I decided it was time to delete Instagram. I always knew the app was addictive, but I finally understood the grip it had on my life. Instagram had become my social pacifier. If I ever felt uncomfortable in a social situation, I would look to the app. I was dependent on the never-ending scrolling that felt so comforting. Each image tailored just for me. What exactly inspired me to take such decisive action?
The answer lies in the recent raved-about Netflix documentary — The Social Dilemma.
Created by Jeff Orlowski, the documentary ties together interviews of an impressive line-up of experts in the field of social media. They include ex-employees of tech companies who left for ethical reasons, authors, university professors and big-name investors. All have come together to voice their concerns and fears over unregulated social networking platforms.
One of the most interesting takeaways of the documentary is how these tech companies manipulate human psychology for profit. Have you ever wondered why you feel compelled to check your phone when it pings or look at an image you have been tagged in? Human nature. This isn’t a fluke in these apps; this is what they were designed to do. Once they have our attention, they tailor what we see based on the data they have collected to keep us constantly engaged and infinitely scrolling. And they collect everything. From what images we look at, how long we look at them. The data tells companies if we are happy or sad, depressed or anxious, introverted or extroverted. All this data is used not just to predict our behaviour but to influence it. They are turning us all into the pawns of advertisers. “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” says former Google employee Tristan Harris.
The documentary also explores the impact of social media on children. There are strict restrictions over what children can see on television. For example, junk food advertisements cannot be directed at children, and there are limits on the level of violence and sexual content that can be shown. But social media is not subject to this regulatory control. YouTube for Kids is not held to the same standards as Saturday morning cartoons. And this can have severe consequences on children’s mental health. The documentary also explores the real-world impact of social media on democracy, from the complicit role of Facebook in the Myanmar Rohingya genocide in 2016/17, as well as influencing the 2016 US election. Anyone with money can pay to post adverts that target specific users. The ads play on simple psychological traits to best influence our behaviour without us even knowing it. With 2.7 billion active Facebook users, it’s clear that such adverts can have a real impact on the outcome of elections.
What makes The Social Dilemma so poignant is the intertwining of a fictional story of a suburban family in America. There is a young daughter who suffers from self-esteem issues worsened by exposure to Instagram at a young age. There is a teenage boy who falls victim to a far-right group on YouTube. While the storyline aids in making the documentary more entertaining, it also demonstrates the impact of the Machiavellian tactics of social media companies. They are playing on our human nature to influence and manipulate our behaviour.
However, there is hope after all. All the interviewees are optimistic that if society comes together and demands regulation, positive change can be forced upon the tech industry. The Social Dilemma is ultimately a call to arms, encouraging users to fight back and put humanity back into social media. If you want to be thoroughly creeped out but also enlightened about the apps you use every day, I would give this documentary a watch.