A recently-released docudrama on streaming platform Netflix, "The Social Dilemma," examines the abrasive effects of social media platforms on modern society.
The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski, known for his previous environmental documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017). "The Social Dilemma" raises questions about problems that arrived with the rise of social media—from surveillance capitalism to its addictive nature and its impact on mental health.
Netflix's new docudrama follows a family with teenagers growing more addicted to social media. This interspersed story weaves in and out of news report montages and interviews with experts and former employees at tech companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Twitter, and more.
If You Don't Pay for the Product, You Are The Product
"So, you know, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, companies like this, their business model is to keep people engaged on the screen," said Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google and co-founder of nonprofit Center for Humane Technology.
From the start of the show, we are introduced to the resource persons we will find throughout the 89-minute film. It features a mix of investigators from the academe—including Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard University or program director Anna Lembke of the Stanford University Addiction Medicine Fellowship Program—to former Silicon Valley alumni like Harris.
As it opens, it builds on the urgency and the dangers posed by these platforms from the individual to an entire society. After slowing down, it starts to examine these problems one at a time—starting with what they call surveillance capitalism.
"There are all these services on the Internet that we think off as free, but they're not free. They're paid for by advertisers," explained Justin Rosenstein, programmer, and entrepreneur who co-created the iconic Facebook like button. He explains that the users are the products, with their attention being the item sold to advertisers.
Aza Raskin, co-founder of Center for Humane Technology and former User Experience head at Mozilla Labs, explained that it is a misconception that their data are being sold by these tech companies. Instead, they use those data to create models to predict user behavior and maximize engagement time and advertising revenues.
Eroding Social Fabrics
"It's easy today to lose sight of the fact that these tools actually have created some wonderful things in the world," explained former Pinterest president Tim Kendall. However, he admitted that they might have been "naive about the flip side of that coin."
Harris explains that these platforms were not made with child psychologists who intend to protect children, but that these were designed to be good at recommending the next video or filters to use with your photos.
Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., a Social Psychologist from the New York University School of Business, notes the "gigantic increase" in cases of depression and anxiety among American teenagers at the start of the decade. For example, young girls aged 10-14 saw a 151 percent increase compared to the first decade of the century.
Because social media provides an echo chamber to its uses, it has been used to magnify conspiracy theories and even strengthen groups like white supremacists and flat-earthers. It cited examples of fake news regarding the global coronavirus pandemic, with viral posts discrediting health alerts and suggesting baseless alternative solutions to the disease.
Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube who worked on its recommendation algorithms, expressed worries that his work has helped increase polarization in society.
"And the question now is whether or not we're willing to admit that those bad outcomes are coming directly as a product of our work," Harris notes in the film. He adds: "The fabric of a healthy society depends on us getting off this corrosive business model."
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