Netflix released 'The Social Dilemma', a film, in September 2020 which revealed the insurgence of manipulation-based technology, flipsides of social media platforms and possible pitfalls of data-driven future. Within this documentary-type storytelling, this film unveiled a series of key facts in conversation with former product engineers, managers, and executives of different social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Google, Pinterest, Snapchat, etc. All of them agreed and talked about the downsides of the triggers and techniques used to arouse attention and addiction. 'The Social Dilemma' offers an eye-opening look at world that so few really understand. The protagonists in the docufiction elaborated the techniques tech giants are maneuvering to influence their users specially the teenagers' behaviours and psyche through a range of services and features such as Facebook's 'Like' button, notification systems, photo tagging, Snapchat and Instagram's photo filters, YouTube video recommendations, Google Inbox's architecture, etc. The New York Times reported, "In Jeff Orlowski's documentary 'The Social Dilemma', conscientious defectors from these companies explain that the perniciousness of social networking platforms is a feature, not a bug."
Social media has become a part of our life in every way and is playing a central role in our lives nowadays letting people capturing memories, staying connected, sharing information, news and perennial happenings - this is how they create value around our life-spaces. According to BTRC, Bangladesh active internet users surpassed 100 million (10 crore) last year. A few years back, a local daily reported 80 per cent of internet users were on Facebook. In a report of 2017, it is found that Dhaka had the second highest active users on Facebook worldwide. This shows how entrenched we are in by now. But using the information of Facebook ads manager, this can be mentioned the active users are no less than40 million (4 crore). The proliferation and diffusions of Facebook, TikTok, Instagram are growing at an alarming rate. The society is not sure about what the youths are adopting. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with proliferation rather the concerns are aplenty regarding what the youths are amassing. Are these used for all good deeds or all bad deeds? Are these adding value to their education, lifestyle, or social manners? As a nation, how are we adopting the social media? There is no such academic or institutional interventions or initiatives to know answers of these questions till date.
'The Social Dilemma' uncovered that how the social media users were treated as a product referring to a famous saying "If you're not paying; you're the product!", coined by media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff. While signing up we are told that "It's free and always will be." Thus, Facebook's value proposition democratizes its idea of "sign up, let-us-know-about-you, and keep using for free." This is not so simple. There are layers of complexity within this. The Social Dilemma' showed, "It's the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and that is the product" which tries to mean that some advertisers or the beneficiaries gradually feed the users what they intend to make changes in a targeted group's behaviour. This part is dangerous and postulates the negative aspect of social media. The film argued that all of the social media platforms were using techniques like attention attraction model used in Las Vegas Slot Machines which are used to create a win-loss situation, or the users feel like an addiction. The platforms are using persuasive technology and welcoming a manipulation-based technology environment where 'lab rats' experiments are a norm. The bunch of brilliant students from Ivy League universities join these social media platforms and are excelling their service features every day which are unintentionally tearing the down the social status quo, office decorum and invades into culture worldwide. Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of Growth at Facebook, expressed 'regret' for his part of building tools that ripping apart the society in an interview a at Stanford Business School event, "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society work." He further had added "No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth… this is a global problem", reported the theverge.com in 2017. The film referring to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, questioned that "Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people." The use of AI and algorithms to push adverts, notifications, choice moderations by the platforms have made the world into a scary place which continues to aggravate as the owners even do not know how to curb the greed. Complicated, isn't it?
Main criticisms and difficulties due to social media invasion
What we are receiving as the yield are selfie dysmorphia, a disease, which drives users to seek surgery for a perfect look! 'The Social Dilemma' unveiled that suicide rates and depression among the American teenagers and pre-teenagers went up +70% and +151% respectively, once social media came into play in the 2010s.
We do not have accurate data in Bangladesh to track depressions or suicide rates as such. However, a study conducted by the Institute of Health Economics from University of Dhaka discovered that 88 per cent of students were being adversely affected by the social media. The data are widely available worldwide that social media platforms exacerbated the wasting of time, intolerance, fake popularity, rise of judging-attitude, cybercrimes, cyberbullying, sexual predation. The other issues such as manipulation of fake news, disinformation, spreading of lynch mob, terrorism planning, etc. are always there. Another controversy that social media platforms have got is, specially Facebook uses massive scale emotional contagion experiment which is psychological experimentation on millions of users, manipulating their news feeds to gauge the effects on users' emotions. The psychologists argued that the features are designed maintaining the principles of a positive intermittent reinforcement. Thus, using massive data Facebook builds models with the data and matches users' interests, tracks, and measures everything users do. An emeritus professor, of Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff says, "Great prediction begins with a lot of data". Thus, they tweak what we see every day and push notifications, adverts, unwanted contents, etc. Gradually, they are becoming as predictive as possible and this precision makes the services feel like magic that just happens in a finger-touch! To compare this, the film quotes from Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
The grave concerns over social media is, their invading nature to politics or shaping political views. Much known issues are Facebook's intervention in Brexit Referendum and US Election in 2016 and their recent fuel in the black people and police riot during George Floyd death in 2020 arouses huge controversy. Facebook created few critical challenges recently - as it breaks data privacy, helps spread fake news and misinformation, pushes too many advertisements to news feeds, some of them irk users. A recent issue is reported by Al-Jazeera in September 2020 that the pro-Israeli lobbying group Anti-Semitism.org launched a campaign funded by influential Adam Milstein to redefine the definition of anti-Semitism and adopt IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of antisemitism. They have written letters and lobbied Facebook to adopt the same. Facebook partially accepted their request and revised the 'hate policy' complying with IHRA definition. But Facebook did not accept IHRA yet explaining that they allow sharing of political information and criticism even against the USA and Israel.
