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The Double-edged Sword Et tu, Google?

By Delina Yemane Dawit

“Editor’s Note: This article is the continuation of a piece we published on our March 4, 2023 issue under the tittle, The Double-edged Sword, Digest and Deliberations on “The Social Dilemma”, by the same author”

In The Social Dilemma, former Facebook and Google engineer Justin Rosenstein states that the exact same Google search can bring forth different results depending on where you live and what your search history looks like. For instance, if one types in “Climate change is” into the Google search box, the autocomplete responses vary greatly, from “Climate change is a hoax” to “Climate change is disrupting the planet”. These autocompletes depend on both the region and the particular individual’s search history. So, for someone who is prone to believing in conspiracy theories (be it QAnon, AntiVaxxers, Flatearthers or others, which it would identify through past history searches), Google would suggest autocompletes that fit this kind of narrative, considering them more likely to engage the user. The same principle goes for social media platforms.

This, in my opinion, is the most dangerous aspect of all.

Google is used worldwide to gain access to information, to answer questions and to clear up doubts and misconceptions. If Google decides to show someone customized information that reinforces and agrees with their narrative of reality and current affairs, regardless of their actual accuracy, it means that each and every individual is exposed to, and only to, their version of reality. Not the actual reality or truth.

What exactly does this mean for society and what kind of consequences can this have in the long-run?

Rashida Richardson, Director of Policy Research at AI Now Institute and Adjunct Professor at NYU School of Law, states, “We are all simply operating on a different set of facts. When that happens at scale, you are no longer able to reckon with or even consume information that contradicts with that worldview that you’ve created”.

For all intents and purposes, every one of us starts to live in a bubble, a microcosm with only the people that agree with our worldview. In fact, venture capitalist and Facebook early investor Roger McNamee states, “[…] each person has their own reality with their own facts” With time, this is bound to make you less tolerant of opinions and ideals that oppose your own. In other words, objective reality is threatened, and people lose sight of “common shared truths”. Hence the reason why polarization (be it political, religious or otherwise) has become more prevalent than ever before.

What’s important to understand here is that AI has no way of informing a user whether a certain article or certain content is factually true or false. AI has no way of distinguishing real news from fake news. Its job is simply to identify your interests and cater to them for maximum user engagement. Therefore, it’s easy for any intelligent person to “fall into the rabbit-hole” of fake news and conspiracy theories. And the fact that literally anyone (even those with no sense of responsibility) who has access to a phone and a decent internet connection has a platform to present even the most baseless and half-baked ideas only makes matters worse.

Justin Rosenstein clarifies it best, “[When] you look over to the other side [of a debate, a political party, etc.], you start to think, “How can those people be so stupid? Look at all of this information that I’m constantly seeing. How are they not seeing that same information?” And the answer is, they’re not seeing that same information”

“Digital Frankenstein”

Throughout the documentary, some of the experts talk about how social media is “eroding the social fabric of how society works” and how it’s leading to an existential crisis. While it may be easy to roll our eyes and dismiss these claims as hyperbolic, we really do need to consider if they have merit. Social media has been at the center of many political discords in several countries, particularly because of the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories. With the rise of social media, it has become incredibly easy to sow discord between two sides for the purposes of destabilizing a country, a political party or an entire people; and with very little resource at that. After all, one of the most effective strategies in politics is to divide and conquer. In the hands of the wrong people, social media can cause the kind of disasters you read about in dystopian fiction.

Don’t get me wrong here. However much easier it would be to point the finger at individuals, I don’t believe these effects were intended or engineered by some evil masterminds. I don’t think the people working at Silicon Valley are villains who orchestrated the whole thing; all this probably started with the best of intentions, however naïve: to connect people from around the world, to share pictures with friends, to gain unlimited access to information. Much like Victor Frankenstein, the inventors of social media were probably focused on redefining reality, testing limits and changing the world for the better. I doubt anyone actually predicted it would have the side effects we see so clearly today. Alas, whether their initial intention was pure or not is irrelevant because Pandora’s Box has been opened all the same.

Another major (if not the most important) factor in their modus operandi is profit. As far as businesses go, their models are ingenious! The effects are imperceptible AND the services give users the impression of being totally free, no strings attached. All this while raking in an inordinate amount of money and influence and basically turning their creators into real-life Goliaths (think of the wealth and power Mark Zuckerberg has amassed). So, if we look at it simply from a business perspective, it’s not surprising if these companies think, why fix what isn’t broken?

From the point of view of moral responsibility, however, it’s a different matter altogether because, what it comes down to is, how do we restrain these “Goliaths” if (or when) things take a sinister turn? Is it so unreasonable to think along these lines when, after all, social media has almost become an entity of its own? Make no mistake; the “Goliaths” we speak of aren’t just the founders and CEOs of these companies; it’s also the countries where these enterprises are primarily located. You just need to think of the leverage and influence that the US currently has over all other countries in this aspect alone. For the past two decades, American companies (i.e. Silicon Valley) essentially had a monopoly, and only now are countries like China gaining ground with competitor apps like Tiktok. So, in the end, can we really expect these companies to remain neutral in politics?

Another way to look at the existential issue is through the large-scale effects of social media on the mental health of users, particularly teens and pre-teens. Apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are so popular because they allow users to share and view pictures of one another as well as comment and like them. This all sounds innocuous on the surface- and in many cases, it really can have positive effects. The co-creator of the Like button himself states that its initial intention was to spread love and positivity in the world. But that’s not all it did. For those who don’t receive “enough” likes on their posts, it can seem like the world at large is rejecting them, thus convincing them that they need to “improve” their looks or try to impress their followers with carefully curated images of a “perfect” life. One that is ultimately unrealistic to measure up to. This, coupled with the fact that any Tom, Dick and Harry is free to comment on whatever they like under the guise of total anonymity has the potential to make beasts out of humans; trolls who don’t give a second thought to the human being that’s on the receiving end of cruel tweets or nasty comments. In real life, very few would have had the courage to say those things in that person’s face.

So, there’s a certain amount of added pressure on social media users. Teens and adults- boys and girls alike- feel the need to post only filtered, “corrected” images of themselves. With time, it’s only natural for these kids to look in the mirror and compare themselves to their own doctored images (not to mention the millions of filtered, glamorous pictures they see of other seemingly flawless people). This ultimately drives many girls in particular to undergo plastic surgery that will make them look more like their filtered selves. This phenomenon has become so common that it has a name: Snapchat Dysmorphia.

Posting on social media has become such an integral part of communication and societal norms that in certain age groups and in certain parts of the world, any person that doesn’t participate in it is considered a social pariah. So, we feel the need to keep up with the charade of posting perfectly curated versions of our lives, finding encouragement and acceptance through likes and hearts; not minding the fact that these kinds of approval are ultimately fleeting in nature. But that momentary release of dopamine in our brains that comes with every positive feedback, every compliment and every like only pushes us to look for it again and again, until our sense of worth and our sense of self comes from an external locus. Who do we become after that? Are we left with mere shells and shadows of ourselves?

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at NYU Stern School of Business, talks about the dramatic spike in depression and anxiety among American teenagers that can be associated with social media. “A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile and more depressed”, he notes.

Even in terms of evolution, the documentary highlights that in the time since computers were invented, processing power has evolved dramatically, while brain physiology remains (obviously) unchanged.

With these kinds of potential implications, stating that an existential crisis may be imminent is far from exaggeration.

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