Jack P. Carroll ’24
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to watch the critically acclaimed 2020 social media and technology documentary, The Social Dilemma, much to my disappointment. The film, which “explores the dangerous human impact of social-networking, with tech-experts sounding the alarm on their own creations,” fails to attribute responsibility for the rise of various political and public health crises via social media to irresponsible decisions made by individual users online.
Even more frustrating, are the far-reaching arguments and accusations that are used by the big tech insiders interviewed in the documentary, such as former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris, in order to scrutinize various social media companies and hold these companies in contempt for virtually all of the national and global crises that have occurred within the last decade.
When discussing the rise and popularization of misinformation, for example, the documentary pulls a clip from a lecture given by Harris where he addresses the matter. In his presentation, Harris recalls the instance in which the famous basketball player, Kyrie Irving, publicly stated that he believed the Earth was flat.
After noting that Kyrie later apologized and blamed the YouTube algorithms–which (surprise, surprise) recommend videos in accordance with the viewer’s interests in order for viewers to stay on the website and gain exposure to the website’s advertisers–Harris takes a very deterministic stance on the spread of misinformation.
Harris states that web platforms, such as YouTube, are responsible for “tilting people in crazy directions.” In other words, according to Harris, the internet and the internet only determines people’s beliefs as opposed to other individual factors that one has conscious control over such as one’s ability to conduct research and critically think about complicated issues.
On another serious note, the film presents CDC data which reveals that since 2009, the year when social media was first mobily available, U.S. suicide rates amongst young and teenage girls per 1,000,000 girls have increased by 151 percent.
Afterwards, the former director of monetization at Facebook, Tim Kendell, goes on to state that “these services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.” Harris also reappears once again to note that web designers are “manipulating” younger people’s attention which in turn, makes it impossible for them to “do their homework” and leads them to constantly “compare themselves” to others.
While I have no doubt that social media is capable of influencing young people to make self-harming decisions that are consequential and potentially life-threatening, as well as influencing younger persons to use their time unproductively, it is rather naive to suggest that only the digital platforms and their attention-drawing algorithms are to be held entirely responsible for these devastating and unfortunate outcomes.
Before blindly assigning the entire weight of responsibility for the harmful effects that social media can have on young people to the tech companies that develop the apps, it is imperative to consider all of the other factors in one’s life that could influence one to make some of the serious and costly life-decisions that were previously noted.
Prior to pointing the mighty finger of moral scrutiny to the tech companies, each of the following questions, amidst an even longer and more comprehensive list of others, should first be honestly considered: How involved are one’s parents in monitoring their child’s social media usage? At what age did one’s parents enable their child to use social media and was he/she mature enough to take on that responsibility? Is one’s child academically motivated and, if not, why should he/she be entrusted with the privilege and responsibility to use social media? Does one’s child have any serious medical conditions (both mental and physical) that could negatively influence one’s behavior through extensive social media usage?
While I understand that attempting to encourage a generation of young people, such as myself, who have grown up with social media to honestly reflect on their usage is bound to evoke an emotional response, personal agency is, nevertheless, essential in avoiding and overcoming the detriments of irresponsible social media usage.
Furthermore, when one considers the structure of virtually all social media platforms in an objective manner–as opposed to the anti-big-tech lens to which many people blindly subscribe–one will quickly realize that popular apps such as Instagram and Twitter, to name a few, depend upon individual user participation. Indeed, social media platforms, just like the real world, are composed of single users who have the potential to act in a variety of ways. Therefore, before playing the blame-game all the way up the corporate hierarchy of executives and software engineers whose jobs it is to increase usership and advertisement revenue through the development of strategic marketing tactics and attention-drawing algorithms, users must reflect on how their social media usage impacts their lives in light of this information which is widely known and frequently disregarded.
The film’s director, Jeff Orlowoski, is more intent on producing a doom-and-gloom narrative that leaves little room for the individual to take control of one’s social media usage and overcome its negative effects–as opposed to providing his audience with an objective analysis of social media usage that holds all parties, the users and companies alike, responsible for its harmful effects.
Furthermore, given the director’s rather deterministic agenda that has been made extensively clear thus far, it is worth highlighting one rather humorous moment in the documentary when several of the former big-tech executives proudly claim that they do not allow their own children to use social media.
By the end of the documentary, it is not clear what exactly its real purpose or message is aside from evoking fear and suggesting that the human race is doomed as a result of social media. Given the unprecedented levels of hypocrisy that are reached in the film–as displayed in the previously mentioned example, as well as the fact that the former big-tech executives who were interviewed continue to use social media in their own daily lives–the audience is led to question and doubt whether this documentary was ever supposed to be of any educational value.
On a personal note, I am convinced that the melodramatic movie scenes throughout the film– which display a distressed family, whose teenage son, Ben, is arrested at an extremist protest movement after viewing political propaganda on social media–are nothing more than a desperate attempt to advance the acting careers of consistently underwhelming Hollywood actors.
If you are still interested in watching The Social Dilemma, I recommend that you do so at your own risk, because according to the deterministic makers of the film you do not have the individual power to develop any opinions outside of its content. Also, while you’re at it, don’t even bother trying to further develop your outlook on social media and adjust your usage–your entire brain and decision-making skills are completely controlled by big-tech companies in San Francisco.