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The Self-Blindness of The Social Dilemma

The film is also self-blinded in that it uses exactly the same sorts of emotional manipulations that it condemns.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on September 12, 2020, at Contours of Liberty, and ported here on May 18, 2024.

The Social Dilemma is an interesting and important film (released September 9 on Netflix) that everyone who uses social media would do well to watch. It shows that, at least for some people, social media promotes addictive habits that can damage a person's self-image (particularly a problem for youth) or drag someone down a "rabbit hole" of fake news and conspiracy mongering. Anyone who has heard of Pizzagate or QAnon glimpses the problems. In his novel Fall, Neal Stephenson imagines a near-future America torn apart with no-go zones occupied by information-bubbled cultists. It's terrifying because it's plausible.

Yet the film is also astonishingly self-blinded in certain ways. Its main message is essentially "OMG profit-driven capitalism is destroying the world and we need government regulators to save us." Okay, so the problem is that social media use has unintended problems. Well, does government use ever have unintended consequences? Yes, obviously—there is an an entire subfield of economics devoted to that problem—although the film spends not so much as a single second contemplating this.

Let us be blunt about what we are talking about here. We are talking about politicians and bureaucrats censoring, or at least controlling, speech on the internet. Have censorship and government controls of speech ever led to any social problems? Yes, obviously—although the film doesn't mention this. The message is basically, "Wow, the tech world screwed up software engineering so badly that we now need to rely much more heavily on government engineering"—as if there's no potential to screw that up as badly or worse. Yet anyone capable of a moment of self-reflection immediately recognizes that the "capitalists are ignorant devils while government actors are all-knowing angels" thesis is ridiculous.

The film is also self-blinded in that it uses exactly the same sorts of emotional manipulations that it condemns. Pulling emotional strings? Check. Pushing fear buttons? Check. Cherry-picking facts to lead to a preordained conclusion? Check. Pushing the user to draw in additional "friends" and to view additional sources? Check. The film condemns the "attention extraction model"—and then works like hell to extract the user's attention (which, conveniently for Netflix, contributes to Netflix's bottom line). A more-interesting film would have put all this on the surface and said, "See, we're using some of these techniques too."

I mentioned cherry-picking. There is a very-concerning graph in the film showing suicide rates for U.S. girls (ages 10–19) going up. The graph starts with the year 1999. Well, I am aware that people sometimes select their time frame to emphasize their point. Of course the first longer-range graph I found (at Vox) shows that there are some longer-range trends. (That graph is for people ages 15–24—it shows a U-shape trend from roughly 1995 to the present—so it isn't an apples-to-apples comparison.) When I look at a CDC graph showing trends from 1975 to 2015, separated by gender, two facts become immediately apparent: first, the rate for males is dramatically higher, and, second, both male and female suicides declined from the late 1980s, although female rates (but not male rates) spiked to new highs starting a few years ago. So I think there is convincing evidence that social media contributes to "a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers," as Jonathan Haidt says in the film, but clearly other things are going on as well. Do see Haidt's further elaboration of the trends in his Tweet thread. One thing Haidt mentions there is that "social media affects teen girls much more adversely than teen boys."

In another important way the film is not self-blinded but is definitely biased. It waits until the credits roll to show the parts of various interviews in which interviewees talk about how people can take control of their social media use. Talk about burying the lead! The flow of the film is basically as follows: "Holy shit social media controls you and the only way out is to put government regulators in charge—P.S. Actually just kidding you can solve the problem all on your own with a few minutes' thought and effort." The film easily could have been about, and been titled, "How to Take Charge of Your Social Media Use"—but of course that film wouldn't have extracted the user's attention as effectively by overdriving the user's fear responses.

So what can people actually do to take charge of their social media use? Maybe the most important step is to turn off all notifications so you don't get emails about social media and your phone doesn't buzz or light up about it. Then you can go into your preferences and turn off all the relevant tracking options (although I'm not sure how well that actually works). Then you can limit where you access social media. For example, long ago I deleted Facebook from my phone (so I use it only with my desktop). Or you can really go for it and just delete your accounts, as Jaron Lanier suggests in the film. I know there are ways to lock yourself out of social media at certain times, but I haven't checked into how that works (beyond parental controls).

Haidt offers some great advice for parents both in the film and in this Tweet (slightly edited): "I am on a campaign to encourage parents to adopt three norms: 1) all screens out of the bedroom 30 minutes before bedtime; 2) no social media until high school; 3) time limits on total daily device use (such as 2 hours or less)."

Here's how I personally handle social media, which I think is pretty healthy. I do use social media a lot, largely because I'm a writer and I find a lot of good links and conversations on social media. Basically I love Twitter and hate-but-tolerate Facebook. I think a major key is either to severely limit your "friends" and follows or else (as I opt) to use lists. I follow some of the smartest, most thoughtful people in world on Twitter (who talk about things that I'm interested in), and I spend almost all of my time on Twitter reading their Tweets. I scrupulously unfollow trolls and mute idiots and time-sucking spats. Used the right way, Twitter in particular is an extraordinarily valuable source of high-quality information. Likewise, on Facebook, I follow and read mostly philosophers and political scientists and the like. (Through lists I separate out "friends and family" from "professional" contacts—essentially for me there are two distinct Facebooks.)

