on your phone?

The students laugh uncomfortably as Carroll proceeds to say:

- It's really hard for us to imagine how it works (...). Some ads seem incredibly accurate and make us think that someone’s spying on us, but they're most likely evidence that targeting works and can be predictive of our behavior.

Carroll's answer raises a few questions: What kind of data do social media platforms store? Are they only used for advertising? Does data mining have a limit? What do companies do with all that user information?

The documentary also focuses on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s privacy issues, fake news, and the consequent "manipulation of the people", taking the cases of Brexit and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as the basis for analysis. Brittany Kaiser, a former -and now remorseful- employee at Cambridge Analytica validates what was going on behind scenes at Cambridge Analytica. The film accompanies Brittany as she atones for her sins at Burning Man and a luxurious hotel somewhere in Thailand. After the success and frenzy, the prodigal daughter returns to acknowledge her mistakes and try to make amends.

However, the documentary takes for granted some facts that are worth questioning. The central one is, why is it assumed that people can be manipulated by a combination of big data, algorithms, and behavioral psychology?

The Social Dilemma delves into some themes that were already articulated in The Great Hacking, such as polarization, fake news, and data mining, with the incorporation of a new element: the link between the addiction to technology and the manipulation of users. However, the focus is placed on technical issues such as notifications, infinite scrolling, and personalized content. The testimonies of designers and ex-executives -who are all remorseful- intend to give weight to these criticisms.

Identify the problem, spread it, and sell the solution. That is exactly the point: to solve the social problems caused by technology through technology. Evgeny Morozov called this the "madness of technological solutionism".

The fictional story is built on a web of "politically correct" stereotypes, and an almost naïve political centrism. There is an ethnically diverse family where the parents, who seem polite and slightly bewildered, attempt to deal with technology, while their three children possess a wider range of possibilities. Ethical awareness falls on the older sister (who does not use a cell phone and reads Shoshana Zuboff), while the younger one falls prey to the addiction (which intends to show a "lost generation").

The focal point, however, is the slow and permanent fall of the teenage son, who turns away from sports and friends to quickly dive into a spiral of hate and fanaticism, governed by the personalized content in social media.

The entire range of criticisms raised by The Social Dilemma can be solved through the Center for Humane Technology (founded, among others, by Tristan Harris, the film's keynote speaker). Identify the problem, spread it, and sell the solution. That is exactly the point: to solve the social problems caused by technology through technology. Evgeny Morozov called this the "madness of technological solutionism".

Within this framework, a dozen of regretful Silicon Valley residents acknowledged having worked to get users to spend more hours in front of the screen, but they also claim to have been victims of the addiction themselves. Tim Kendall, a former Facebook executive and ex-president of Pinterest, admitted that he couldn't let go of his cell phone when he arrived home. The suggested solution, again and again, is to disable notifications and measure time online.

One of the risks involved in this documentary is the increase of moral panic (similar to the #DeleteFacebook campaign after the Cambridge Analytica scandal became known). Although it is denounced that the problem lies within the business model that sustains the platforms, the accusation is blurred, along with the opportunity to generate a more solid critique.

The film points out how artificial intelligence (AI) that manages personal data is aimed at the users' brains. In short, it claims that it manipulates them and makes them addicted. Once again, we lose sight of one of the most harmful aspects of these algorithmic mediation systems. Various studies, such as those by Virginia Eubanks, Cathy O'Neil, and Safiya Umoja Noble, analyze how these automatic decisions use incomplete data and biased algorithms and conclude that, if used to underpin public policies, they end up increasing inequality, reinforcing stereotypes, and intensifying racial and sexual discrimination.

The Social Dilemma presents a whole set of simplifications that seek sensationalist impact rather than intellectual and thoughtful stimulus. First, the story is centered in the United States with the intention of extending it to the entire planet, blatantly ignoring the distinct contexts in which social media is used.

There is a generalization about Facebook -followed from afar by Twitter- and its functioning, which does not consider the particularities of other platforms, both in terms of uses and main characteristics. Lastly, the film ignores the ‘ecosystem’ where social media is inserted: these do not function in a vacuum, but rather establish links and relationships with other agents within the public sphere. Interviewees repeatedly state that social media constitutes an unprecedented threat.

Thus, not only do they seem to be unaware of the hundreds of studies carried out on radio and television (and their influence on users, as Robert K. Merton and Paul F. Lazzarfeld pointed out in a famous analysis from the 1940s, "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action"), but they also omit the various comparative analyses between these new platforms and the already "classic" ones.

The documentary also holds supposed misunderstandings, such as considering that exposure to hate speech implies consumption of what they advocate. According to the creators of this film, being exposed to a lie is enough to believe it. Finally, the film omits the creative dimension that floats across social media. In this sense, the journalist Evan Greer wrote a Twitter thread where she enunciates a series of omissions that could have enriched the documentary, but that at the same time would have weakened the social and moral panic that it sought to generate.

The Social Dilemma presents a whole set of simplifications that seek sensationalist impact rather than intellectual and thoughtful stimulus.

Social media is not the only niche for the emergence of hate speech, although it is clear that these discourses and theories have used the customization and recommendation algorithms (particularly from YouTube and Facebook) to circulate at a higher speed.

Sites like 8chan, 4chan, or Stormfront, among others, were the cradle of those movements and the place where many conspiracy theories were fabricated. It is also strange that a platform like Netflix, whose recommendation system was targeted several times for the use of its users' data, denounces these problems today.

The algorithms filter information, hierarchize it, and order it to display a certain conception of the world, while the platforms compete with each other for the users' attention by adding functionalities, modifying themselves on the basis of deviant (unplanned) uses, homogenizing themselves (Twitter changing the little star to the little heart). But saying that these companies compete for user’s "screen time" is very different from stating, as the "repentant" of Silicon Valley does in The Social Dilemma, that monopolizing user’s attention generates addiction and "manipulates the consciences".

This panic for dummies, who are unaware of the history of mass media, who confuse cigarette addiction with excessive use of social media, who compare the invention of the bicycle with the invention of social media, and who syndicate all contemporary evils as part of the conspiracy by some of the "villains" of Silicon Valley, also aims to offer a "solution".

It appeals for a multi-step recipe, a church to deal with addiction: the Center for Humane Technology. The dilemma of social media is simple: the chaos created by social media can be undone simply by rewriting the algorithm. The problem is that, when you err in the analysis, no solution can be created.

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This article has been published within the editorial alliance with Nueva Sociedad. Read the original article in Spanish here.

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