Last Updated on 18th November 2020
Mahmood Kauser, Missionary, New York City
Every so often, Netflix will air a special that stirs attention. Nowadays, the top of that list is “The Social Dilemma”, which has brought to light a problem we were all begrudgingly cognisant of but did not always want to admit.
As I sat to watch the documentary, a memory resurfaced in my mind of the first time social media blinded me to the beauty of life that I was then immersed in. I was in Nice, France with some friends as we continued our Europe trip. I recall the day I set up my first Facebook account and how, within seconds, my screen was lighting up with notifications one after another. Friends, family and all sorts of acquaintances began liking, tagging, and DM’ing my every move as updates about everyone continued rolling in.
I had become so immersed by that first rush of curiosity and excitement that as my friends spent the day enjoying the mesmerising sights of Southern France, I sat glued to my screen, tumbling down a never-ending rabbit hole. And the reality is that I do not remember a single message or person I spoke to that day, yet my friends clearly remember every instance of natural beauty and wonder that they experienced in Nice. This is the ugly truth behind social media. And this documentary captures this reality like never before.
This experience of a single day’s obsession was something I was not used to growing up. From my basic understanding of Islam, I knew not to fall prey to the crowd and that I should break free from the shackles of addiction and manipulation.
Yet on that absurd day, I felt like a lab rat who was amused by simple lights and colors, too hypnotised to change direction. Still I was fortunate enough to hear from our spiritual leader, Khalifatul Masih, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, about the ills of social media and how Facebook should be avoided to safeguard oneself from its dangers. I was able to move on. Others were not so fortunate.
Millions suffer from social media addiction and woefully, the majority are not able to free themselves of it. Perhaps one of the most poignantly highlighted accounts of deception by the social media industry is the discovery that we are neither the clients, nor the customer; we are merely the product. Companies may acquire us as customers, but they cultivate our attention to rewire our perception of reality and our place in it so they can secure our future within their control. And it is our gradual change in perception that they invest in to create unlimited sources of revenue.
Contrary to popular belief, the documentary unveils that our data is not being shared between companies because the reality is that our data is being processed, analysed and set on a course of manipulation by the social media giants to sell that analysis profit. This business model is what inevitably leads to the addictive nature of social media.
Although the documentary likened social media addiction to drug addiction, the truth is that it stems from a different kind of addiction; the addiction of pornography. Drug addiction leaves the user craving more of the same thing whereas porn addiction leaves users desirous of something new and novel.
Since the basic stimulus quickly loses its attraction, no longer fulfilling their wants, people wind down a path searching for exotically new and absurd things. Usually these people would not have found any of those things appealing at the outset but because they are slowly being conditioned to find beauty in novelty, the exotic and strange becomes appealing. This gradual transformation is portrayed in the documentary when one teenager slowly loses focus on his extracurricular activities, eventually ending up on conspiracy theorists’ vlogs in a blind haze grasping for the next eye-catching thing.
This reminds me of an example that my friend would often share of someone who fixes up his car because he no longer finds it beautiful. Initially, he might put a simple sticker or a new muffler tip on his car to keep it modern and attractive. Slowly he becomes so obsessed by the desire for novelty that he continues to modify the car until it is unbearable to see by anyone other than him.
Nevertheless, he still finds this hideously remodeled car beautiful because it looks updated to him. This is the most effective way of causing behavioral change; constantly make someone desire novelty until they are forced to experience and like things that are increasingly absurd and strange until one day, their entire perception of reality is altogether changed. Granted the documentary did acknowledge the existence of perception change and persuasion technology, it did not however explain how these phenomena are accomplished.
It is probably because that model of addiction is so uncannily like the porn industry that they would have unwantedly ended up exposing more than one reality that plagues us today. And yet it could not be more evident that subscribing to social media eventually means that patterns of likes, dislikes, and interest are discovered. This in turn causes platforms to create a bubble of like-minded content while at the same time, pushing the boundaries by providing something new but somehow related so that users are hypnotised into endless scrolling. This is called tunnel persuasion. A consequence of tunnel persuasion is that users experience quick-lived satisfaction from any given content and are soon on the hunt for something else. There is no end in sight.
Ask anyone who is a regular TikTok user, they will tell you that after a few days, the most annoying thing to see is a previous post appearing again. Be that as it may, when a platform caters to their desires, one begs the question, why is seeing the same thing again so distasteful? Another example is found in YouTube. Why is it that every YouTuber ends their video with the phrase “make sure to like and subscribe” and yet whenever it is heard, it makes people physically cringe?
The reason is because the same statement heard over and over quickly becomes unappealing. This can also lead to self-image issues. Why are people so disgusted by the face they see in the morning after waking up? It is because their reflection is the same as yesterday and their brains are now engineered to be attracted only to that which is novel in an excessive way. This is what makes the perfect environment for things like Snapchat dysphoria to take hold of people by unrealistically accusing them of characteristics which are so criminal to have, yet nobody else even notices.
In the grand scheme of things, the social media business model aims to manipulate the masses. Mob like mentality is a normal term that has been known since time immemorial. It is easier to get action from a mob than from an individual.
Therefore, it is no surprise that tunnel persuasion, when combined with other techniques, makes manipulation of the masses oh-so easy. The danger is when manipulation of masses is for sale. It has always been at the fingertips of the wealthy and powerful and that is precisely why religious books always speak of the little guy going against the status quo to correct the trajectory of mankind. Not to mention his or her efforts are always stopped by the rich and wealthy, who rein control over society through their influence. The only difference is that nowadays, this influence is being directed through the agendas of social media giants.
Hence as an Ahmadi Muslim, when I read the Quran and see the struggle of past prophets who constantly pushed against the tide to reform and guide their people, I am instantly reminded of the reality that “history repeats itself ”.
