Big Tech is watching you: social media has created a digital dystopia.
At least, that’s the succinct version of Netflix’s latest documentary, The Social Dilemma.
Stylistically, The Social Dilemma is a bit of strange hybrid. There are traditional documentary-style interviews with people from the tech industry, a lot of them former employees of tech giants like Facebook and Twitter. But there are also short animation sequences and, bizarrely, a Black Mirror-style story following a family’s struggles with social media addiction (the youngest daughter cracks a glass lock box open with a hammer to get her confiscated phone after being parted from it for only five minutes). Within this narrative, there’s also the personified representation of a social media algorithm itself. This is a bit like a horror/sci-fi version of Inside Out, but instead of your emotions controlling you, it’s a malicious, money-driven AI.
Addiction, Data and AI – Oh My!
Like a lot of people who have watched The Social Dilemma, I was pretty freaked out by it. I think we’re all aware that social media and giant tech corporations are taking and using our data, but having it clearly explained by industry experts – who admit that they also aren’t immune to the addictive qualities of social media apps – makes for uneasy viewing.
That social media can be addictive and creepy isn’t a revelation to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. But in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary “The Social Dilemma,” conscientious defectors from these companies explain that the perniciousness of social networking platforms is a feature, not a bug.
They claim that the manipulation of human behavior for profit is coded into these companies with Machiavellian precision: Infinite scrolling and push notifications keep users constantly engaged; personalized recommendations use data not just to predict but also to influence our actions, turning users into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.
So, here’s a breakdown of the key things I learned from watching The Social Dilemma:
Social media is really addictive because it’s been deliberately designed that way. As Dr Anna Lembke says in her interview, ‘social media is a drug.’ Social media has been developed to maximise the time you spend on each app. Each app is competing for your attention all of the time.
Ever wondered how social media actually make money? Advertising and ‘persuasion technology’. Social media advertising is scarier than old-school newspaper ads; it’s targeted to our likes and interests, our location, our age and gender, etc. And advertisers are paying social media companies a lot of money to show people targeted adverts. You might think you’re not susceptible to this, but you just have to look at the election upsets of the last decade to see that this targeted digital advertising can have real-life political and social consequences. Through targeting and curating content, social media channels can create attention grabbing news feeds that can influence and alter your opinions.
Everyone’s digital reality is different. We all see different content based on who we follow, where we are, our interests and our search histories. This is why, especially in modern political discourse, it often seems like people are working with radically different sets of facts and opinions. This is partly due to the fact that everyone’s news and content feeds are different. We’re all seeing different versions of “reality”.
Unverified news and misinformation are rife. Fake news is often more attention-grabbing and more profitable. These two characteristics of content – attention and profitability – are what social media algorithms care about. Not the truth. One of the interviewees, Tristan Harris (co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology), cites a study by MIT which discovered that ‘fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news.’ Six times. Unfortunately, lies make better clickbait and better clickbait makes more advertising revenue. This has created the cycle of misinformation that exists online today.
Basically: go watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix right now. And please excuse me whilst I go delete my social media accounts and pursue a new life as a digitally-disconnected hermit.