There is a pair of documentaries currently streaming that explore how data mining via social media have infiltrated our lives. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (2020), produced by Netflix, has been making massive waves and getting a lot of press. However, there’s a British documentary that goes deeper into how our own lives are weaponized against us. It’s a shame that PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW (2020) doesn’t have the same corporate power and money behind it, because what it has to say is more groundbreaking, if not more frightening.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA is focused on algorithms used by Facebook, Google, Instagram, and other big social media players. Former employees and designers explain how they developed these tools while conveniently avoiding taking responsibility for their use. The goal is to keep people clicking and keep seeing advertisements. In order to keep people clicking their feeds and ads are micro-targeted based on their browsing history and which images/websites capture their interest for the longest. The result is an addictive bubble. Much of what they have to say isn’t news to people who have been paying attention–it’s unhealthy to compare yourself to other people on your media feed. It’s not good to spend all your time on a phone and not appreciating the world around you. Notifications and “suggested content” is bad and makes your social bubble smaller and smaller (the irony that producer, Netflix, uses both along with its algorithms to personalize content is not lost on me). There’s a thread of self-importance running through this; it’s as if peer pressure didn’t exist before Instagram. The programmers even say their algorithms are the cause of unrest in Hong Kong, as opposed to oppression. They also made the claim that fake news spreads faster than the truth. That could be true, but like their claims that the Hong Kong uprising was due to Facebook, come without support or evidence. The film ends with calls for heavy regulation to stop the flow of fake news.
Okay, our information is collected then used against us. But how? This is the strength of PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW.
Charles Kriel was hired in 2018 by the UK Parliament to examine how Cambridge Analytica was using fake news and disinformation, and it’s possible hand in Brexit and the 2016 United States election. Cambridge Analytica was only the beginning. He then followed their information sales to Evangelical groups looking to reach out to the community. Through the data collected they were able to track who might have substance abuse issues, grief, marital problems, new families. From there they could target ads for their church’s services on those topics, and hopefully get people through their doors and get them the help they needed.
Then things go even deeper.
Those same mega church groups partnered with the Republican party to help reach out and sell Trump as the ideal candidate, despite his entire life going against accepted Christian values. If you ever wanted to know how so many devout people could get behind such an abominable man, this documentary does a great job of not only explaining it, but graphing the path.
It does stop short of explaining the Russian connection. “If you want to know about Russia turn the camera off. That information will get you killed,” was the last words uttered into the camera. Even without that, Kriel and his filmmaker partner Katharina Gellein Viken give you a clear enough path to see how the moral soul of millions of people were sold out.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA is a great launching point if someone has full trust in the internet and all they see:
If you’re ready to go deeper, PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW is fantastic but scary:
THIS IS AN OPEN THREAD. Take care, and be well.