Then I watched a screener of The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s new documentary about the more hidden, extremely serious consequences of our social media use. It’s not that it made me feel guilty about my reliance on tech, more like, it made me sick to my stomach — and scared for the world.
The documentary, which will be released globally on September 9, interviews several people who essentially built social media. Tristan Harris, the president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and a former Google design ethicist, is featured heavily. So are early developers of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And they all say the same thing: We created a monster.
The gist is this: While we think of social media as a product that we consume, the reality is that we are the product. Or, more precisely, “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product… That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are,” said Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL Research, and the "octopus" (Office of the Chief Technology Officer Prime Unifying Scientist) at Microsoft.
I know, I know — I started off by saying I was skeptical of alarmist sentiments surrounding tech. But this documentary convinced me that what’s happening as a result of our social media use is actually pretty dire. It’s the unprecedented and perhaps unexpected result of the monetization of social media platforms.
Tech companies use social media (the tool) to mine our attention and data (a valuable resource), which they sell to advertisers. Justin Rosenstein, an entrepreneur who co-invented Facebook's Like button, likens it to oil mining. It’s bad for the earth. But companies profit from it, so they still do it. Well, having our attention mined is bad for humanity — but the companies are still making a profit, so they still do it.
The film delves into the mental health consequences of social media use, at one point pointing out that suicide and self-harm rates among teen girls rose in generations that began using social media in middle school (namely, Gen Z). Jonathan Haidt, PhD, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, called the “whole generation” more anxious, fragile, and depressed; less comfortable taking risks; even less likely to get a driver’s license or go on a date.
But what really made my skin crawl was The Social Dilemma’s look at how social media has led to the increasing political polarization across the globe. It’s a topic that’s interested me for years. In Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s interview with New York Magazine late last year, he talked about some of the ways social media algorithms have begun to dictate the outcome of presidential elections, saying that though social media “dynamics” favored Obama in 2008, less than a decade later, they also “may have cost Hillary the presidential election.”
The Social Dilemma puts a much finer point on things. Interviewees explain how social media feeds us information designed only to elicit an emotional response from us, because that’s what keeps us engaged. That means we’re not seeing facts; we’re seeing our own opinions reflected back at us over and over, slightly altered to lead us to the next video or post, to keep us paying attention. And that’s really dangerous.
“Over time, you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you, because everyone in your news feed sounds just like you,” said Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and an early investor in Facebook. In fact, we’re baffled by people in real life who don’t agree with us — aren’t they seeing what we’re seeing? Well, no. They’re seeing their own feed, filled with stories that confirm their own biases, all funded by advertisers with their own self-interests. It’s an environment that can be easily manipulated to let misinformation spread like wildfire, McNamee explained.
And it is being manipulated, by propagandists who are using social media to circulate disinformation in order to sway elections and public opinion all over the world — including the U.S. “The Russians didn’t ‘hack’ Facebook. What they did was they used the tools that Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users and they applied it to a nefarious purpose,” McNamee said.
“It’s not that highly motivated propagandists haven’t existed before,” noted Renée DiResta, a technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory. “It’s that the platforms make it possible to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease and without very much money,” She calls the way social media is being used by some a “global assault on democracy.”
Thoroughly scared? I mean, yeah. You should be.
The experts in the film mostly acknowledge that the Internet and social media isn’t all bad. But they also stress that we can’t keep going the way we are going — or we’re headed toward civil war, or even the complete collapse of democracy (literally).
"It’s not about technology being the existential threat," Harris said at one point. "It’s technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the existential threat."
The documentary wasn’t a total win for me; there was a fictionalized subplot that was over-dramatized and distracting. But it absolutely succeeded in making an argument for the urgent need for greater regulation within the tech industry in order to encourage more responsible practices, and to deliver more control to us, the users.
One interviewee, for instance, suggested taxing social media companies on their data assets, as a way to create a fiscal disincentive to amass as much data as humanly possible. A similar idea gained some traction late last year, when then-presidential candidate Andrew Yang launched the Data Dividend Project, which called for users to be compensated for their data.
As the movie wrapped up, the interviewees divulged what they do to protect themselves from social media: Turn off notifications. Never click on a “recommended” video on YouTube. Use Qwant, a search engine that doesn’t save your search history, over Google. Follow people with different beliefs than you on Twitter. Take a minute to fact-check an article you stumble across before reposting it, especially if it elicits an emotional reaction. Keep devices out of your bedroom. Keep kids off social media until they’re 16.
I may have started the documentary as a moderate tech lover, but while the credits were rolling I deleted four apps to start (Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit) and decided to buy an actual camera in an attempt to begin to break my dependence on my phone. Sound the alarm, this is not a drill.