By Antony Mutunga
Billions of people are flocking the Internet and social media as more information becomes available and easily accessible to them. This has resulted in many, especially the youth, spending hours of their lives glued to their phones and devices.
The more hours people spend online, the more information they are exposed to. After all, information or data is the new oil, the most valuable asset. Data is extremely profitable, and that is all there is to it, really. Natural resources are almost depleted in the world, but a new kind of stock is on the cards: the psychology of the human mind.
Most social media platforms rely on advertising to make profits. This is made possible by traffic from their users. To increase traffic, tech companies unleash features to lure users into spending more time online. With a harmless look, these features are entertaining and spread like wildfire. Unknown to many, these features integrate AI technology that determines individual preferences, to create an endless cycle of dependency and clickbait.
For instance, most people who spend a huge portion of their day online would be accustomed to seeing advertisements pop up with products they are interested in. It is the reason advertisements tend to be different for everyone. This is targeted advertising on another level. As a result, tech companies have been able to make billions in selling the right traffic to the right companies to advertise their products. Additionally, this data is also sold to other companies allowing them to manufacture products that the public already needs and wants.
Tech companies have continued to use such methods on an unknowing user base. Many have tried to shed light on what has been happening but none has made as huge an impression as the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’, which premiered this year. Through tech experts who once worked for tech giants such as Google and Facebook, its creators attempt to show how the technology they created has been harmful to the users, especially the youth.
‘The Social Dilemma’ also brings about the issue of how tech companies have employed the use of fake news and clickbait. It has been on the increase in social media and across the internet as a whole. This has been an advantage as they have been used to ensure users are more glued to their screens for a longer time. Users are mostly fed alluring but false information who end up spreading it to others within their circles. In the documentary, according to Tristan Harris, former Google employee, fake news reportedly spreads six times faster than the truth because the truth is boring.
Relying on such false information, social media companies can control the majority of the population. With the ability to predict the user’s preferences and patterns as well as push any agenda they want, tech companies tend to make users more suggestible as well. Thus the more time we spend on social media, the more we are being programmed. For this reason, social media companies have become powerful political tools, and politicians are happy to pay.
For a while now, politics has moved online as political parties, other groups and individuals spread their messages through websites and interact with the growing population on social platforms. Tech companies are primed to profit more than they are doing now if they can carefully push the agenda and opinions of those who can afford it. Noticing the power they have, these companies have used their technology to sway decisions not only at the individual level but at the national level as well.
Manipulative and alluring, the technology behind the platforms has been used to categorize users and thus show them what they want. In terms of politics, this is used to create polarization which continues to divide people who have different beliefs. It ends up undermining the consensus reality as well, as people are programmed to make certain decisions instead of one, according to their experiences.
The young generation, brought up on social media, has become addicted to social media platforms already filled with misinformation. Social media is the new drug that every youth cannot wait to try and as with drugs, the repercussions are dire. Mental health problems such as depression, body dysmorphia, and anxiety among the youth have skyrocketed as many feel left out compared to what they see online.
In an era where young people are desperate for approval, cyberbullying has also grown. Whenever one is unable to acquire it, they become excluded. In some instances, the young will do whatever they can to imitate what they can see, fanning dependence, anxiety and depression when such approval is not forthcoming.
There is no denying that social media is an inalienable part of present-day communication, news, work, and community. But we must be careful how we interact with the growing apps and platforms.
The idea is not to shut off the Internet but to be careful about how much of ourselves we are willing to give to tech companies. And the conversation here needs to be two-way: self introspection, as well as a commitment by the tech companies to responsible use of their user data. If they cannot self-regulate, we must hold them to account through personal initiative and robust regulation. (