If you use Netflix, you may have been nudged to watch The Social Dilemma, but if you use Twitter or consume any media that takes its lead from it, you may be discouraged from switching on this groundbreaking documentary and deprive yourself of the education of a lifetime. Here’s why you shouldn’t skip it.
I’ve written about technology for 25 years, and my heart fell this week as I witnessed the mixed reaction to The Social Dilemma from tech journalists who, unlike myself, are still deep in the industry. From Jason Howell to Will Oremus to Casey Newton, these tech bros have collectively critiqued, scratched their heads and LOL’d at the documentary and its interwoven dramatisation, which shows the effect of social media-fuelled bullying (the performance by young Sophia Hammons, pictured, is superb) and disinformation on a US family. Outside the drama, the rest of the documentary interviews thinkers, critics and former big-tech engineers who ooze techie’s regret.
What frustrates me most are the tech journalists who bemoan the lack of answers in The Social Dilemma – Oremus calls it “a wake-up call with no answer.” That spectacularly misses the point of this work, which admittedly is not pure documentary but rather a hybrid that, like the most impactful art, creates profound discomfort. The Social Dilemma is not a wake-up call, it’s a call to arms, more akin to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
As I watched Jason Howell and Will Oremus snigger because The Social Dilemma offers tips on managing social media manipulation and addiction at the same time it rolls credits, I wanted to throw something. Howell and Oremus argue that these tips (such as turning off notifications), come across as an afterthought, and are laughably inadequate – and laugh they did.
What they forget, from decades of drinking the tech journalist’s Kool-Aid, is that most people don’t know these basics of digital self-defense. They seem to miss the point that the role of The Social Dilemma is to stoke us to find answers, not to hand them to us. This is a dilemma, guys, it’s not auto-complete.
Everyone loves a car crash
The Social Dilemma’s central thesis, superbly described by lead interviewee and ex-Googler Tristan Harris, is that social media isn’t just addictive, it feeds us a customised truth. Here’s how it manages that: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other moreish tech like YouTube are powered by content recommendation algorithms which are so highly optimised using artificial intelligence that they feed us increasingly outrageous content to keep us engaged.
As Harris says, an AI that observes our eyes going to a crash at the roadside will conclude that humans love car crashes. And because AI doesn’t inherently understand truth or humanity, it only recognises its own objectives, so feeds us “engaging” content without compunction, up to and including serving us a personalised version of reality.
And users who’ve been duped don’t know they’ve been duped. That means you.
This is the real problem that The Social Dilemma points to: social media is a Trojan horse that hasn’t just allowed Greek soldiers to pour out and overwhelm us, it’s changed our perception of reality so we barely noticed the topless towers of Ilium burning around us.
Check your own symptoms
As fellow interviewee and Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff points out, the technologies behind tools like Facebook are designed to operate outside our perception, so that even if we do think online manipulation exists, we believe it to be an alt-right or ultraleft problem and ignore our own symptoms.
The worst thing about criticism by Oremus and others who blast The Social Dilemma – Silicon Valley insider Casey Newton calls it “ridiculous” — is that they’re stopping people from watching it and making up their own minds. “You’ve saved me an hour and a half.” “I was going to watch this but won’t bother now.” These are typical of the tweets underneath both the considered and the hot-take critiques of The Social Dilemma.
And so the self-blinding continues, because a hot take becomes truth that becomes gospel, and disagreeing with gospel is heresy. Otherwise reasonable humans who might have intended to watch the documentary suddenly become viscerally opposed to it – unaware that they and their viscera are under the influence.
What we have is a kind of societal psychosis in which not only do we profoundly believe things which may not be true, we don’t believe that we are among those being duped, stoked and gamed for profit. Societal psychosis is bad, especially in an election year. You don’t need to be an American like me to be affected by the fallout if the US’s deep fault lines fracture into Civil War.
So, democracy lovers, take action. Because the only answer to the social dilemma is you.
Watch this documentary and make up your own mind. Implement basic digital self-defense (disable all notifications, enable two factor authentication, don’t bring your telephone into the bedroom: use an alarm clock, embrace encrypted and no-trace tools like Signal and Duck Duck Go). Check your outrage before you click, react to or spread any content on social media: ban yourself from hot takes or tweeting while fired-up. Pressure lawmakers for new legislation where needed and regulatory authorities for enforcement where laws exist. Outlaw the big-tech business model – prediction products fed by our data, which use manipulation to keep our attention with lies so they can sell us stuff.
And start listening to people who don’t agree with you, and to people you’d decided to ignore. Before democracy and civil society are just #memories.
Sheila M Averbuch is a children’s author and former technology journalist. Her debut middle grade thriller FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press) publishes 10 November 2020.