By Jami Gibson
You’ve probably seen or heard about The Social Dilemma, one of Netflix’s latest, must-watch
documentaries. It focuses on the tech experts who helped create some of the largest social networks
and search engines that we use and how, even they, are now wondering about the ethical nature of
these platforms. Originally created with good intentions, social networks have aided the connectedness
of family, friends, and businesses, assisted users with finding long lost relatives, and even helped people
find medical resources such as kidney donor matches! However, these powerful tools have also had an
unintended negative impact that goes far beyond worries of properly socializing our youth or giving up
some of our personal data.
As most people are aware, when we use social media and search engines, our data is being mined. It’s
why we see targeted ads, relevant content, and tailored experiences every time we’re online. The trade-
off may seem worth it, having everything curated and personalized at no cost to us as users, but as
Tristan Harris, a former Google designer, put it, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the
product.” Talk about a truth bomb! Perhaps even more sinister, Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard University
professor, described social media as “a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.” It goes
deeper than targeted advertising. It’s about companies using manipulation-based and addiction-based
technologies to monetize attention and engagement on social platforms. It’s about how companies then
use our data to further predict and persuade our behavior.
The documentary elaborates on how social media platforms are built with reward-based designs, much
like you’d find in a casino. New content, likes, follows, and comments increase engagement and
attention and create a dopamine response within the brain, nurturing a dependence on and addiction to
these platforms. It becomes a way in which some may determine their value. This is highly problematic
in regards to mental health, and according to statistics from the CDC presented in the documentary,
over the past decade, suicide and self-harm rates among pre-teen and teen girls have skyrocketed in
correlation with the rise of social media.
Further, The Social Dilemma looks at the way that algorithms magnify biases by feeding us content that
is polarizing. A statistic found on the initiative’s website states that “64% of the people who joined
extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there.” I’ve noticed when I
go on social media, my news feeds seem deeply divided. Whether it’s politics, second amendment
rights, abortion, human trafficking, civil rights, Covid-19, or any other relevant but sensitive topic, there
are two extremes represented, and nobody is engaging in polite discourse. It’s disappointing to witness
as I really just came to see pictures that people post of their pets! Another alarming detail is that fake
news travels much faster than fact-based news. Because everything we read on the internet is true,
right? This causes even more of a rift by sparking outrage that could have been quelled by simple fact-
checking. One observation mentioned in the documentary is that when social media caters a
personalized experience to its users, everyone is entitled to their own facts and version of reality. If
there’s no shared reality, there really is no reason to come together, and this divide remains and grows.
So how do we overcome this social dilemma? According to the tech experts in the documentary,
collective will is the only way to solve this problem, and there are four actionable ways to take back
1) Don’t click on click-bait.
Instead of following content recommendations on social media platforms, choose which content
you’d like to view.
2) Do your research.
Fact-check everything before sharing it.
3) Follow people with views that differ from your own.
Expose yourself to different points of view on both ends of the spectrum.
4) Uninstall apps.
Determine which apps are taking up the most of your time and either delete them or set a time
limit on use. Delete apps that you no longer use as they may be running in the background,
keeping tabs on your every move.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching The Social Dilemma documentary, or at least
checking out their website. Then you can make your own informed opinion if you think these social
media concerns are valid or if this is just another sensationalized topic.