Imagine deleting your social media apps for a month, and just enjoying life (well, as much as you can during the pandemic). Sounds nice, right?
When you think of social media today, especially outside entertainment apps like YouTube and TikTok that are still home to creative, original content, it’s hard to have anything but a mixed reaction, especially to the endless scrolls of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. These apps are run by algorithms that recommend content it thinks you will engage with to keep you interacting with them as long as possible so the apps can sell ads. But it goes beyond that; there is very intentional psychological manipulation in their designs, in hopes of making you dependent off them the same way an addict is dependent off the dopamine rush a drug gives them, which Netflix’s docudrama “The Social Dilemma” explores with in-depth interviews from experts in the field, as well as some of the very people who designed these apps.
The film’s main interview subject is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who worked on making Gmail, as well as the co-founder for the Center for Humane Technology, and the film really serves as an engine to explore his thesis that all social media applications are broken by design because they exist not to enrich or even serve their users, but to sell those users to advertisers. As a result, these companies program algorithms that recommend addicting content. It doesn’t matter if this content is true or passes any ethical standards, as long as it gets clicks, these algorithms are programmed to distribute it to as many people as possible, making these companies directly responsible for the rise of fake news and social media echo chambers that lead not only to harmful divisions in democracies, but can also have egregious real-word consequences when people act off of conspiracy theories.
The film notes that the creators of these apps did not set out to produce these negative outcomes. Like many pieces of technology, they were invented to improve and enrich people’s lives, connecting people who otherwise would never have any interaction and serve as a means to share meaningful content, but they have been compromised by their business models. In the absence of their users being their customers, social media companies have turned their users into the product, and they sell influence over them to the highest bidder. The film notes how the media paints Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election as some sort of hack, but just like oppressive regimes overseas that weaponize Facebook to create division, the documentary notes that Russia was just taking advantage of infrastructure social media companies had intentionally built to sell influence.
The documentary also notes how since the social media boom of 2011-2013, cases of depression, anxiety and suicide have skyrocketed in youth, especially the younger members of Generation Z that grew up with social media in middle school, and the film backs this up with interviews from psychologists like Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff. The film highlights that, from an evolutionary perspective, we’re programmed to want to gain approval from our immediate tribe as that would guarantee a better chance of survival, but we’re not wired to process the approval/disapproval of millions of people. As such, social media encourages an unrealistic pursuit of perfection that leaves you hollow. That’s something that’s hard to handle as an adult, let alone as a child.
While there is plenty of doom and gloom in this film, there’s also a clear, direct message how to fix these platforms: Government regulation. The film makes stringent comparisons to the regulations of legacy media and how those standards just aren’t there for social media, to the detriment of facts and the well-being of children. If anything, the film says, the current laws in place benefit huge social media companies more than their users.
And I must admit, I agree. While I don’t think we should outright eliminate the market for social media platforms, those platforms need to be held accountable for their algorithms that intentionally spread misinformation in its blind quest for clicks, and we need to hold these platforms to the same standards of legacy media in terms of marketing towards children, because there is a real tangible human cost for not doing so.
“The Social Dilemma” is 89 minutes long, but it’s very well researched and its arguments are strong. While the film doesn’t explore every aspect of its subject matter (there is plenty of room for follow-up works), it takes perhaps the most focused and strong approach to tackling the harmful side of social media I’ve ever seen in a documentary, taking full advantage of its interviews from Silicon Valley insiders and psychologists. For the average citizen, the data collection habits of social media companies might be a minor annoyance or conspiracy theory, but for some of the people this film interviews, it was how they made a living.
I highly recommend this film, mostly because it starts an important conversation not many are having about social media, and it will make you see your daily usage habits in a new light.
“The Social Dilemma” gets an 8/10