Despite all the technology and intellectual advancements we enjoy, people are still as gullible and naïve as they were thousands of years ago. Whether it was the magicians who performed in front of Pharoah or the social media platforms that spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, both had objectives to please their provider without concern of the consequences.
The Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community addressed the entire movement across the globe on various occasions and said something that was completely out of this world, that Facebook was in fact a growing danger and must be avoided. It was a direction that the world was not ready for. And as a result, many people may have scoffed and laughed at the stance that was presented.
But time revealed the advice he gave that day saved countless people from the ill-effects of a business model that has ruined the lives of millions. He said in one instance, “I have individually been saying to people that Facebook leads to wrong actions and can be a source of worry for an individual … May Allah the Exalted save us from all harm and may the Jamaat tread on the paths leading to progress.” (Friday Sermon, 31 December 2010)
But not all people are fortunate enough to have such insight readily available. I remember reading an article almost a decade ago of a young girl from a typical American high school who made the grave decision to share a nude photo with close friends who inevitably shared it with the whole school. She never showed up to school the next day, not because she did not want to, but because she had hung herself out of shame.
I spent years pondering what her parents must have gone through and more importantly, how she had an entire life ahead of her that was tragically cut short.
I remember walking around in the villages of east Africa and seeing other Americans from similar cities and backgrounds who were living there and helping to change the world for the better and thinking to myself that that girl could have been one of them if she had not fallen prey to the hidden monstrosity of social media. Instead, she ended her life because of a single text.
When our children are killing themselves, we must realise that our entire society is being ravaged by a lack of censorship. This leads me to my final impression of the documentary, the role of regulation.
At the very core of Islamic teachings is regulation for the sake of real progression. Some people might see regulation as the antithesis to freedom, but true freedom is a regulated order that allows for more growth. If you were to remove all of the street-lights in Central London in the name of freedom, would that result in easier commute or complete chaos? It becomes obvious that street-lights are a regulation of society, allowing for the greater value of safety and efficiency. This is exactly what Islam promotes.
The rules surrounding things like the consumption of alcohol and pork give Muslims an innate ability to easily embrace regulation and to live by rules and laws if they so choose. And for the idea of regulation to flourish, there is another concept in Islam known as moderation.
Excessive use of anything is contrary to a balanced lifestyle which is an integral part of a healthy life. And if you add the avoidance of addictions and a hint of moral responsibility in the mix, you find a three-step rule in Islam that enables individuals and society as a whole to rid itself from the shackles of any harmfully prevailing trend. Namely, in order to succeed, society must embrace regulation by the means of moderation, avoidance of addictions and affirming a moral responsibility for the health and wellbeing of its people.
It was 1,400 years ago when the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa forbade the drinking of alcohol. Streams of alcohol flowed the streets of Medina when alcohol was finally deemed “haram” or prohibited. This became the only true adaptation of prohibition in the history of the world and yet, even this was not without additional safety measures for society.
For one, any items that reminded people of drinking alcohol were also forbidden in order to safeguard the masses from any influence in returning to alcoholism. The idea was to disconnect society completely from the environment that encouraged drinking.
Unsurprisingly the documentary failed hopelessly in resolving the social media dilemma since at the very end, it asked for only one thing; regulation.
A hundred years ago, when the government banned alcohol in this very country on the sole basis of regulation, it quickly disintegrated and society reverted back as if nothing happened. The only reason could be that regulation alone is not effective if the people themselves have not been educated and morally uplift ed. Otherwise what motivation do they have to make such a drastic change among themselves?
On the other hand, the people who readily accepted the Quran’s injunction to forego alcohol were morally transformed which is why the ill-effects of alcohol were easily recognised and weaned off of without any pushback.
Furthermore, if regulation were blindly enacted in America without previous uplifting and educating of the masses, they would defiantly rebel, perceiving their freedoms were being infringed upon. Meanwhile the accused party will already have misinformation spread in favour of its continued existence.
If a people can argue that wearing masks is counterproductive in stopping the spread of Covid-19, how can you expect such people to be sensible enough to embrace with open arms the idea of regulation in regard to their use of social media.
This is why I hold the words of the Khalifa of Islam so dear to me and feel that his guidance is what can genuinely help us liberate the millions, if not billions, of people who have been duped by such companies. It starts from within.
“These days, a new method of introduction has been created on the computer and the Internet called Facebook. Though it is not that new, but it was introduced in the last few years. I had previously discouraged you from this practice. I had said in my sermons that it encourages immodesty. It shatters boundaries amongst people; boundaries from one another; boundaries around secrets. It exposes secrets and invites indecency. The creator of this site has said, ‘I have created this and I believe that whatever a man is on the outside and inside should be exposed to others.’
“In his view, exposing someone means that if someone wants to post a nude picture of themselves, they may and even encourages others to comment on it. This is allowed! Inna lillah! Similarly, anyone can post about anything he sees. If this is not extreme moral regression and degradation, then what is?
“In this state of moral regression and degradation, an Ahmadi has to teach the high standard of morality and virtue.” (Concluding address, Jalsa Salana Germany, 26 June 2011)
In conclusion, The Social Dilemma documentary exposed one of the greatest plagues of our era. My only hope is that it does not fall on deaf ears. In order for us to take benefit from the message of this documentary, we must finally realise that real change will only occur when the collective willpower of the people makes an educated eff ort to reform society and hold guilty parties accountable.
So the next time you are mindlessly staring at your screen, blind to the real world, you are actually sitting in and allowing yourself to fall further down the rabbit hole. Remember this. Until you as an individual and we as a society do not put our will power and effort into coming up for air, things will never change.