Omprakash Mahato, Ashok S.
In the contemporary world, almost all of us are directly or indirectly dependent on technology. But when technology governs our psychology, the ‘users’ have no control over their actions anymore.
While engaging with social media websites like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, or Snapchat, we feel that we have autonomy over our actions. We can create a new username or email ID of our choice, a new account on Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms, and even deactivate it at our own will. Through the constant up-gradation of technology, we generally believe that the ‘choice’ is ours. Here we are mistaken, however. As pointed out in the documentary “The Social Dilemma”, there are only two major industries that call their customers as ‘users’ – one being the drug industry and the other is the technology industry. Once the “users” get addicted to the product, their choice ends there.
The little over an hour and a half long documentary – “The Social Dilemma” – directed by Jeff Orlowski, poses many important questions that we, as ‘users’ of technology, are intentionally made clueless about in our everyday interactions with social media. The problem of Digital Divide notwithstanding, technology has helped to make our lives easier, smoother, faster, and more connected. However, it has also alienated us from ourselves. Those of us who have access to technology can no longer think of survival without technology. We can isolate ourselves from our families and friends, but we cannot seem to do so from our digital devices. The temptation is so high and the addiction is so real, that we tend to fail every time we attempt to come out of it.
There is a complex mixture of dangers involved in the use of social media. We are sometimes victims of data theft, identity thefts, cyber bullying, “revenge porn”, child pornography, stalking, or hacking. Women, children, and people belonging to the LGBTQIA community are often threatened with violence, including threats of rape and murder. Politically, there have been serious allegations raised about the involvement of giant social media corporations in the elections campaigns of various countries. Fake news is another huge threat that can, and often do, trigger violent reactions against particular communities. The documentary reveals that fake news travels seven times faster than factual news. And the effect of this can be catastrophic. As pointed out in the documentary, the social media platform Facebook was used to trigger a massive pogrom in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims. Closer home, we had social media influencing the forced mass exodus of people belonging to the North-Eastern states from cities like Bangalore, in 2012. Most recently, we see how social media has been used to fuel the pogrom against the Muslim community in North-East Delhi.
We are under the constant watch of super computers that power these social media engines. Our data is collected and recorded; and, as highlighted in the documentary, often sold to the highest bidders. Our tastes are manufactured by these technologies, and our movements, conversations, and activities are tracked, measured, monitored and recorded. ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ seems to be a very real phenomenon, the more we plug into these digital devices. In the documentary, candid admissions by former top-level executives of these social media giants like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the like, reveal that these social media platforms are programmed to make “users” addicted to their services. In combination with tech addiction, social media seem to make human life more toxic.
For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us who have had access to digital connectivity, have often devoted hours to sitting in front of our computers and doing online web browsing, online transactions, surfing, watching our favourite movies, series, documentaries, researching, and attending online webinars and lectures. The clothes and accessories that we purchase from these markets, the products that we consume, when we are happy, sad, lonely, or depressed, thus become the products driven by market interest. Whether it is the online purchases that we make, the type of books that we view or read, the friends that we add, the hotel that we book, the phone that we possess, or the photos, videos, and content that we create on our social media accounts, these social media giants build specific models that abstract data from our particular psychologies.
In a way, we are acting as powerless individuals in a field where the powerful global social media companies – with the aid of their engineers, supercomputers, and enormous processing powers – “hack” our psychology. The technology that has invaded our every action effectively captures our psychology through various algorithms and leads us in specific directions. We become lab rats in the maze of the market; and without our knowledge, we are being programmed to act in a way which is “pre-designed”. Though these technologies are said to be designed for our benefit, we do not have much control over it. Information technology platforms take a life of their own. Human behaviour and psychology are manipulated and marketed at definite prices, without any regulation. The social media that we use for different purposes has its own goal and it has its own means of pursuing these goals by using our own psychology against us. The documentary critically engages with the limitations of modern technology and its various social media forms. However, it misses many crucial points in doing so, especially when we explore the case of India.
Let’s take a look at how mainstream media outside of social media websites are structured, in India. A survey conducted in 2006 by senior journalists Anil Chamadia, Jitendra Kumar, and independent researcher and Yogendra Yadav (then senior Fellow at CSDS) found that Hindu Upper Caste men, who form around 8 percent of the total population form 71 percent of the key decision-makers in the “national” media. The so-called “twice-born” Hindus, which include Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, who make up 16 percent of the population form a whopping 86 percent of the key decision-makers in the so-called “national” media, with Brahmins alone constituting close to 50 percent of the key media personnel. There was zero representation of SCs and STs in the media, and only 4 percent representation of OBCs (as opposed to close to 43 percent of them in the population) and Muslims at only around 3 percent (as opposed to 14 percent of the population). That was ten years back.
