‘The Social Dilemma’: social media from another perspective

[Article written in collaboration with Liliana Arroyo]

The influence of social media in our lives is an increasingly present reality, to the point that we have incorporated them into a lot of daily activities and scenarios. Informing ourselves from Twitter news, being in touch with our family and friends on Instagram, or getting our work visible through LinkedIn are just a few examples of this new paradigm.

However, social media has a very specific economic agenda behind it: grow, grow and grow. As designed, networks can lead to addictive behaviors, perpetuate inequalities, and challenge fundamental rights such as privacy, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination. These violations are side effects of the care economy, in which they put this scarce resource up for sale and end up directly favoring the interests of certain power groups.

Some data about our relationship with social media 

  • One-third of American adults (and nearly half of those between the ages of 18 and 29) say they are online “almost constantly”. [Pew Research Center , 2019]
  • A study of 5,000 people found that increased use of social media correlated with decreases in mental and physical health and the degree of satisfaction with life, according to respondents. [American Journal of Epidemiology, febrer de 2017]
  • Google search results can change the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, up to 80% between some demographics. [PNAS, 2015]
  • 64% of people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because their algorithms directed them there [Facebook internal report, 2018]

The social dilemma

In this context, the documentary The Social Dilemma emerges. This documentary was promoted by Stanford University student Tristan Harris with other experts and professionals in the field. Together they felt the need to warn the world’s population of the “structural dangers of new digital tools and platforms.” The initiative, according to Harris himself, arose from the failed attempt from some slides circulated across the company that wanted to warn of these dangers.

While it generated a good reception from the other teams, it did not thrive on a structural change. This was a turning point in his career. Harris left Google and decided to focus on digital activism to make its main dangers and threats visible. Thus was born the Time Well Spent movement, which has resulted in the current Center for Humane Technology. Harris is known today as the “Silicon Valley consciousness.”

The documentary, which is paradoxically partly-funded by the Netflix platform, wants to go further and that is why its creators have created a website that delves into the issues raised in the film: mental health, democracy, and discrimination.

Reactions arised from the documentary

The social reception of the documentary has generated two poles: 

On the one hand, there are those who consider The Social Dilemma oversized the dangers of technology and digital platforms. The creators of the documentary are accused here of generating social alarmism and paranoia.

On the other hand, there is criticism that no new information is provided. In this case, the idea is emphasized that the documentary does not transform reality beyond a mea culpa on the part of the architects of the problems posed.

In addition, the white, Western, masculine and privileged vision of the voices presented is also criticized, as it puts reality on the table. Power understood as agency capacity still belongs to a very small group of people with very specific characteristics (privileges).

Open conversation on The Social Dilemma

At the Open Society Hub we are interested in putting issues related to technology and Human Rights, the Right to Information and Health on the table. That is why last November we invited Liliana Arroyo, PhD in Sociology and expert in Digital Transformation, to lead an open conversation on the issues raised in The Social Dilemma.Dilemma

The event featured an introduction focused on Harris’ life and the emergence of the documentary and an open discussion among those attending the meeting. Throughout the conversation, we were throwing out some questions, which gave us an interesting perspective on the impact of the documentary on the participants in the colloquium.

For example, when asked “Did you change anything after watching the documentary?”, 33% said they had turned off some or all notifications, 11% had changed profiles on social media, 17% had moderated screen time, 22% had not changed anything and 17% said they wanted to change something but did not know where to start.

Among the many issues addressed, two recurring concerns emerged:

  • Faced with this scenario, what should digital education look like? Especially from the point of view of families, who often feel poorly trained and lack referents.
  • How do we move from individual burden to collective mobilization? If we rely on self-discipline, awareness or the ability to make conscious use of the net, it will be a David fight against Goliath, where the industry will have little to lose and vulnerable groups will remain unprotected.

These are complex issues and some ideas came up in the colloquium, but many more are needed. So the debate is still open and proposals are accepted! If you have any ideas or thoughts on these issues you can share them with us through our social media channels!

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