Film review: The Social Dilemma (2020)

This documentary exposes how the social media algorithms work to keep people hooked to spend vast amounts of time on the sites by identifying their wants and sending them down addictive rabbit holes. It features mostly people from within most of these companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and the like) who became disaffected with the effect these companies and their practices were having on society and saw them as destructive and have now left the companies and are speaking out.

But the filmmakers also added a wrinkle. They have actors portray a family whose members are social media users, focusing on two children who are addicted to it. They show a room in which there is an avatar of the son with three identical people looking at all the data about him and what he is doing and pushing things on him to keep him glued to his phone. In reality of course, there are no people doing this, only algorithms. But there is something much more creepy in the image of actual people who know every thing about us and what buttons to push to get a specific reaction and are monitoring our every waking moment to try and find ways to get us to spend more time on their sites and then selling that engagement to advertisers. Although algorithms may feel less creepy than if humans were doing this, they are far, far more thorough than humans could ever be.

The goal of these companies is to actually change our thoughts and behaviors in ways that are invisible to us so that we think we are making choices freely as to what to read and watch when in fact we are being largely manipulated.

The documentary says that the deep polarization that see now is a result of this manipulation. Each person is being presented with a ‘reality’ that has been manufactured specifically for them to draw them in and is shown only things that support that view. Each person thinks that everyone is seeing the same information that they are seeing but they are not. Hence people are mystified when others hold opposite views, and wonder how they can believe what they believe based on the same facts. But of course, they are not seeing the same ‘facts’. We can think of each person being drawn slowly into the center of a whirlpool depending on what is presented to us, with different people getting drawn into a different whirlpool. One of the people in the film predicts that this will end up causing a civil war.

The person who came up with the idea of the ‘Like’ button on Facebook said that he initially thought that would be a nice way of creating good feelings among people, by having them react positively to one another. But now the number of likes has become a kind of competitive sport and a big source of angst for people, especially teens, when they post something and do not immediately get a lot of likes.This can even lead to depression. The film discusses statistics that show an increase in the numbers of adolescent depression, self-harm, and suicides since the introduction of social media.

The people on the show are scathing in their critiques of the companies they once worked for and the entire industry. They scoff at the claims by the leaders of these companies that they are aware of the problems and of their claims to be able to solve it. The people in the film say that AI cannot solve this problem. This is because the problems are not due to something going awry that might have a technical fix. The problems arise out of the very business model that these companies use.

It was interesting to listen to these people say that even though they were well aware of all the manipulation tricks used to hook people into using social media all the time, even they found it hard to resist the allure of taking their phones to bed with them, checking them first thing in the morning, and abandoning whatever they are doing whenever they hear a chime informing them that a notification has arrived.

To combat this, they recommend getting rid of all the apps that are not essential and also removing all push notifications. They say that you should read only the things you choose, not those that are recommended for you. They also strongly limit the screen time of their own children and forbid the use of phones at various times of the day. Some won’t let their children use social media until the ages of 16 or even 18.

Facebook has a hugely negative impact on society. But because these tech companies are monopolistic behemoths, they have enormous power and a huge impact. A lawsuit was filed today requiring Facebook to sell of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Facebook has used illegal monopoly power and an “unlawful scheme” to stifle competition, degrade personal privacy, and crush rivals, according to antitrust lawsuits filed Wednesday by the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general from 46 states and two territories.

The long-anticipated suits allege that the social networking behemoth has abused its market dominance in order to acquire or kill competitors, abuse the privacy of Americans, and punish rivals who refused to be bought out. The suits cite Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and its 2014 purchase of WhatsApp as key examples of its alleged anticompetitive behavior.

It is a good documentary, disturbing and thought-provoking.

Here’s the trailer.

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