Are Social Media Creating a Dystopian World?

Image by Frédéric Guimont

In George Orwell’s 1948 novel 1984, citizens of the single-party totalitarian superstate Oceania, led by the infamous Big Brother, are under constant surveillance through the use of telescreens, a sort of two-way TV system that brings government propaganda to all households, workstations and public places and, at the same time, records images and sounds in all locations to help the Thought Police monitor and control any subversive activity. Everywhere in Oceania posters showing the message ‘Big Brother is watching you’ remind citizens of their ongoing and permanent scrutiny. Access to private correspondence, a pervasive network of informers and the encouragement to report any suspicious behavior round off the surveillance system. In order to not only restrict personal freedom and eliminate privacy, through surveillance, but also to control individuals’ perception of reality, news and historical records are routinely manipulated, to make them accord with the official narrative — citizens must be quick to forget facts or ideas and accept their opposites instead, an ability known as ‘doublespeak’ — , and a simplified language, ‘newspeak’, is devised to inhibit thinking and reasoning abilities. Alienation and intellectual submission, basic principles for the subsistence of Oceania, are consecrated in two Party slogans: ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength’. The third Party slogan, ‘War is Peace’, reveals that hatred, all other emotions having been prohibited, is what propels and sustains the hierarchical society. Hatred is directed to anyone or anything different, unusual or foreign (mainly the other two rival superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia) and to those conspiring against the Party.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, citizens of the totalitarian World State are harvested and engineered in artificial wombs, prior to being assigned a specific caste and its corresponding indoctrination and emotional conditioning, and a public role or ‘inescapable social destiny’. In a hierarchical, passionless and highly industrialized society — Henry Ford is revered as a spiritual leader and his ideas inform society — , citizens are kept peaceful and submissive through the use of ‘Soma’, a happiness-inducing drug. In addition, rampant consumerism (the flip side of phenomenal industrialization) and recreational sex (a mandatory activity) help individuals define and enjoy their personal identity — an elusive notion in a technologically advanced and dehumanized world — and, along with the drug, ensure support for the government and stability for society. Pervasive happiness and overwhelming propaganda make resistance to authority, much less rebellion, unimaginable. Outside the World State there are Savage Reservations, inhabited by natural-born people (afflicted with disease and ageing, and reliant on religion and marriage), and secluded islands, inhabited by exiled individuals who didn’t comply with the strict order and regulations of the World State. Despite being publicly ostracized, these individuals appear to be more stimulating and attractive than those living in the World State. Stability and happiness, being paramount for the system, are enforced through social engineering and synthetic drugs, even at the cost of freedom and truth.

Today, we may have the impression of having achieved utopia, the ultimate comfort and development, but some of the basic elements of a dystopian world (massive surveillance and control, manipulation of reality and historical facts, and addiction mechanisms) are easily spotted all around us.

Social media, once considered the panacea of free speech and democracy, include a two-way system by which individuals can be monitored and controlled and, at the same time, indoctrinated and conditioned with all sorts of propaganda and targeted advertising. However, this time around the story looks different; individuals seem to willingly accept this modern Big Brother surveillance system. They voluntarily broadcast their lives on social media and expose themselves to the scrutiny of the rest of the world. In addition, social media can surveil us in ways that go beyond what we can possibly realize. Likewise, individuals seem to welcome indoctrination and conditioning — the acceptance of ‘alternative facts’, today’s ‘doublespeak’ — based on the assumption that a ‘superior intelligence’, controlled by social media managers, who try to maximize profits at the expense of helpless users (social media is ultimately a business), or by anyone who can exert an influence on social media and push forward a private agenda (lobbies or interest groups, including governments), is aware of and can provide them with the specific information they need at any given time and for any given purpose. Social media, by democratizing ignorance and discrediting authority, encourage an uncritical attitude towards information and knowledge that paves the way for mass brainwashing and re-education. Obviously, targeted propaganda appeals to the emotional, not the intellectual, side of the individual to try to modify behaviors and alter mindsets — emotions define, to a large extent, how individuals think and behave. Attempts to rig elections (US presidential election), misinform the public on crucial issues (climate change, covid-19 pandemic) or stoke racial and political conflicts (Myanmar, Ethiopia) are not uncommon occurrences these days. Even just presentism — description or interpretation of the past using modern concepts and ideas alien to that past — and political correctness — less disturbing but equally effective — are contributing to alter facts and rewrite history in significant ways.

But why would social media become such an efficient and widely accepted Big Brother? Basically because social media also provide a happiness-inducing drug, in the form of personal recognition and appreciation. Today, as in the dystopian novels discussed above, the notion of personal identity in a world that is controlled by forces alien to individuals seems to play a crucial role; social media thrive on the fear of losing individual identity in our rapidly changing reality. They provide individuals with the opportunity to be noticed and appreciated by a wide audience, something that is vital in an increasingly narcissistic and prejudiced world. Today’s social media likes and cherry-picked news that reinforce our worldviews and biases have become the modern Soma. And this new drug is clearly and purposefully addictive — addiction being dubbed ‘engagement’ in social media parlance. It is significant the case of Louis Barclay, narrated in Slate, who created an app, Unfollow Everything, to avoid being bombarded with unwanted information, the proverbial news feed, and getting addicted to it, and was banned from social media. It is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the main character, John the Savage, is arrested and prosecuted by the authorities when he tries to convince a group of individuals to give up the drug and face reality as it is; become free at the cost of affliction and distress.

Social media, accessed mainly by mobile phone — able to exchange text, photos and videos — , have transformed this device into the main instrument of control and reward of our time, a device most people don’t even dream of getting away from, much less get rid of it. Our personal identity and happiness is directly linked to what we can access through it.

The future migration of social media to the Metaverse (a term that first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash), an online world where people can work, play, interact, communicate, and essentially have a new life in a virtual environment — a much more immersive experience that guarantees a sense of real presence, since ‘feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology’, according to an official statement — , may contribute to create a Matrix-like alternative reality where anyone will be able to add new features completely unconstrained, which will surely increase the potential for brainwashing and addiction.

Engineer and consultant, passionate about innovation, technology and digital transformation.