‘The Social Dilemma’: A new perspective on manipulating social media tactics


What are you worried most about? “Civil war” was the response of the former Facebook executive and founder of Pinterest Tim Kendall as he considered the future of tech.

His response was featured in “The Social Dilemma,” a documentary-drama directed by Jeff Orlowski. The film was released on Jan. 26, 2020 and addresses the issues concerning the growing use of social media. The film is an essential viewing for all, as it calls attention to the effects of manipulative social media tactics on society and on individuals. 

The man at the center of the film is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. In his work with the tech industry, Mr. Harris became worried about the impact social media was having on its users. He created a 144-slide Google presentation titled “A call to minimize distraction and respect user’s attention” and sent it to his team. The presentation grew and found its way into CEO Larry Page’s office three times the same day it was released. 

Eventually, the hype surrounding the presentation died down, but Tristan left Google and went to start the Time Well Spent movement and later became co-founder of The Center For Humane Technology, a non-profit dedicated to rebuilding our technology. Finally, his work led him to create “The Social Dilemma.” 

The film brings in the voices of countless former-tech employees through short, edited interview clips. Many of those featured were heads of companies or founders. Some of the interviewees include the inventor of the Facebook “like” button Justin Rosenstein and the founding father of virtual reality Jaron Lainer. Many of them were originally fascinated by the benefits of social media without necessarily understanding the consequences. “I think we were naive about the flipside of that coin,” Mr. Kendall said.

The central idea of the documentary is that users are the product of social media. Since we don’t pay for the product (advertisers do) our attention is on the thing being sold. But it’s not as simple as that: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible, change in your own behavior and perception that is the product,” Mr. Lainer explained

The film also follows the drama of a fictional family. The oldest sister and mother are concerned about the son and daughter’s screen usage, and the story highlights the troubles that come with trying to break their addiction. 

Companies are competing for our attention to get you to scroll longer so that they can place more ads in our feed. Their success in doing this comes from data; everything we do online is being recorded and tracked. This comes from complex algorithms, only truly understood by very few people at these tech companies. Essentially, we users don’t know anything about this Artificial Intelligence that knows everything about us.

It’s easy for us to think that we are in control of our phones—we’re the ones choosing who to follow and what post to like, right? The truth is that these tricky algorithms leave us in less control of our feed than we think.

To portray this system, the documentary shows people in a lab controlling the social media of the brother in the family, Ben. They send him posts and notifications to get him to stay on his phone longer, such as forwarding him a picture from someone nearby. 

Like the fictional Ben character, even those who worked behind the scenes at these companies found themselves forming addictions. Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and Earth Species Project, had to write himself a software to break his addiction to Reddit. 

This film is especially relevant to teenagers who often don’t realize how much time they are truly spending on their phones. A report found that teenagers spend over seven hours on their phones each day on average. I talked to a friend of mine, freshman Emma Barringer, and she noted how time-consuming social media use can be. “Social media truly is addictive,” she said. “You open an app and just get sucked into it. You want to stay updated, and then it becomes very hard to put down the phone.”

 Our generation is the first to grow up with social media in our teenage years. But social media was not designed with the well-being of children in mind; it was designed to addict us, to give us false perceptions of perfection. We correlate the rewards we get for the actions we take online to value and thus, we want to do more to get that same feeling. 

The documentary highlights that as a result increased internet and social media use, this generation of teens is becoming less comfortable taking risks. Even driving license rates are dropping. More concerning is the number of girls who have been admitted to a hospital because of self-harm: this number has gone up 62% for ages 15-19 and 189% for ages 10-14 since the first decade of the century. Suicide rates have increased by 70% for ages 15-19 and 151% for ages 10-14. 

Toward the end, the documentary touches upon the societal polarization that technology has caused. This claim centers around a piece of data: Fake news spreads six times faster than truth on social media. Examples of recent concerns are COVID-19 myths, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, the flat earth theory, and the Muslim-targeted hate in Myanmar. 

The solution to this tech crisis starts with placing more regulations on tech companies to protect the mental health of their users; they must create a balance between profit and accountability. The bigger this problem gets, the harder it will be to solve.

You can take control over your own social media use by checking out these tips from the Center for Humane Technology, which include turning off notifications, removing addictive apps, following other perspectives on our social media, and countless more. Apps like Moment to track your screen habits and News Feed Eradicator to eliminate distractions can be used to keep us mindful of our screen usage. 

The website also includes resources for rebuilding the system by putting public pressure on tech leaders to create more humane technology. Humane technology is conscious of the well being of its users, limits the gap between the powerful and the marginalized, unifies society, eliminates hate, and takes accountability. 

Of course, “The Social Dilemma” is the first place to start, and viewers can watch it on Netflix. “It’s the critics who are the true optimists,” said Jaron Lanier. Moving forward, our main concern is the reimagining and rebuilding of a new, equitable technology.