Chances are, you won’t be shocked by anything you learn in The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s new documentary that shines a light on the dark truths about our tech-driven world—but the revelations will still unnerve you.
Through interviews with current and former industry leaders, and a scripted portrayal of one family’s relationship with technology, the film unveils the inner-workings of social media platforms. The interviewees also predict what our future will look like given our current trajectory and some of the recent tumult involving technology (hacked presidential elections, the rampant spread of misinformation)—and, well, that future is looking grim.
As with many documentaries, the producers pull out all the stops to hammer home their message, including an eerie score, dramatic scenes (think: kids crying and teenagers getting arrested), and shocking statistics that correlate with—but may or may not be direct results of—social media. The Verge’s Silicon Valley correspondent Casey Newton was critical of the documentary, calling it “camp” and accusing the filmmakers of misrepresenting how social media platforms truly work. Another Verge writer, Adi Robertson, pointed out that the spread of misinformation and radicalization can happen in smaller forums and through private channels, while The Social Dilemma places the blame exclusively on social media platforms.
Regardless of the extent to which social media and internet companies are responsible for the many tribulations that befall society, the film illuminates undeniable truths about how tech has shaped our modern world. These are the key takeaways from The Social Dilemma:
1. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
We’ve long taken for granted free services like search engines and social media platforms, though many people are becoming hip to the fact that these things aren’t really free. As The Social Dilemma explains, social media companies are a business with a three pillar model:
- Engagement: keeping your attention on an app
- Growth: inviting your friends and family to join you on an app
- Advertising: exposing you to advertisements through the app
Understanding that these pillars exist gives users insight into how apps and platforms operate. They are designed to hold your attention for as long as possible and encourage you to invite others to interact with you on the platform—all while sneaking in ads. But advertisers don’t expect that users will click on ads and buy something immediately. As Jaron Lanier, the founding father of VR, explains in the film, social media is gradually and almost imperceptibly changing our behavior over time for commercial benefit.
With the ability to both modify, and therefore predict what users are going to do, advertisers are essentially given carte blanche to manipulate our consumer behavior. As Shoshanna Zuboff, PhD, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism puts it, “Internet companies trade in ‘human futures,’” which she compares to a company trading in oil futures. Though it’s natural to assume our data is valuable to these companies—after all, many internet companies have been targeted by hackers for the sheer volume of data they collect—it’s mostly our behavior that holds value.
2. Everything you do online is tracked
The film stresses that no action taken online goes unnoticed. The internet knows what you’ve looked at, and for how long. While you browse, algorithms are learning what draws your attention so that they can modify and keep you on a site or app for longer. This, of course, helps advertisers better understand and manipulate your behavior.
3. There’s only a small number of people at the helm—and their decisions affect the rest of us
The internet isn’t controlled by a “man behind the curtain,” but it is controlled by a few people behind a bunch of giant computers. These individuals are there to complete a job, such as monetizing a social media platform, or working to grow that platform’s number of users. But those few individuals make decisions that impact billions of users.
In the documentary, we hear from Justin Rosentein, a former Google and Facebook engineer who co-invented Facebook’s “Like” button. What seemed like a simple added feature to increase user engagement, the “Like” button mushroomed into a symbol through which users worldwide measure their self-worth. Rosenstein, along with many of the other tech experts interviewed in the film, admit to a lack of foresight when it came to these unintended consequences.
4. The internet has widened the gap between polarizing issues
The current internet discourse reveals a more divided society than ever, especially when it comes to hot-button issues. The mechanisms, or algorithms, behind social platforms are a likely culprit. Like we said above, social platforms are designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible; as the algorithms learn your behavior and test out different content to see how you engage with it, you will be presented with new information or posts that are bound to interest you.
The Social Dilemma uses conspiracy theory videos to illustrate this point, specifically how social media gave rise to #Pizzagate and flat earth theories. Platforms like YouTube will automatically play, or suggest new videos, one after another. This often leads to users falling down a rabbit hole of content. These suggestions, offered by AI technology and not by humans, have no regard for truth, though some platforms like Twitter have enabled fact-checking software to try and combat this. Still, not every user will be turned off by a fact-check warning on a post. Because there is so much false information available on the internet, it’s possible to find affirmations in many beliefs, no matter how far from the truth. If two users from two different thought camps delve into their respective rabbit holes, the gap between them widens exponentially.
Additionally, every user’s search bars are biased towards their own history. Consider Google’s autofill feature in the search bar. If you type “Flat earth,” your search bar will auto populate with different suggestions than your friend’s search bar, based on your past internet behavior, location, and anything else Google has learned about you through your online activity.
Some of the experts interviewed in The Social Dilemma predict dire consequences, such as civil war, and the inability to solve climate change.
5. So what to do?
The film is not all doom and gloom. Here are some recommended steps to take to curb your own social media addiction, limit the spread of misinformation, and make it harder for algorithms to predict your behavior:
Turn off notifications. (Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary recommended this as a way to curb your smartphone addiction.)
- Use a search engine that doesn’t record your activity, like Qwant
- Remove Chrome Extensions (which track your behavior).
- Don’t click on clickbait, or the recommended video.
- Fact-check articles before you share, and consider the source.
- Limit screen time for yourself and your kids.
- Look at the beautiful world outside your phone.