By Edwin Doyle, Global Security Strategist, Check Point Software. 

Last night, I watched the documentary, The Social Dilemma. As a 12-year veteran of the cyber security industry, I wasn’t surprised at most of the sinister facts of social media that will no doubt be a revelation to the majority, but I was struck off my high-horse by the realization that in fact, as a father, as a former school board trustee & as a champion of free speech & good values, I’ve stuck my head in the sands of time, thinking “it’ll just sort itself out” & the greater good will prevail. I might be mistaken.

I’m inherently optimistic & therefore gravitate toward the works of intellectuals like Steven Pinker, the MIT/Harvard cognitive psychologist, well known for his book, Enlightenment Now, where he demonstrates empirical evidence that life for humans & this planet is better today than it ever has been (if you’re new to this thought, I’d suggest ignoring main stream media’s bleeding headlines, because in fact, we are living in the most prosperous & beautiful time in the history of our species – we are, all of us, privileged).

The Social Dilemma has given me cause for a new thought. What happens when an individual is surrounded by an echo chamber? In other words, when artificial intelligence targets a person based on “likes” & therefore pushes similar data to the recipient over & over again, while limiting alternative information. It’s the first time in human history that we’ve tried this social experiment… or is it?

Growth & human ingenuity are  born of struggle. It seems to be the nature of the human condition. This is, in fact, the entrepreneurial story. We’re faced with a problem (AKA: hardship) & we labor to solve it, in Western democracies, via cooperation, agreements, concessions & the value of the highest ethical standards.

I can imagine that Jack Dorsey started Twitter as an alternative to long-form email & an upgrade to short-form text – let’s use a limited number of characters to communicate instantly to anyone & everyone on an interactive platform that  focuses on the user experience & stays in the online historical record forever. Beautiful. A tool that has been credited with the potential to change the world, as we saw with the Iranian people using Twitter as the primary tool initiating the Green Revolution; an albeit failed attempt to move that regime beyond the sham elections purported by their corrupt leadership.

So, what is all the fuss about? Suicide. In the US, since the prevalence of social media, suicides among pre-teens have risen 150% & self-harm among pre-teens girls has tripled. Jon Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU, said “a whole generation of kids have been blighted by the new technology.”

What else should we be concerned about?

Election interference, broadly speaking. We saw what happened when smart people weaponized social media to the highest bidder with Cambridge Analytica’s impact on British democracy. The British people were so misinformed that the highest trending Google search the day after the vote divorcing England from Europe, was “what is Brexit?” Prior to the ballot, what did those people think they were voting for? Governments & leaders, once held in high esteem, like Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, also use social media to rally zealous crowds, as we continue to see with inflammatory posts, encouraging the torture & displacement of Rohingya Muslims in that region.

The ethics of social media is confusing, because it provides an opportunity for simultaneous utopia & dystopia. I did say this is “the first time in human history that we’ve tried this social experiment.” En masse, yes, but I’m reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s old fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes & I think of the monarchy’s of the old world, ruling by an iron fist. Did those who were forced to bow to the King speak the truth to him? Did anyone dare tell the King news he didn’t want to hear? He lived in an echo chamber. We know how it ended for all dictators of what are now Western democracies & as the ruling CEOs of today’s marketplaces gain more power, my optimism remains that the people will eventually decide their fate.

In the meantime, to protect yourself from being a victim to the social dilemma, I’d recommend turning off all alerts on your phone & computers, except those which demand your immediate attention; let’s say, appointment notifications, texts & oh yes, the original function of that powerful device in your pocket, the phone!

Understand that our societies have moved from the information age, to the disinformation age in just 20 years. There is however, a simple thought to help you weed out the disinformation… if you’re not paying for the product or service, it means you are the product or service. Social media companies make money by selling you, your “likes,” to other companies, who will tell you anything to satisfy their agenda. Social media is like a stock market that trades in human futures through a disinformation business model. Knowing you’re the lab rat will help you join the paranoia of cyber professionals such as myself. If it’s free, don’t trust it. And if you’re still in doubt about the sinister tricks of social media companies, think about this… there are only two groups of people who refer to their customers as “users,” drug dealers & Silicon Valley software companies.

I haven’t watched main stream media for years & instead pay a small annual amount for unbiased news focused on geopolitical security. This helps me unplug from the Matrix & reduce the noise, heightening my lie-detector to greater sensitivity.

How will this all unfold?

Exactly as it should, in the end. The internet will continue to provide many Guttenberg moments to improve human life & on balance, we owe a debt of gratitude to the inventors, the engineers & to the “users” for blazing a trail into the unknown cyber space.