I acknowledge that the "Notifications" bell can be addicting—and I'm very self-consciously aware of this so I can mitigate its effects. There's this very funny thing at the top of—it looks like a notification bell with a notice. If you click it, it says, "We knew you'd click this! Notifications like these offer an enticing loop of pleasure that can create an unconscious attachment to our devices." Except that "they" didn't know I'd click it or at least why I'd click it. Before clicking it, I thought to myself, "Wow, that's a great and devious illustration of the potential addictive power of the notification bell—I wonder what it actually does if I click it?" So I was "in" on the game.

I have a five-year-old who loves to watch science videos over the internet. He does have an Amazon tablet, but I've set the parental controls pretty tightly so he can only watch stuff I regard as healthy. We also watch YouTube videos on the "big screen," often together. I continually talk to him about the nature of internet advertising. "Why do you think they're showing you this?" I routinely ask. And he now knows. People run ads because they're trying to get you to buy something or do something. I think parents have a responsibility to instill in their kids good awareness of others' attempts to manipulate them.

The most important thing we can do to avoid being controlled by social media companies, or advertisers, or government propagandists, or ideologues, or cult leaders, or whomever, is to self-consciously learn and reflect on how our minds and emotions work. Yes, we are capable of bias, and addictions, and group-think, and succumbing to social pressures. Yes, many people have a vested interest in playing on our emotions. This is what I'm trying to teach my young son. This is what I'm trying to continually convey through many of my social media posts. This is what I'm trying to continually remind myself of. This is why I want lots of people to (critically!) watch The Social Dilemma. This is why I think everyone needs to learn the basics of evolutionary biology and of psychology.

We also need to be aware that "fake news," conspiracy mongering, and technology-driven social disruptions hardly arose only with today's social media. These things have been with the human race for its entire existence. The point about social disruption was driven home to me when I interviewed Lawrence Goldstone, author of a book about Michael Servetus. We spent some time discussing "The First Information Revolution" set off by Gutenberg's press. Goldstone explicitly draws the parallel between the printing press then and Facebook now. He points out that the printing and distribution of Luther's 95 Theses set off the Reformation. As I Tweeted, if there had been documentary films back then, someone could have made "The Gutenberg Dilemma."

The film acknowledges the fact that people drawn into troublesome "rabbit holes" on social media are predisposed to be so drawn. But the film doesn't explore the full implications of that fact. Social media exacerbates certain social problems today but doesn't create them. The KKK did not need digital social media to dominate Colorado politics during part of the 1920s (as I discuss with historian Robert Alan Goldberg). None of the mass-murdering authoritarians of the 20th Century needed (today's) social media to come to power. History's many pogroms against Jews, witch hunts, and racial conflicts gained social traction long before Facebook.

The fundamental problem is irrationality. One cause of this, I believe, is the failure of the schools to confer a real education to many students. At a deeper cultural level, we hear some people proclaim that objectivity is racist, that facts are socially or even racially constructed, or that power is all that matters. A basically rational culture would use social media in a basically rational and healthy way—as many people already do. People who are basically irrational will be so by whatever means happen to be at their disposal.

I have just a few other odds and ends to cover.

Another peculiarity with the film is that it holds up Wikipedia as an example of the internet functioning properly—but it doesn't mention that Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales also helped launch as an alternative social media platform. Then there's and other alternatives. I realize that none of these sites holds a candle to Facebook in terms of numbers of users, but I think they're at least worth a look. Ultimately, many people are on Facebook because they want to be there. So I think the conversation should start with, "If you're going to be on Facebook, how can you use it responsibly, and should you consider not using it."

Someone in the film mentions the search engine Qwant, but I had no idea how to spell that. As I Tweeted, "Crap I just had to look up 'Qwant' on Google because someone on 'Social Dilemma' recommended Qwant as a way to escape Google." (I haven't tried it out so I don't know how well it works.)

Tristan Harris, the main driver of the ideas behind the film, in one segment argues that the bicycle didn't create the sort of social disruption that social media has created. But of course some nail-biter at the time could have made "The Bicycle Dilemma." Cue the ominous music: "Annie 'Londonderry' Kopchovsky . . . left her husband and children behind in Boston in 1894 for a 15-month worldwide adventure on two wheels." Scandalous! There oughta be a law!

I do appreciate that the film recognizes the enormous positive benefits of today's social media. Facebook has helped connect families, bring together long-lost friends, and facilitate new healthy relationships. More broadly, social media (and here we can include YouTube) has facilitated an extraordinary number of hours of quality conversations and learning experiences.

Here is the key issue: You are responsible for how and whether you use social media. If you have children, you are responsible for their use of social media and of digital devices more broadly and of your children's education about such matters. You don't need some Act of Congress or some nameless bureaucrat in D.C. to save you. You can save yourself. And in the process you can help to save our culture.

The Social Dilemma is a really important film that lays out the problems that social media use creates for some people. The film also offers some important tips for improving one's own social media use. Ultimately, though, the main lesson of the film is the one it didn't fully intend: Don't let other people, including documentary film makers and their reviewers, manipulate you.

Update: Michael Shermer has a great critical Twitter thread on the documentary.

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