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#Unfiltered: Reflections on Netflix's "The Social Dilemma"

The Social Dilemma is a new Netflix docudrama that has made many people sit up and take a long hard look at their phone. The programme shines a creative and unsettling light on ways social media is gripping and changing the world and the lives of its users. In this blog, I will be unpacking some of the key issues raised by The Social Dilemma, and reflecting on how we should respond to this increasingly virtual reality we live in.

The Social Dilemma highlights 3 aspects of social media that I would like to consider:

  1. The Power to Control

  2. The Power to Manipulate

  3. The Power to Divide

1. The Power to Control

One of the most disconcerting aspects of social media highlighted by the docudrama is its transfixing power to addict its users. This section of the docudrama begins with the quote from statistician Edward Tufte: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software”.

The programme captures some candid testimonies from tech employees who found themselves addicted to their own technologies:

“A few years ago, I was the president of Pinterest. I was coming home and I couldn’t get off my phone once I got home, despite having two young kids who needed my love and attention. I was in the pantry, typing away at an email, or sometimes looking at Pinterest. And I thought, this is classic irony. I am going to work during the day and building something that then I am falling prey to. And in some of those moments, I couldn’t help myself.” Kim Kendall (former Facebook Executive and former Pinterest President)

“The one that I am most prone to used to be Reddit. I actually had to write myself software to break my addiction to reading Reddit.” Aza Raskin (Firefox and Mozilla Labs former employee)

The science backs up these testimonies. There is an increasing body of scientific evidence that various aspects of internet and social media use (such as getting notifications and “likes”) can trigger “reward centres” in the brain, in ways comparable to cigarettes and alcohol(1).

I know I am probably addicted to my devices. I usually check my messages and emails before I get out of bed in the morning. It is rare for me to leave the house without my phone- even if I’m just nipping to the supermarket across the road. And I usually don’t go more than an hour without checking my messages, even when I’m at work.

At one point in The Social Dilemma, the programme shows a fictional family, whose mother decides to remove the phones of the teenage children and place them in a locked jar for the duration of the family dinner. Within a few minutes, one of the girls can no longer cope without her device and so gets up, retrieves a hammer, and smashes the box to release her phone (smashing the screen of her brother’s phone in the process). I found this scene infuriating- how could a teenager be so violently disrespectful of her parent’s rules and property? But it quickly dawned on me that I would probably become similarly destructively angry if someone locked my phone in a jar!

So what should we do? Is there an addiction recovery route?

Well, here is where we can perhaps learn from the discipline of psychotherapy. Let me briefly mention two possible ways we can approach the addictiveness of social media.

Goal Setting

One evidence-based method used by primary care clinicians to exert behaviour change is SMART goal setting. Total sudden abstinence from cigarettes usually does not last long. But gradual reduction through a planned series of SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based) goals is a widely recognised way of addressing addiction. This strategy is simple to apply to technology. For example, I am in a week of attempting to enforce a “no-phones-in-bed” rule on myself!

Reimagining and Refocussing

In psychotherapy, it is a well-established principle that replacing unhelpful thought-patterns can sometimes be more effective than suppressing them. The whole discipline of “Positive CBT” is built on the framework of refocussing attention to positive experiences, relationships and resources, in place of negative thoughts and emotions.

And it is interesting to ponder why social media is so addictive. I think part of the reason is because it taps into some of our most basic of desires: for attention, popularity, affirmation, value and connection. And as a Christian I believe that this reveals something of our intrinsic relational nature- that we are creatures who were ultimately created to live off the affirmation, attention, and value of our creator God. Speak Life released a very clever YouTube video recently called “If Phones were Bibles”, where the characters read their bibles instead of checking their phones throughout the day. I found the video quite a pointed rebuke! Perhaps I should be reaching for my bible rather than my phone, to feed my craving for connection.

2. The Power to Manipulate

Another deeply troubling aspect of social media raised by the Social Dilemma is its power to manipulate our thoughts and actions. Jarod Lanier, founding father of virtual reality, comments on the classic saying: “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”:

“That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception this is the product. It’s the only possible product. That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from- changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”

Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, gives a specific example:

“Facebook conducted what they called “Massive Scale Contagion Experiments”. How do we use subliminal ques on the Facebook pages to get more people to go vote in the mid-term elections? And they discovered that they were able to do that. One thing that they concluded was that we now know- we can affect real world behaviour and emotions without ever triggering the user’s awareness. They are completely clueless”

In one of the most intriguing moments in The Social Dilemma, the programme personifies the algorithms in a boy’s social media software. The algorithm is depicted as 3 shady-looking individuals who dial knobs and swipe screens in response to the boy’s reduction in use of his phone, in order to regain his attention with recommendations and notifications.

