The 21st Century’s Digital Revolution
by Alessandro Ractliffe
Political Social Science Student at the University of Amsterdam
JANUARY 23, 2021
Understanding the role of social media in modern society
The 21st century’s digital revolution has arguably been the most consequential tech revolution in humankind’s history. Never before has technology played such an important role in our lives, whether it be waking us up in the morning or instantaneously video calling a relative halfway around the world. It has fundamentally changed all aspects of human behaviour, from the way we socialise, the way we work and most importantly, the way we think. It is precisely this last change that highlights the unprecedented nature of the 21st century’s critical turning point.
Leading the way are “The Big Four” also known as “GAFA” (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple). Microsoft is included in a similar group called “The Big Five” or “FAAMG” but unlike the others, it has not had the same societal impact the other four have had. The “GAFA” group can lay claim to having altered the fabric of society through their incursions into the lives of billions of people.
An example of this is the all-too common debate of the time we spend on our mobile devices. We spend hours on end scrolling through Instagram or Facebook feeds or watching YouTube videos. Other than the obvious negative effects this has on our health, there are also serious behavioural implications. Put simply, free online services like Google and Facebook make their money from ad revenues, therefore the more time we spend on their platforms, the more ads we see, the more money they make. As a result, these services want us to spend as much time as possible on their apps and services. To ensure this, complex algorithms, powered by cutting edge AI, monitor our browsing history and interests to personalise our feeds by selecting the posts that will most likely draw our attention. The more time we spend online, the better algorithms get at predicting what kind of posts interest us. This ultimately creates a vicious circle which makes it increasingly hard for us to not depend on our devices. What is at stake here however is not only the way we spend our time but also our futures. As the American scholar Shoshana Zuboff explains in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” platforms like Google and Facebook are “selling people’s attention” to advertisers and are manipulating their behaviour in the process. By flooding people’s screen with ads and gaining (through AI) more and more information about individuals’ online activities, the algorithms perfect their prediction models to the degree that they can anticipate a user’s next click, making sure the ad serves its purpose. This underpins a reoccurring theme amongst modern technology companies which aim to sell certainty when it comes to advertising. However, this invasive modus operandi seriously undermines the freedom users should have when surfing the web. The term surveillance capitalism captures this idea of profiting from the extraction of users’ data and activity. Namely, it is defined as the commodification of personal online data with the aim of profiting from it.
Another problem we all face are the social and psychological effects of the excessive use of social media. In the US alone the rate of depression amongst teenage girls shot up from 12% in 2011 to 20% in 2017. Research has shown that these numbers are closely linked to widespread of social media amongst “Generation Z”, which is made up by those born between 1996 and 2010. Many attempts have been made to curb the devastating effects these platforms have on the younger generations, but to no avail. Issues of self-worth are more and more common amongst young teenage girls, image-sharing platforms like Instagram are the main culprits behind these issues. They reinforce the idea that every experience, image or “story” shared need to be happy and beautiful moments, regardless of the reality behind them, creating a façade behind which to hide.
The last example which shows how these companies have rewired the thought process of millions across the globe is polarisation. Never before has political discourse been so polarised. A clear example of this are the recent American presidential elections. Historically, the United States has always been a divided nation, largely due to its two-party political system. However, in the last year, mass protests, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have further exacerbated the tension in an already deeply-divided nation. Social media has played an instrumental role in orchestrating this division, especially in a year in which millions have spent lots of their time at home in lockdown because of the pandemic. Information or filter bubbles explain why social media’s focus on profit makes money at the expense of civil dialogue between opposing ideologies. Because of AI’s use of algorithms that identify what content is most likely going to keep its users engaged, every person has a different set of information that is shown to them on the basis of that specific user’s preferences and ideology. This means that users are only exposed to information that matches their opinions and are isolated in “information bubbles”. As a result, everyone has their own version of the truth (on climate change, vaccines etc.), making it impossible for people to come together in meaningful dialogue. If there is no consensus on basic facts, it is difficult to bridge partisan divide without succumbing to a truth you regard as false.
Mankind finds itself at a critical juncture, the decisions that need to be made in the coming years will have repercussions for decades if not centuries to come. One of these is deciding what role technology will play in our lives. There is no doubt that there are significant benefits for the fields of medicine, transport and education to name a few. However, the impunity with which these companies have operated thus far shows that lawmakers need to keep up with the blistering pace of technological innovation to stop tech companies from manipulating and exploiting their users. The EU’s 2016 landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is just the beginning of a long road which needs to lead us to an effective regulation of big tech’s unbridled power over the digital world.