Implications for our Society and Recommendations
It has been observed that UN agency like UNICEF, telecom operators like GP, Robi and collaboration between UNICEF and Facebook launched several campaigns on safe internet for children. A UNICEF study found one of every five internet users is under 18. The same study has revealed that 90 per cent of the consumers use mobile internet. We cannot prevent the proliferation of the internet growth, rather we need to design policy to make internet and social media platforms safer places. In 2018, UNICEF and Facebook launched a yearlong campaign with an aim to promote online safety for children and to urge more policy making for those and adopt more sustainable business practices that would benefit children. Interestingly these are good initiatives but these only one of events or campaigns. How can we make those evident every year? How can we design policies to make them a habit or constant intervention?
Before writing any recommendations, I thought "let's have a look" in the textbooks of primary and secondary levels. I looked into the textbooks on 'Bangladesh and Global Studies (Bangladesh o Biswa Porichoy)' of Class Five and Class Eight which were once known as the 'Lessons about our Society and Environment (Samaj Shikkha) and 'Information and Communication Technology". Checking those textbooks of 'Bangladesh and Global Studies' I did not find any relevant chapters or discussions on social media's usage and influence on our social and daily life. Then, being curious, I actively investigated the textbooks of 'Information and Communication Technology' for Class Six and Eight. In the textbook of Class Eight, I found only 7/8 lines on the "Use of the Internet in Education and Daily Life" in the chapter five (Lessons 44) where it merely suggests, "nowadays, the young generation wastes their time so much keeping themselves engaged in social network (Facebook for example). But they must not forget that there are many other entertainment in real world like sports, friends and relatives." Is this enough? Do these two lines send a coherent message to the students regarding what is their role, what to do and how not to handle social media? I do not find these are adequate to arouse interest to read further or it does not guide anything to do particularly on safe internet use or how student should handle their time and mental well-being. These intrigued me to recommend some interventions such as including chapters in the primary to secondary school levels' textbooks on our social and daily life and the influence of social media where we can explain and set examples on the significance and the ways of handling safe internet, and spend time on internet.
Recommendations are, firstly, these chapters can exemplify the best use of time while surfing internet, how to avoid malicious contents, and how to keep psychological well-being intact even if they experience cyberbullying and/or any negative consequences. Even the teachers can be trained, and training programs can be designed to promote good quality cyber behaviours and actions among students. This further can be addressed by extending the topics or chapters on ethical behaviours in all the 'Religion' textbooks in primary and secondary school levels. The guardians also have the role to guide, motivate and prevent the youths from wasting time and misuse of internet freebies and encourage children to report misbehaviour, cyberbullying and negative consequences.
Secondly, the government and social organisations must build and design systematic culture to save the youths and the upcoming generations from the disorders of social media platforms by promoting cultural education, social activities and by arranging sporting events and tournaments on mass scales such as football, cricket and other sports tournaments in school, unions, upazila, districts and divisional levels countrywide. Some of these are being organised in a manner of sporadic dillydallying but the interventions must be extremely well-designed and purposeful. The corresponding executions must be thorough and results-oriented.
Thirdly, the private sectors need to play a critical role by designing excellent behavioural change contents for internet and electronic media. Two examples can be brought here; one is, English Olympiad-like programmes, for example, the 'Spelling Bee' and the other one is, Ispahani Mirzapore-sponsored 'Banglabid', a Bengali language competition. The 10-Minute School in the social media is another vibrant example. These mass-scale events can shape and motivate millions of students and youths.
Fourthly, actively restricting malicious internet contents and barring the use of selective social media contents can be sorted out. A cell or national committee can be formed under the ministry of education to do research and to design customized and country-specific curriculums and interventions to handle social media and the youth behaviour. The social media platforms must also be made accountable and be obliged by re-designing responsible features and algorithms. BTRC and telecom operators together can play a necessary role by maneuvering thoughtful strategies and actions as 90 per cent users browse social media platforms using mobile internet. We can understand telcos will rather be interested to promote internet use anyhow, but operators can be made responsible if the regulators and service providers can agree on some constructive terms to safeguard our future generations.
Last but not the least, recommendations can be made to design educative contents, mentoring schemes or counselling capability in schools, social institutions, or hospitals to help the youths keep their mental well-being safe and positive. There is no denying that this is easy to recommend anything here but difficult to act. But we must start somewhere. If not today, when? Noteworthy that, enacting these actions are not impossible either as the schools and mosques of the United Kingdom play a role by making similar constructive engagement in relationship and sex education. Incorporating the issue in textbooks or redesigning our education systems to shape the social media behaviour for them are thus not impractical to enable. Our government departments, universities and/or any social institutions should come forward to start the developmental change right away.
S M Didarul Hasan is Deputy General Manager, Marketing at Ispahani Tea Limited and an MBA from University of Exeter, United Kingdom.