I found these comments and dramatisations of the manipulative power of social media unsettling. No-one wants to be manipulated; one of the most important moral pillars of Western society is the right to personal autonomy. I have certainly been in interpersonal situations where I have felt manipulated- it is highly unpleasant!

So how should we respond to social media’s manipulative power?

I think awareness is a good first step in responding to the manipulative power of social media. We need to acknowledge and regularly remind ourselves that social media is not a neutral tool at our disposal, but is a powerful manipulative force that shapes and changes our actions and thoughts to feed its business model.

Secondly, perhaps one way we could try resist the manipulative power of social media would be to ensure we follow a range of views and opinions on social media, in order to crack open the walls of the echo chamber. So on Twitter I have consciously tried to follow both right wing and left wing politicians, Christian and non-Christian individuals, and charismatic and conservative Christian teachers. Granted, I don’t follow Covid-deniers and homeopathists but this is my attempt at least to maintain a broad range of views in my social media bubble.

3. Power to Divide

The Social Dilemma concludes by looking at the ways social media has polarised political discourse, and sown division in our society. It illuminates the fact that the consequence of personalised, targeted social media feeds creates echo-chambers that reinforce and polarise people’s views, especially on politics. Rashida Richardson, Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute notes:

“We are all simply operating on a different set of facts. When that happens at scale, you are no longer able to reckon with or even consume information that contradicts with that worldview that you’ve created. That means we aren’t actually being objective, constructive individuals”

Justin Rosenstein, former engineer for Facebook and Google, picks up and says:

“And then you look over at the other side, and you start to think ‘how can those people be so stupid? Look at all this information that I’m constantly seeing. How are they not seeing that same information?’ And the answer is, they are not seeing that same information”

We have seen this around the world, as far right- and left-wing parties have increased in popularity in America, Europe and Asia. We are an increasingly connected, and yet increasingly divided global human race.

A few years ago, I attended an event in which BBC Security Correspondent Gorgon Corera was interviewed about this life in the media. During the seminar, he did a quick poll of the audience on the question “where do you primarily get your news from?” The top answer by a considerable margin was- social media. I certainly was part of that majority. Even when I tap onto news websites, it is usually because I have seen an article on Facebook or Twitter.

The polarisation of politics is evidence of the danger of obtaining one’s news completely, or even predominantly from social media. In the UK, we are privileged to have tight regulation of broadcast news media, that is held accountable to third-party adjudicators. Many argue that the BBC is biased in favour of left-wing ideologies. This may well be true, but it is still a long way from the post-truth, unregulated tornado of social media news.

Is There Hope?

One person featured heavily in the docudrama is Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology. In a lecture excerpt featured in the programme, Harris strikes a pessimistic tone:

“We are all looking out for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence. When is it going to cross the singularity and replace our jobs, and is smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarisation, radicalisation, outrage-ification, vanity-fication, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity.” (emphasis mine)

I think Harris is implying that this moment, when technology overwhelms human weakness, has been reached and surpassed, and humanity is in real and present trouble.

I think we need to take these warnings seriously. But at the same time, I don’t entirely share Harris’ pessimism.

I would like to end this article by suggesting that perhaps the shockingness of The Social Dilemma reveals something oddly reassuring about our society. Social media was portrayed throughout the docudrama as an impersonal, unaccountable virtual machine that does not differentiate between truth and lies, or between right and wrong. Social media feeds our minds with information that will gain revenue and attention for the businesses, not what is true or good. And there is no-one to be held accountable- it is just an algorithm doing what an algorithm does.

But of course, truth, goodness and justice matter to us, and the public’s response to The Social Dilemma shows that. In this post-modern world, where morality and truth are seen as relative, and moral authorities are derided as either oppressive or fictitious, we are realising that this world is far from the promised post-modern utopia.

And this is where I do believe the Christian gospel is genuine good news. For in the life of Jesus, we have ultimate truth, goodness and justice embodied and revealed to humanity. If we care about truth, Jesus says that there is an ultimate reality that can be grasp by following the author of all reality. If we care about goodness, Jesus says that there is real, objective moral good and evil, and the way we treat each other and the world really does matter. And if we care about justice, Jesus says that there is a moral authority that will one day bring about total and perfect justice on Earth, and accountability will be fully realised.

Social media is a frightening product of a post-modern ideology where truth, goodness and justice are relative. Is this really the world we want to live in?

Or is there a better story of reality to tell?

  1. As good summary of the evidence can be found in this review article: Macit, Macit and Gungor, A Research on Social Media Addiction and Dopamine Driven Feedback, Journal of Mehmet Akif Ersoy University Economics and Administrative Sciences Faculty, 5 (3), Dec 2018


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