The Social Dilemma: How social media is reprogramming civilisation

Poster of the Netflix Docudrama The Social Dilemma.
The chilling new docudrama The Social Dilemma (Photo: Netflix/The Social Dilemma)

Hatch’s Dinita Rishal reviews the new docudrama: a discomfiting must-watch

Imagine that your mind is being constantly controlled by an external entity, feeding on your subconscious brain. That your thoughts, choices and actions, even the person you are, are a result of manipulation by a force that you think you have control over – but is, in fact, controlling you.

We’re talking about the Internet and social media – Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and all those other platforms that you continually browse, day in, day out.

In the newly released docudrama The Social Dilemma, some of the big names behind these platforms reveal just how much influence and impact their creators have on us and our daily lives.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the film reveals what’s happening on the other side of our smartphones, and how it is reprogramming our entire civilisation. It bagged the Impact Film Award at this year’s Boulder International Film Festival and a Special Mention in the the FACT: AWARD at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, and premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

In The Social Dilemma, Silicon Valley insiders fronting the camera to describe the processes and motives of the tech giants include former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, former Twitter executive Jeff Seibert, former Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, who helped develop the platform’s “Like” button, and former Facebook executive Tim Kendall.

Tristan Harris speaks at TED2017 - The Future You at Vancouver, BC, Canada (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)
Tristan Harris at TED2017:The Future You, in Vancouver (Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED)

Kendall told the US Congress this week that Facebook “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset”. He also said he feared the platform was contributing to extremism in the US and “pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war”.

Siebert tweeted soon after The Social Dilemma was released that it “just scratches the surface of how social media is polarising the world”.

As the docudrama makes clear, tech addiction, data theft, catfishing, election hacking and Covid-19 conspiracy theories are just some of the flip sides of the technology that was, supposedly, built to make our lives simpler.

A picture showing the backwards evolution of human beings with the invention of phones.
From Stone Age to the modern age – and back again (Photo: Eugene Zhyvchik, Unsplash)

In the film, Harris – co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, and often referred to as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” – calls these problems an “existential threat” to humanity.

“There’s this much earlier moment, when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses,” he says.

“This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarisation, radicalisation. This entire thing – this is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity.”

As Kendall explains in the film, the human brain loves a reward. Each time we swipe on our phone, with every new post that appears, and every time our feed refreshes, we become more and more hooked.

Behavioural psychology calls this process “intermittent reinforcement”, where a subject makes more effort in return for rewards granted at time intervals. In the case of social media, we are the subject.

The graphic illustration of a human brain, filled with social media apps like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter.
Our thoughts are constantly manipulated by social media (Illustration: Ruedi Widmer)

Each time we refresh our Instagram feed, we are rewarded by newer posts. This triggers the part of the brain that likes the sensation of being rewarded, which in turn impels us to swipe more and more – blindly searching for more content, and craving that hit of dopamine, the feel-good hormone.

In the docudrama, former employees disclose how social media platform creators targeted this part of the brain, and how our own psychology has been used against us to boost their profits.

As Harris says: “Persuasive technology is just sort of a design intentionally applied to the extreme, where we really want to modify someone’s behaviour.

“It’s not enough that you use the product consciously, I want to dig down deeper into the brain stem and implant, inside of you, an unconscious habit so that you are being programmed at a deeper level. You don’t even realise it.”

So what are the social media platforms’ motives for doing this?

Large companies pay the platforms to carry ads. We consume those ads, and often go on to buy stuff. Well, what’s wrong with that, given that we use social media for free?

Jaron Lanier, Author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, giving a speech.
Jaron Lanier (Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr)

Jaren Lanier, Author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, says: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your perception – that is the product.”

In return for the time, energy and attention we devote to the content we consume, the social media companies reap billions of dollars.

Moreover, that content actually alters the way we think, perceive, act and evolve. The film gives the example of people comparing themselves to unrealistic standards of beauty, resulting in them seeking cosmetic surgery or suffering depression.

Today, the contest between social media and humans is not an equal one. The processing power of computers has increased by a trillion times since the 1960s, says the Center for Humane Technology’s Randima Fernando.

Web source code Java script (Image: Marcus Spiske, Unsplash)
Web source code Java script (Photo: Marcus Spiske, Unsplash)

But the fundamental way in which the human brain works is still the same as it was tens of thousands of years ago.

Social media algorithms are designed to build virtual models based on our data and every click we make. Behind that phone screen are thousands of supercomputers preparing and shooting out content they know we’ll love. As Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook operations manager, says:

“All this data that we’re just pouring out all the time is being fed into these systems that have almost no human supervision … [They] are making better and better predictions about what we’re going do.”

Once algorithms are created, they advance exponentially by themselves, Bailey Richardson, a former member of Instagram’s founding team, says in the film. This process is known as machine learning.   

The documentary explains how technology is bringing out the worst in society, globally. Our thoughts and ideas are being manipulated without our knowledge, just as a magician tricks his audience. In our case, technology is the magician.

A lonely boy sitting in a large with empty chairs.
We connect virtually, but don’t make real connections (Photo: Alex McCarthy, Unsplash)

Just as Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We have our phones with us all day long, but we make fewer phone calls. We are bombarded with news and opinion, but we don’t know what the truth is. We connect virtually, but are losing real connections.

The Social Dilemma (available on Netflix) shines a light on the dark side of technology. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but is a must-see. You may never feel the same about your smartphone again.