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Why is everyone talking about Netflix's 'The Social Dilemma'?

It’s a must-watch for anyone with a social media platform, or anyone who’s interested in an explanation for the declining mental health of new generations and the political changes going on in the world.

By Klara Lee

Thu 05 Nov 2020

6 min read

People looking at popular social media platforms on their phones

You may have recently seen or heard of Netflix’s new documentary-drama The Social Dilemma. It’s receiving a lot of buzz for its exploration of the unprecedented impacts of social media. It’s a must-watch for anyone with a social media platform, or anyone who’s interested in an explanation for the declining mental health of new generations and the political changes going on in the world.

The Social Dilemma covers a lot of information in a relatively short time, so we’ll break down the main points for you and list its top facts and quotes that are worth remembering.

A quick summary

The Social Dilemma explores how our widespread use of, and reliance on, social media has caused the rapidly declining mental health of new generations and political polarisation within countries. The documentary essentially shows us just how clever AI is at identifying and predicting our mood and gradually and subtly changing our behaviour to serve the interests of advertisers, various political campaigns and the social media platforms themselves.

A quick review

The Social Dilemma is an eye-opening documentary-drama. It’s main strengths are its credible sources. People who worked as software programmers, CEOs, creators and founders of the main social media platforms explain what they created and why. It's also a very timely documentary, with clips about Covid-19 conspiracies and protests from March 2020. But, keep in mind that The Social Dilemma definitely leans toward the negative impacts of social media, and only briefly touches on the positives.

What is the impact of social media on mental health?

Here are the top facts and statements that The Social Dilemma makes about the dangerous impacts of social media on mental health:

  • Plastic surgeons have coined the term ‘snapchat dysmorphia’ for the increasing number of people getting surgery to look like Snapchat and Instagram filters.
  • Around 2010-2011, the number of hospital admissions for non-fatal self harm started going up dramatically, this correlated with the sudden availability of social media on mobile. Since 2009, the number is up 62% for girls aged 15-19, and 189% for girls aged 10-14 (nearly triple).
  • We can see the same pattern with suicide rates. Compared to the average in 2001-2009, U.S suicide rates are up 70% in girls aged 15-19, and 151% in girls aged 10-14.
  • A whole generation is more ‘anxious, fragile and depressed’ and are generally less comfortable taking risks. The rates at which they get a driver's licence or go on dates, or have any romantic interaction, is dropping dramatically.

The main explanation given is that now users of all ages have ‘a digital pacifier’. If we ever feel lonely, anxious, scared or have any uncomfortable feeling, we have social media to turn to. We don’t learn or know how to deal with these emotions ourselves.

What is the impact of social media on politics?

The Social Dilemma emphasises that social media shows each individual different updates and information based on what they interact with (like, view, share and so on) the most. So, each person has their own reality with their own ‘facts’. For example, if you type into Google ‘climate change is...’ it will auto-fill in differently depending on where you live (e.g. a hoax, caused by humans, a natural phenomenon, real). Everyone is seeing completely different worlds.

This is enhanced by the fact that fake news spreads 6x faster on Twitter than a truthful article in the news - AI has no way of knowing what is true and what is fake other than by how much interaction a post gets - and often fake news wins as it's far more interesting.

The main political impacts of this are:

  • The U.S and other countries are more polarised than ever before. Many times we question the opposing side: ‘how do they not know what I know, how can they be so stupid?’. But, we have to take into account that we’re all drawing our views from different sets of facts.
  • Polarising a country through social media has become a political weapon. The Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S election, demonstrating a ‘global assault on democracy’. In Myanmar, hate speech on Facebook incited the mass killings of the Muslim Rohingya minority, the burning of entire villages, mass rape and other crimes against humanity. Military officials in Myanmar orchestrated this, and although highly motivated propagandists have always existed, social media platforms make it possible to ‘spread manipulated narratives with phenomenal ease and not very much money’.
  • Conspiracy theories also divide us and can lead to violent protests. This year, people were protesting and blowing up cell phone towers because they believed the government was lying about covid. Conspiracies like ‘Flat Earth’ and ‘PizzaGate’ are also explained.

The root of all problems: business models

The main problem that The Social Dilemma hints at is the business model social media platforms operate under. The initial intention was positive (the ‘like’ button was introduced to spread love and positivity!) but, shareholder pressure means social media platforms’ only aim is to make money and they do this by selling their users’ attention to advertisers. More specifically, the thing that everyone is paying big money for is the gradual, slight, and imperceptible change in your behaviour and perception.

It’s why big tech industries are the richest industries in the history of humankind. Many call this ‘surveillance capitalism’; a new kind of market place that ‘trades human futures’.

Of course, to make the most money social media platforms are designed to be addictive. ‘They’re only 2 industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software’. This addiction makes us more susceptible to all of the negative impacts of social media.

Find out what social media companies know about you

What does the future look like?

Bleak, to put it bluntly. AI is only going to get smarter at understanding and manipulating users, and if we can’t all agree on what’s true, then how can we navigate out of any of our problems?

The tech experts in the documentary were asked, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Their answers: civil war, the breakdown of the world’s democracy and a fall into autocratic leadership, failure to meet the challenge of climate change, ruin of the global economy and ‘we don’t survive’.

What can we do to limit the negative impacts of social media?

The tech experts interviewed suggest a variety of solutions:

  • Rules, regulations and competition, ‘it’s okay that they want to make money’ but any solution has to realign its financial incentives.
  • We could tax social media platforms on the amount of data they process.
  • We made algorithms addictive, so creators have the moral responsibility to change these models from the inside.
  • We need to get off this business model. The intention could be ‘how do we make the world better?’

Most importantly, there needs to be a collective call for change by users.

Final thoughts

The Social Dilemma is an informative documentary-drama that explores the impact of social networking on mental health, politics and acts as a warning of what could happen if its effects are not limited.

The Social Dilemma ends with a final call to action:

‘We live in a world where a tree is worth more dead than alive, a whale is worth more dead than alive...as the economy works that way, we will continue to mine earth and kill whales and trees even though we know it will leave a world worse for future generations.

Hopefully this is the final straw and the wake up call - if we are worth more staring at a screen and watching an ad rather than living our lives, then this whole model and system is flawed’.

If you're concerned about what social media knows about you, how it's being used, or whether or not you can delete it, we can help.

Delete your data from social media todayWhat do social media companies know about you?

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