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, You-Tube. 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.
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.