Lessons from Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”
Social media is turning you into a different person. It is changing what you do, how you think, and who you are. A little scarier than the long-debated, surface-scratching problem of data privacy, right?
The new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma” shows that the issue goes much deeper. By interviewing engineers who built these platforms, it shows us that the addictive characteristics of social media are thoroughly studied and put into practice to make us spend more time on the platforms. Why? Just so the algorithms can create perfect psychological portraits of who we are and, slowly, transform us to their own benefit.
As Edward Tufte says in the documentary, “there are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” Social media platforms are offered freely, so we tend to think that our attention is the product they are selling, “if the service is free, then you are the product.” But it doesn’t stop there.
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception. It’s the only thing for them to make money from: changing what you do, how you think, who you are.” — The Social Dilemma
What Is The Problem?
But what is the problem, exactly? “The Social Dilemma” identifies three main sources of concern.
“A 5,000 person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction.”
— American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017
Most engineers at these tech giants had university classes where they learned how to make use of basic human psychology to manipulate us for their own good. Social media pulls chords in the deepest of our human behavior, no matter how much we try to resist it. “It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you. It wants things from you,” says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.
Tim Kendall, a former executive at Facebook and Pinterest, shares: “I thought: this is classic irony. I am going to work during the day and build something that then I am falling prey to. And in some of those moments, I couldn’t help myself.”
The psychological manipulation is especially alarming amongst younger generations. Today’s children are born into a world controlled by technology, with nothing they can compare it against.
“We’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture is manipulation,” says writer Jaron Lanier in the documentary.
The price we pay is high. This has a tremendous impact on children’s mental health, leading to rising rates of suicide and self-harm among teenagers.
“The number of countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media doubled in the past two years”— The Social Dilemma
In a plot twist, social media is expanding the distance between people. Ideological distance. The documentary mentions how Republican Party followers and Democratic party supporters’ gap in views is wider each year. This makes the room for fruitful conversation and mutual understanding narrower and narrower.
Such a phenomenon is one of the symptoms of the disease we are all falling ill to, and that has a scary consequence: the endangering of democracy. But this threat is not the result of ideological groups hacking us. They are simply using the tools at their disposal. A Harvard Business School professor points out a simple yet terrifying truth about the Russian influence in the US 2016 election: “The Russians didn’t hack Facebook. They used the tools that Facebook made for legitimate advertisers”.
“Algorithms promote content that sparks outrage, hate, and amplifies biases living within the data that we feed it.” — The Social Dilemma
Social media is eroding the concept of truth. Instead of living in a common world, each of us spends our days encapsulated in our own pre-fabricated world, without being aware of it. Our feeds have the worrying effect of validating our world views over and over again, making us oblivious to other realities.
“The end goal for tech companies is to ‘identify an audience of one’ and extract as much data about each user as possible,” says Tristan Harris. “This sends every person down an individually curated rabbit hole,” or as Jeff Orlowski, the director of the documentary says, “2.7 billion ‘Truman Shows’ operating simultaneously.”
As a consequence, we see phenomenons like the rise of the Flat Earth movement. All thanks to a Youtube algorithm that keeps feeding people content that aligns with their view of the world, even when that view is not real.
“It’s easy to think that it’s just a few stupid people who get convinced,” warns Guillaume Chaslot, the engineer who created the Youtube algorithm, “but the algorithm is getting smarter and smarter every day. Today they’re convincing people that the Earth is flat, but tomorrow they will be convincing you of something.”
What You Can Do as an Individual
The first tip comes from “The Social Dilemma” website, through the voice of Tim Kendall.
1. Reclaim your screen time
- Understand your usage: You will not be motivated to end the problem if you don’t understand it entirely in the first place. This study shows that the average person spends around four hours per day on their phone. Yet, when asked about it, most people claim their usage is only half of that. You can watch yourself by installing a time tracker app on your phone that will tell you how much time you spend on your phone, using which apps. StayFree or YourHour are two good alternatives.
- Shut off notifications: They divert your attention, leaving you anxiously wanting to check them, and constantly redirecting you to your phone throughout the day. It’s especially worrisome if you think the average person gets around 63 notifications per day. If you are awake for 16 hours, that means one notification every 15 minutes.
- Create limits: Taking advantage of the time tracker mentioned above, define daily limits for specific apps, especially social media and news sources. You can also create a timeframe limit (for example, you don’t use your phone after 9 p.m.) and room limits (not taking your phone into the bedroom).
2. Declutter social media feeds
Social media feeds us incredible amounts of information constantly, always fighting for our attention. Take this moment of rethinking your relationship with it, and assess the accounts you follow on all these platforms.
Steve Bartlett, CEO of one of the biggest social media agencies, Social Chain, emphasizes the importance of feed hygiene: “Your timeline is your library and without knowing it, your timeline is driving what you know, think and feel. Follow more people that educate, inspire, and motivate. Unfollow negative, petty and uninspiring people.”
3. Choose your Youtube videos
One of the key takeaways from “The Social Dilemma” is that to gain control of the content we are exposed to, we need to choose it. The easiest way to do it is by following Jaron Lanier’s tip: stop clicking on Youtube’s video suggestions.
4. Fact check
There is an MIT study that shows that fake news on Twitter spread six times faster than true news. The amount of fake news populating our social media feeds is appalling.
In media universities, one of the first things future journalists learn is: always doublecheck, even if the source is your mom. Don’t trust your mom. And definitely don’t trust social media feeds.
5. Share the documentary with others
The movie ends with a joke “Follow us on Social Media. Just kidding.” But in good truth, you should probably spread the word about “The Social Dilemma” on your social accounts and in-person to your family and friends. Together, we can take the necessary steps towards a better world. As in the section below.
What We Can Do as Societies
Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, and Randy Fernando, all featuring in “The Social Dilemma,” created this movement. It is dedicated to “creating the conditions for radically reimagined 21st-century digital infrastructure that supports our well-being, relationships, democracy, and shared information environment.”
You can use their resources to stay updated on these issues, and even take some of the courses they offer on the subject.
Combat political misinformation
The Ad Observer plugin was created as part of the Online Political Transparency Project at New York University. As they state, “online ads are usually seen only by the audience the advertiser wants to target, and then they disappear. This makes it difficult for the public to monitor them and hold advertisers, including political groups, accountable.”
By installing this plugin in your browser, you are contributing to providing information to the researchers, allowing them to work to expose micro-targeting techniques, and hold political advertisers accountable.
You don’t need to take this information as a doomsday alert and get off the grid entirely. What you need to do is become alert, develop critical thinking, and start taking personal and collective action towards the reshaping of the social media landscape. Be an active voice instead of a passive pawn the tech giants use as their product.
Not everything is bad about technology and social media. It still has the wonderful capability of bridging distances, bringing people together, and help to spread messages that contribute to a better world.
Justin Rosenstein, one of the inventors of the like button at Facebook, tells in the documentary: “When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was ‘Can we spread positivity and love in the world?’ The idea that, fast-forward to today, teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes, or that it could be leading to political polarization was nowhere on our radar.”
There is hope. But we need to stop being so indifferent to this whole situation. Don’t fall into the easy way out of believing that you have absolutely no power against tech giants. If we all think like that, then we will all be correct. But if we come together in this battle, we stand a chance. “We can demand that those products be designed humanely,” says Harris. “We built these things and we have a responsibility to change them.”