Sep 18 2020

Review of The Social Dilemma

I just watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and found it extremely interesting, if flawed. The show is about the inside operation of the big social media tech companies and the impact they are having on society. Like all documentaries – this one has a particular narrative, and that narrative is a choice made by the filmmakers. These narratives never reflect the full complexity of reality, and often drive the viewer to a certain conclusion. In short, you can never take them at face value and should try to understand them in a broader context.

Having said that, there is a lot of useful insight in the film. What it does well is interview tech insiders who expose the thinking on the part of corporations. We already know many of the pitfalls of social media, and I have discussed many of them here. Social media can be addictive, can lead to depression and a low self-esteem, and to FOMO (fear of missing out). We definitely need to explore the psychological aspects of social media, and this is still a new and active area of research.

Also, social media lends itself to information bubbles. When we rely mostly on social media for our news and information, over time that information is increasing curated to cater to a particular point of view. We can go down rabbit holes of subculture, conspiracy theories, and radical political perspectives. Social media algorithsms have essentially convinced people that the Earth is flat, that JFK Jr. is alive and secretly working for Trump, and that the experts are all lying to us.

This is where I think the documentary was very persuasive and the conclusions resonated. They argued that increasingly people of different political identities are literally living in different worlds. They are cocooned in an information ecosystem that not only has its own set of opinions but its own set of facts. This makes a conversation between different camps impossible. There is no common ground of a shared reality. In fact, the idea of facts, truth, and reality fades away and is replaced entirely with opinion and perspective, and a false equivalency that erases expertise, process, and any measure of validity. At least, this is what happens in the extreme (and I think we have all experienced this).

The documentary was also persuasive (again, nothing new) in arguing that this system is ripe for exploitation, by foreign powers, oligarchs, and dictators. It is an incredible amount of power to put at the fingertips of a totalitarian government. They can control what their citizens think, without their citizens really even being aware of it. It is a propagandist’s wet dream, and blows away the worst nightmares of 1984.

Social media clearly is playing a critical role in the increased polarization we are experiencing, and the rise of populists.

To anyone paying attention, none of this was new, but it is instructive to have it all laid out systematically. What I thought was new, at least to me, was the degree to which the consequences of social media are apparently by design. My prior sense was that social media algorithms were optimized to give users what they want in order to get them and keep them using their platform. But really, the manipulation goes deeper and is much more conscious and intentional. Having social media rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, for example, is not an unintended side effect of social media algorithms – it’s a deliberate feature. The industry is deliberately psychologically manipulating users (that’s us) in order to maximize attention harvesting in order to directly monetize that attention, and gather data so that the data itself can be monetized and used to further harvest our attention. This isn’t surprising, it was just way more explicit than I had imagined.

There are a few ways in which the documentary was weak, however, in my opinion. First, the dramatization they included throughout the show did not ring true, it felt forced and cheesy. It was also largely unnecessary. It did not add any insight or make me feel that I understood the phenomenon better. We are all living this, we don’t need to see actors badly portray modern life.

Second, as others have pointed out, the film could have taken a little bit of time to put social media into a broader context of media and the internet in general. This is not just a peeve about focus. I don’t mind if a piece focuses on what it wants to focus on and tells me it is focusing on. But in this case, taking too narrow an approach to social media did lead to some false conclusions about it. Specifically, if you ignore the ways in which other media or other online networks also lead to some of the same problems, then you miss at least some aspects of the real underling phenomenon. Downsides can occur even without algorithms, and even without big corporations psychologically manipulating users. Perhaps if they got rid of the dramatization they could have used that time to explore some of this nuance.

Finally, I felt the documentary gave too little time to discussing potential fixes. This came only at the very end, and most of it was literally an afterthought – with snippets of interviews shown during the credits. Long after I was sold on their premise, that social media is being abused and we need to do something, I was left wanting to hear what we can do about it.  We finally get a rapid fire list of recommendations, but that could have benefited from more discussion.

The short answer is – we need industry regulation. The industry has already demonstrated that they are not going to regulate themselves, and they are basically trapped in their own business model that requires using every method possible to maximize growth and engagement. The financial incentives have to shift, and certain behaviors should just be banned. Much of this can be accomplished under the principle of individual privacy – restricting the gathering of massive amounts of data on people just because they are using your service. Also, things like “privacy mode” can be made the default, and the companies themselves would have to jump through hoops and get your permission to harvest your data. Laws also need to be updated so that social media does not bypass previous regulations meant, for example, to protect young children from certain kinds of advertising or content.

There are also recommendations for individual users – do not click things recommended to you, sample many different sources of news and content, do not reward click-bait, and don’t share news you haven’t vetted at least minimally. This will never solve the problem, because people are going to do what they do. But the more people are media savvy and do make some effort to have good social media hygiene, the better off society will be.

I do agree with their conclusion that having a healthy and functioning democracy does depend upon us figuring all this out. Democracy depends upon certain fundamentals, like having a shared reality, and protections from con-artists and charismatic populists, and without them they can crumble surprisingly fast. Four years ago this perspective may have seemed extreme, but not anymore.

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