Netflix’s new documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, should be compulsory viewing for Indians. It helps explain the unprecedented spread of hate speech and communal falsehoods. It features executives and IT nerds from top internet companies — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, YouTube. They say they started by believing that the internet would be a great democratiser, providing voice and knowledge to millions lacking it. Alas, it is also producing terrible polarisation, lies and strife.
This is not because internet companies have bad people or evil intentions. The problem lies in their profit model. They offer great free services. Their profits come from advertising, often subliminal advertising. This means flashing messages for very brief periods below the normal human perception level, reaching the subconscious. Subliminal advertising has long been used by conventional advertisers too, highlighted in books like Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. But the smartphone has taken this psychological manipulation to new heights.
Free internet programmes aim to get the attention of as many viewers as possible for as long as possible. They take advantage of the high addictiveness of the net, especially for youngsters. The companies employ algorithms, complex software programmes, to track and analyse every move of viewers, getting to know more about their likes and tendencies than a psychiatrist. Using this psychological knowledge, the algorithms feed viewers with ads and messages that will hook their attention — not just to buy things but use news, videos and other devices that guide viewers into groups with similar likes and dislikes. The algorithms even feed different versions of the same news to different groups to satisfy their psychological needs, deepening polarisation.
Algorithms are driving people into warring camps
The companies seek to link viewers with other viewers as fast as possible to create networks of millions. Advertisers find that the algorithms can help them target the very people and groups most likely to buy their goods and services, at a very low cost per viewer. So, advertising has shifted hugely to the net, making billions for network owners.
Control over the data of viewers has given the companies unprecedented power to influence viewers and make money. Data, it is said, is the new oil. This has raised troubling questions about privacy and security. Many governments now seek to protect data generated in their borders for security reasons. Others are considering proposals to make the companies for the use of viewer data.
But more sinister is the way the networks harness the dark side of human nature to promote polarised groups with a contempt for rival groups that incites hate and violence. The net creates groups of individuals listening only to one another, brimming with dangerous passion.
Within each group, falsehoods and fake news about other groups spread with lightning speed and attempts to tell the truth are dismissed as conspiracies. The IT nerds say that falsehoods spread six times faster and wider than truths, Falsehoods titillate and get lots of viewers, while the truth is mundane and unexciting. The end result of this polarisation, say the nerds, could be violent clashes and even civil war.
The documentary is concerned mainly with the US, which has recently witnessed unprecedented polarisation, fake news and hate speech. This has been blamed on President Trump but should be blamed as much on the algorithms that drive evermore people into warring camps.
In India, the BJP is blamed for communal polarisation for electoral advantage. But that same polarisation is being driven quite independently by internet companies offering free services poisoned with hate. This fortifies the extreme fringes of both Hinduism and Islam, driving India towards Hindu-Muslim militancy.
Forget the pleas of Facebook or Google that they are mere platforms where people meet. They make their money by using algorithms as psychological tools to promote advertising to communities tailor-made for divisiveness. They did not intend the dark side of their business but will not change their strategy because massive profits flow out of it.
Recently Facebook and Twitter have been pressured by the public and advertisers to remove or label hate posts on their sites. I initially supported this move. But I now realise that this does nothing to stop the algorithms that create divisiveness and hate — and profits.
We need a high-powered technical committee full of nerds to find ways to check this. Government regulation is increasing for national security and privacy. But the prime need is regulation to stop the monetisation of hate by internet companies. This may require a new set of counter-algorithms. Pessimists say the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back. Nevertheless, we must try. The nerds who contributed to the problem need to contribute to the solution.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.