The past six months has seen the most unprecedented and rapid transition from real world to virtual platforms in almost all major areas of life as office, school and workplace have receded to the confines of each one’s home. Added to this, shopping and entertainment, social interaction and news updates have also become part of the daily basket of wares presented through the range of internet apps that are available.
Just as I was settling into a sense of acceptance of this new way of life, thanking God for opening this little internet window when He decided to close the outdoor world, I happened to see a movie on Netflix titled Social Dilemma. I have to admit that it has effectively kicked me out of my comfort zone, and has left me seriously contemplative of the future that will inevitably be governed by the net.
Social Dilemma is a documentary that features a group of young people who held senior technical positions in some of the leading social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others, who candidly describe just what the main business of these media giants are. Most of us have heard of data privacy issues, but few of us realize the extent to which global businesses have prospered by surreptitiously collecting and analysing data that details each aspect of our behaviour, our inclinations, our social, political or religious leanings— all the information that can be gathered from our interactions on the net.
Social media platforms are constantly collecting information that help them to achieve two important targets. The first is to keep us engaged with social media, which is perhaps child’s play for them considering how cooperative we are in that area, and how respectful and trusting we are of these faceless superheroes of the virtual world.
The second target has a much more insidious intent. It is to manipulate our mindset in subtle ways to persuade us to think the way they want us to. Their clients range from global business organizations to political leadership and even terrorist outfits. Depending on each one’s requirement, processed data about each one of us is sold to serve different purposes. We become the guinea pigs on whom subtle indoctrination methods are experimented with, in order to serve the larger purposes of business houses or election campaigns.
This is perhaps most harmful to the very vulnerable population of millennials and Gen Zs, who are literally being bombarded in several different ways. To take a simple example, I happened to be privy to some selfies which the little girl next door was taking. After sharing these original pictures, she also showed me how she could enhance these through the filters available on Instagram. The innocent young girl with chubby cheeks and bright eyes slowly underwent a transformation and a sophisticated young woman with heavy makeup emerged. Though she said it was just for fun, it left me uneasy, wondering if these were the ways that young girls were induced to wear lipstick and make-up, thus paving the way for an untapped target market for the cosmetics industry.
Unfortunately, this is not as far from the truth as we would like it to be. The monarchs of the internet exert complete control over their netizens and relentlessly make use of us for material gain and power. In this new virtual world, data is the most valuable asset and provides the tools through which our minds can be manipulated to serve target markets. In Matthew 18:6, Jesus Christ sternly warns people of the terrible punishment that awaits those who exploit innocent minds “…it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” But, in the meantime, we have to protect ourselves and our children who are presently loyal and devoted netizens. It may be impossible to even curtail the usage of the net at a time like this, but we must take it upon ourselves to spread awareness of how things work. At present the virtual world is largely a lawless terrain. There are very few laws governing the use and abuse of data. We can expect it to get worse as time goes on, unless some international organizations take up the responsibility to clean up the mess and have legal checks and balances put in place. Needless to say, this may not be easy to introduce, or implement, considering the vested interests of powerful groups who are now profiting from the present situation. Films like Social Dilemma could go a long way to help netizens see things in the right perspective. Educators could make a great difference by including these into their curriculum. Ultimately, each parent must take up the responsibility to help their children guard against psychological exploitation.