Over 14 years on, the results are equally pathetic. A survey released by Oxfam India, in partnership with Newslaundry in the year 2019, found that out of the 121 newsroom leadership positions, across newspapers, TV news channels, news websites, and magazines, 106 (over 87 percent) were occupied by journalists from the so-called “upper” castes. There was zero representation in these positions by people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 75 percent of the anchors of flagship debates are “upper” caste. Not one is Dalit, Adivasi, or OBC. Not just anchors, but for over 70 percent of the flagship debate shows, news channels draw the majority of the panelists from the “upper” castes. Only around 5 percent of articles in English newspapers and around 10 percent of the articles in Hindi newspapers are written by Dalits and Adivasis.
Apart from this monopolization of the media space by the so-called “upper” castes, the ownership structures are also tightly controlled by a few big businesses. As the well-known journalist Tejas Harad, points out, in his recent paper “Caste is not a thing of the past: Bahujan stories from the newsroom floor”, even the very few Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC journalists, who make it to these closely- guarded newsrooms, end up facing various types of discrimination and multiple forms of alienation. As he points out, “white people may be over-represented in newsrooms in the United Kingdom and the United States, but their numbers pale in comparison to the dominance of Brahmins in Indian newsrooms”. When all the mainstream media has been paralyzed by the state-sponsored restrictions and monopolized by business tycoons and when “upper” caste anchors and journalists dominate mainstream media, it is social media that has worked as an alternative for the voices of the millions of oppressed. There have been several instances where social media has shaped the path for the demand of justice for marginalized communities.
Social media has equalised, in certain ways, the uneven playground which was earlier dominated by the mainstream media. Social media sites like YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have been used to draw the attention of the mainstream society to the various atrocities that happen against the oppressed communities on the ground. Cross-regional alliances and even international alliances have been made possible for the oppressed communities through these platforms, which was almost unthinkable before. Movements like DalitLivesMatter. AdivasiLivesMatter. MuslimLivesMatter have found echoes through their counterpart movement of BlackLivesMatter, which have enabled these movements to form cross-national solidarity networks. The almost universal spread of the pro-people anti-CAANRC-NPR protests in India, or the fight for justice and cross-regional solidarities built-in individual cases like the recent case of atrocity against Jadavpur University Associate Professor Maroona Murmu have been made possible even during the times of lockdown in the country.
Social Media platforms have also enabled community formation for the oppressed sections across geographies through knowledge dissemination platforms like roundtable.co.in, velivada.com, Ambedkar Caravan, Dalit Camera, adivasilivesmatter; joint-action and rights-based groups like University Collective, University Community, United Against Hate, Equality Labs, disability awareness platforms and so on; community pages like the Dalit Queer Project, The Queer Muslim Project to name a few and news-based and awareness-building platforms like Dalit Dastak, Bahujan Mirror, National Dastak, The Shudra, Maktoob, Tamil Roasters, etc, are doing tremendous hard work to bring out issues that marginalized communities face and amplify the voices that were stifled before. This is made possible because of social media platforms. These collectives co-exist alongside individuals who are opinion makers, influencers, activists, artists, cinematographers who engage in debate and discussions on social media platforms, which enrich democracy and direct social justice movements forward. Individuality (not to be mistaken for individualism) has been an idea that was historically shunned for the oppressed sections in India. Several individuals have been able to find their voices, even though in a highly restricted manner, on social media platforms. The growth of many young stars have only been possible because these platforms exist.
Information Technology platforms, and social media platforms, in particular, should therefore be viewed in a nuanced manner. And this nuance is what is missing in the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’. By painting the social media phenomenon in a purely negative light, it misses the various shades of grey. Towards the end, however, the documentary rightly argues for the need for ‘humane technology’ that counters the ill effects of addiction, fake news, and profit-making. While this is a much-needed intervention, the story of social media needs to be seen as a mixed bag. While we should be aware of the ill effects of social media and take necessary precautions while engaging with it and make efforts to democratize these platforms, shunning social media entirely and invisibilizing the rich voices of resistance it provides space to cannot be the answer.
Omprakash Mahato is a Ph.D. Scholar at Center for Political Studies (CPS), JNU, New Delhi, and an activist at BAPSA.
Ashok S is a Ph.D. Scholar at Department of Politics & International Studies, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, and an activist at ASA.