COMMENT

Whether you'll agree with its message or not, The Social Dilemma movie about how we are being mass-manipulated by Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and even Google the search engine is a must-watch.

You'll hear from the technologists who worked on social media applications and made them as amazingly powerful as they are, as well as psychologists and surveillance capitalism critics. The arguments in Social Dilemma are well-articulated and persuasive.

Many of the topics in Social Dilemma have been covered before, but putting them together in an accessible format the way the film-makers have makes for a thought-provoking and hair-raising piece.

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Because it's 2020 and everything arrives via the internet, Social Dilemma is Netflix-produced and only viewable on the streaming video subscription service.

It's rated parental guidance 13 and mentions awfulness like the atrocities in Burma/Myanmar and Christchurch which are difficult to watch but at the same time shows the perversity of the social media business model.

What started as websites for posting "hot or not" pictures and micro-blogging banalities have become massive global businesses that make advertising money out of not just our desire to connect with each other but from extremism, dangerous lies, and yes: murder and mayhem.

That is by design. Algorithms and artificial intelligence devised to increase engagement that can be monetised are not programmed to incorporate morals and ethics. Doing that would be inefficient and reduce engagement.

Social Dilemma is an unabashed polemic that mixes interviews, acting and footage from real events. The film doesn't try to provide a balance, and its makers want you to be scared at how powerful social media — and other technologies — have become.

It's not a documentary in the traditional sense but that has to be seen in the context of how difficult it is to voice and visualise black-box technology and the workings of algorithms that can process more data than any human could take in.

If anything, Social Dilemma doesn't go quite far enough in showing us how, in just a couple of decades, a global network of technology has emerged that doesn't just feed on human behaviours, good and bad, but actively manipulates them.

The networks are growing bigger too. Facebook for example has 16 data centres around the world to store information from and on its billions of users.

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As it continues to grow, Facebook has set up collaborative open source data centre, server and network equipment design forums for the IT industry, to help build new facilities and technology for them as quickly and efficiently as possible. It even deploys subsea data cables worldwide, and so does Google.

Social Dilemma is an unabashed polemic that mixes interviews, acting and footage from real events. Photo / Netflix
Social Dilemma is an unabashed polemic that mixes interviews, acting and footage from real events. Photo / Netflix

The social networks are becoming the internet. In some countries they are already, as I learnt from speaking to Dr Kanchana Kanchanasut who was instrumental in setting up the internet in Thailand.

E-commerce in Thailand is Facebook really, and nothing much else, Kanchana explained.

All of the above is happening without any real official oversight or regulation. The vast scale of social networks tuned to serve up content that they think users want to see make laws like the NZ First-mooted filtering silly and unworkable.

The question is whether or not it's even possible to do anything now. How much control social networks have over what they have created is debatable; how could they possibly be in control with so many users?

Every now and then Twitter and Facebook announce that they've taken down thousands of accounts publishing "inauthentic content" with usually Russian, Chinese and Iranian troll farms being blamed.

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As pointed out in Social Dilemma by early Facebook investor Roger McNamee, that doesn't happen through hacking. It's simply nation state threat actors using tools provided to them, and buying cheap access to thousands of people who have been profiled as being interested in, for example, 5G conspiracy theories, or that the coronavirus is a hoax.

Thing is, once the bogus material's up and is seen and shared, the damage is done.

Taking it down afterwards is not the answer, nor is arbitrary state censorship. China has banned Western social networks and Google, and employs many thousands of people and technologies that inspect internet traffic, and even AI for its Golden Shield national firewall. You can still get around it if you want to.

This is a problem that like so many others doesn't have a technology solution. It's up to us to fix it, by using social media and associated tech better, or not at all. That's going to be difficult and it'll take a long time to teach the AI-driven social networks that this is what we want from them.

Tech and social networks won't go away, so how about we start explaining how they work in school so that we can change them? That said, it's the adults with money and power to vote and not the kids who badly need that education.

While you wait, watch Social Dilemma and follow a simple, important piece of advice the movie gives: turn off notifications on your devices. Honestly, no blinky-bing is bliss.

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