The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” presents the scary undeniable reality about social media and its impact on society and the world. Why is it so hard to put our phones down, to disengage from our favorite social media sites? Because they have been engineered to be addictive, according to the now remorseful technologists who invented these devices and apps and are interviewed in the film.
According to Dr. Anna Lembke, an addiction specialist interviewed in the documentary, human beings are wired to crave the interpersonal connections that social media enables. Chamath Palihapitiya, one of the technologists interviewed, says the short-term approvals we get from social networking sites, like “hearts, likes, thumbs up … which we conflate … with value” and truth, make us want to stay signed in. And according to mental health professionals, “FOMO,” the fear of missing out on something, like a social media notification, keeps us from putting our devices away.
As the film explains, nonstop scrolling and “notifications keep users constantly engaged” and interacting on social media, thereby continually dropping clues to ad serving technology about their interests. Further, the “personalized recommendations” served up by social media use responsive data both to predict and to influence our actions, turning us into easy targets for “advertisers and propogandists” that pay Facebook and other social media companies to serve up their ads to us if they think, according to our online behavioral profiles, that we’re a good fit for what they’re marketing, be it a golf club or a revolution.
The film also points out the negative impacts that social media has had and continues to have on human society. For example, statistics show that suicide rates for teenage girls have risen; conspiracy theories have thrived; extremist groups have flourished; political groups and outside actors are using social media to influence elections. Other significant impacts include misinformation and “fake news,” the weakening of the family unit because of the isolation caused by social media, and the rise of behemoths like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. that yield immense influence over humanity worldwide.
The film varies from a strictly documentary nature by interspersing the drama of a fictional family struggling with aspects of social media addiction (a daughter suffering from depression stemming from social media-induced self-image issues, a son radicalized by an online extremist group). Through an evil character named A.I. (played sometimes in triple split screen by Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men” fame), we see behind the family scenes into the workings of a social media network. A.I. personifies, in real time, how the technology addicts a user and renders him a puppet of online propaganda. While the family drama is simplistic and stilted at times, it serves to make viewers, regardless of the depth of their tech background, aware on a fundamental level of how social media and the technology behind it functions, why, and its detriments.
The film is eye opening and everyone, including those who think they have a decent technology background and understanding of how social media works, should see it.
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US, CIPP/E