Our Social Dilemma

New Documentary Discusses Big Tech’s Manipulative Business Models

Last month, Netflix published a new documentary/drama called The Social Dilemma. The film revolves around the interviews of former big tech executives, many of whom served as the foundational pieces for platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Twitter. Each former employee first believed that these new technologies would be good for society but revised their views once they saw the dark “flipside” of their use. “There were meaningful systemic changes happening around the world because of the platforms,” says former president of Pinterest Tim Kendall. “I think we were naïve about the flipside of that coin.”

Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, started asking himself the question, “Do we really have the good of our customers in mind?” The more Harris investigated, the more he discovered a major flaw in the Silicon Valley tech industry at large. “There was no one at Google working on making Gmail less addictive,” he comments. “I was feeling this frustration with the tech industry at large, that we had kind of lost our way.” Harris went on to voice his concerns within Google, though to little avail. He eventually parted ways with Google and co-found the Center for Humane Technology,1 an organization that advocates for more ethical business models in the tech industry. Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of Growth at Facebook, witnessed the manipulative tactics the social media giant started employing to “hack into people’s psychology” and see what “subliminal queues” would make people stay on the site longer and more often. “So, we want to figure out to psychologically manipulate you as fast as possible and give you back that dopamine hit,” he says. “We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it, WhatsApp has done it, Snapchat has done it, Twitter has done it.” Coming from the witness of tech developers themselves, social media platforms began intentionally exploiting human psychology for the purposes of “selling attention” to the advertisers that pay to be featured on newsfeeds. People are spending copious amounts of time on social media, thinking they are controlling their usage, when really they are being manipulated unwittingly through subtle but deeply effective business tactics.

Children’s mental health is also discussed in the documentary. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt remarks that depression and suicide rates have almost tripled since 2011 among pre-teen girls. The hospitalizations of self-harm victims have also skyrocketed in that time period. What happened? The trends can be traced back to social media use in the Gen-Z demographic, those born after 1996 or so. “Those kids are the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school,” Haidt points out. “How do they spend their time? They come home from school, and they’re on their devices. A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.” Haidt goes on to note that this generation shows decreased interest in dating, taking risks, or even getting a driver’s license. “This is a real change.”

The documentary then goes on to identify social media’s role in propagating “fake news” and polarizing the United States into political extremes. For instance, if a person types in “climate change is….” into the Google search bar, she will get different results depending on where she in the country. It will either be a “hoax” or “destroying the whole earth” or something somewhere in between. People wonder why far-right and far-left folks seem to be living in opposing universes. The truth is, we are all being given a curated feed of material, not because it’s reliable, but because it will keep us watching, clicking, going back for more. This is the phenomenon of the internet “echo chamber,” where all a person can hear are voices reinforcing what they already believe to be true. Harris, citing a MIT study, says, “Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news. What is that world going to look like?”

These former tech executives are sounding the alarm to ordinary users of these manipulative business models. Their final word of advice? Spend less time on social media or delete the accounts permanently. Severely limit your kids’ screen time. And most of all, start real conversations with real people.

The Social Dilemma is available to watch on Netflix.com.

  1.   https://www.humanetech.com/

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is now Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

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