Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ looks at how social media is changing the way we think

This essay was inspired by Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma documentary, which is on Netflix. It’s not a review and is more of a rehash of points they made intertwined with my own opinions. I don’t really know why I wrote this, I guess I just wanted to because the topic interests me. Anyway, go and watch the doc and then delete your social media accounts or at least see the tips I made at the end to help improve how social media makes you feel!

Social media has brought a lot of good to the world, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s no secret that it’s designed to keep us engaged, coming back and inviting new people to join. Addiction isn’t just a side effect of using social media, it’s the business model. Algorithms are created through learning our actions — what we do, how we do it, and how long we do it for. The more it learns, the more it can generate content specific to us. If we’re not paying for the product, then we are the product, and social media is a way for advertisers to pay for our attention so they can make money.

Most people already have an awareness of this and how to use social media, but we tend to have less awareness of how social media is using us: it’s altering how we think and how we behave on a big scale. It gets to a point where social media is used for power — where we are influenced on how to vote, for example. In The Social Dilemma, there’s a staggering statement regarding Russia rigging the US Election: Russia didn’t hack Facebook, they used Facebook. They acted as advertisers and we took the bait. We were taught what to think and believe and this is happening all the time.

There’s more.

A study from MIT showed that fake news spreads six times faster than real news. This means people don’t know what’s real anymore because they’re been bombarded with false information and aren’t seeing anything to counter it. It creates people who don’t develop valuable critical thinking skills, and so they go on to believe everything they read and they either a) can’t back up their own views and just parrot back what they’ve seen or b) think they’ve done sufficient research but parrot back misinterpreted data. It’s so easy to manipulate bits of data to fit any argument.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t happening exponentially, but it is. A system has been created that biases towards false information because it makes more money. If you’re prone to believing conspiracy theories, you’ll be shown more of this type of media. It’s not an accident that, for example, antivaxxers were the first people to be exposed to conspiracy theories regarding 5G causing COVID-19. It becomes really harmful when things like the pandemic get caught up in this cycle — when a global health crisis and how to manage it becomes political opinion, rather than fact. This is an extreme example of what’s always happening on social media and exponential growth of gossip is such a powerful currency, no matter the consequences.

Social media has no competition. It isn’t regulated and so it becomes a second government. It destabilises society and democracy, which is what makes the effects of it so dangerous and important. We’re heading towards a place where everyone believes fake news, where nuance is lost and things are black and white, good versus bad. We’re always presented with information that validates our current belief system — and our core belief systems are often hard to change. Living in an echo chamber gives us constant dopamine hits, but it makes it harder for us to engage with those who have different views, therefore making us less tolerant in the process and further away from well-rounded individuals. The Social Dilemma used a quote from The Truman Show which sums up this point nicely: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented” and so it becomes difficult to accept other realities.

Algorithms also learn our personality and psychology and change it. We’re more depressed, anxious and suicidal — all thanks to the exposure of constant doom, fake news and the societal pressures of beauty standards and more. Technology has developed exponentially and our brains can only adjust to it so far. We’re not made to be looking at 10,000 people’s lives and opinions everyday. We’re not made to experience the dopamine hit in the way that social media both does and does not deliver it. It’s exhausting and tumultuous. It moves us away from the real world and away from ourselves.

The Social Dilemma was full of interviewees who helped to create, design and engineer social media (right down to the guy who invented the “like” button) — people who later quit their jobs when they began to understand the addiction and threat that social media imposes. Despite all the good we can get out of it, they realised they created a monster — one that continues to grow. None of them knew what it would become and, even though they understand how it works, they can’t help but fall victim to the pull of the addictive business model. Some of them have even written programmes or given advice to undo the things they created. The star, Tristan Harris, who was previously a design ethicist at Google, went on to co-create the Centre for Humane Technology. Their goal is to radially change social media in a way that supports our well-being instead of profiting off the destruction of it. When asked if he thinks it’s possible, he said it has to be.

Tips to improve how you use social media and how it uses you:

  • delete accounts/apps that make you feel like shit specifically
  • deactivate Facebook for a while
  • turn off all app notifications on your phone (or just the ones you don’t care about/don’t need your immediate attention)
  • unfollow or mute people who make you feel like shit (also mute words for topics you don’t want to see)
  • declutter your feeds — try following 500 people or less because you can’t handle all the shit you’re seeing and i guarantee you don’t care about or aren’t interested in all these people
  • as part of decluttering, curate your feeds — by unfollowing people who don’t post things that interest you, you will be seeing more of the things that do and you will feel better for it! (facebook have a news feed setting that lets you mark people/pages you want to see in your feed first — this will help massively on websites like facebook)
  • have your twitter feed set to “latest tweets” so the algorithm doesn’t tell you what to see
  • it’s good to know that the instagram algorithm works by showing you similar posts based on posts you’ve saved the most! second comes likes and comments, and it doesn’t really care about profile visits
  • think of a social media website you want to stop using or use less. i would suggest facebook because it’s hell, but any works. get rid of the app from your phone (deletion/deactivation is optional) and try and replace your urge to open this app in particular with someone else — such as reading, crocheting, doing a puzzle, organising a photo album (preferably something that brings you into the real world). it takes time to change a habit so be easy on yourself if you click on other apps in its place!
  • lastly, stop engaging in cancel culture. stop yelling at people for making simple mistakes. stop belittling people who don’t know something. stop thinking in black and white. stop thinking two conflicting things cannot co-exist as truth or fact. social media is making you into an asshole devoid of empathy. take a breath and relax!!

A freelance film and tv writer from England, who enjoys horror films, cats and middle-aged actresses.

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