What is the impact of social media on our mental health, democracy, and sociability? The Social Dilemma helps us to start answering those questions.
Have you ever spent your entire lesson-free morning scrolling on Instagram when you should have studied instead?
I bet you did. We all did.
Apparently, there is nothing strange in that, right? And yet in the last few years, many are starting to question some basic assumptions regarding the social media world and, notably, how it is controlled, who controls it, and how it works. Most importantly, how does using such tools affect the users’ mental health, social well-being, and ultimately their life?
Hyper-Connection: Where are We Going?
Technology, artificial intelligence, algorithms, thousands of devices, computers, smartphones hyper-connected to one other. If that might seem astonishing, it is not all gold that shines.
One could see the story of social media from a psychoanalytic point of view: what happens on social networks is that one is constantly waiting for a gratification of some sort from others, something that, as Freud would say, could make the Id (the part of the soul which directs passions) wander around unchecked, thereby destabilizing the human mind’s already frail equilibrium.
Now one may or may not believe in Freud’s theories. But some things are happening; suicide rates among pre-teenage girls have gone up by 151%, and 70% among teenage girls compared with the first decade of the century. This trend starts in 2009, thus coinciding with the year most social networks were launched. Political polarization in some of the most developed, and thus connected countries is reaching sensationally high levels; people are becoming more violent, more divided; small children in their cravings are given the smartphone to stop crying or when their parents are in fancy restaurants. Most people around the world cannot help but spend hours and hours of their life doing absolutely nothing but scrolling. All of this is happening. Right now, out there. A world everyone uses, even at this very time to read this article, and yet a world no one knows anything about.
“There’s only a handful of people at these companies that understand how those systems work, and even they don’t necessarily fully understand what’s going to happen with a particular piece of content. So as humans we’ve almost lost control over these systems,” says Sandy Parakilas, former Product Manager at Uber and Operations Manager at Facebook.
The Social Dilemma
Shedding a light on the world of social media is the aim of the Social Dilemma collective , which recently produced a documentary through Netflix on their fight to make the social media world a better one. The collective is made up of a group of former staffers of the principal social media companies, from Pinterest’s former president to the founder of Facebook’s Like button. A group of engineers and professionals who have turned their backs on their own industry because they did not like what they were building from an ethical point of view and because they themselves felt several times trapped by the very tool they had created.
The fact that so many engineers who were part of and were responsible for building the very machine they are criticizing has made the documentary one of the most fiercely criticized Netflix’s products of the year. Some have claimed that these people have actually become wealthy because of their former jobs, and thus their self-critique seems somewhat hypocritical and two-faced. Yet, although one might share those concerns, the viewer watching the documentary cannot help but feel like that they are talking exactly about the viewer themselves.
The documentary starts from a simple question: “What is the problem?” and then attempts to give an answer. Very well made, it intertwines the comments of the former insiders about what is happening in social media and a short film which features the story of a family whose members are inevitably all suffering from smartphone addiction. What is striking is that it could be anyone’s story.
The Social Dilemma tries to explain what the social media world is, seen from those who have created it. The documentary features a discussion on how algorithms have turned us into the slaves of the system, because “it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product”, as Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, says, as well as how the gratification can potentially turn into an addictive drug.
“We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that,” says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technologies. In a nutshell, it talks about what living in a virtual bubble is doing to our generation, to our friends and parents, how do algorithms work, and how and why you take that smartphone and, magically, 20 minutes (at least) of your day are gone. And it does not stop there, as it deals with other important factors: polarization, the very future of democracy, and providing one of the many possible explanations of why democracy is in danger.
“One of the problems with Facebook is that, as a tool of persuasion it may be the greatest thing ever created. Now, imagine what that means in the hands of a dictator or an authoritarian. If you want to control the population of your country there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook,” says Roger McNamee, a Facebook early investor and venture capitalist. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has indeed been elected following a huge campaign on social media; the night he was confirmed as the winner of elections, his supporters took the streets chanting “Facebook, Facebook!” Cynthia M. Wong, former researcher for Human Rights Watch, warns that one of the most prominent examples of social media abuse has been Myanmar, where “what often happens is when people buy their cell phone, the cell phone shop owner will actually preload Facebook on there for them and open an account for them”, thus making the social media app one of the most popular in the country. Facebook however seems to have failed at tackling hate speech in Myanmar, giving the military a new way to manipulate public opinion and to help incite violence against the Rohingya Muslims.
Memos for the millennium?
None of this is about demonizing technology. No one wants that. The benefits technology has conveyed upon us are enormous, as the engineers themselves help us notice that it is even somewhat magical. Since the pandemic hit, we all have had a chance to appreciate that, even in this very university, as without technology we would have been separated from our friends for a year or more now and would have not been able to follow any lesson, our lives completely halted.
Most importantly, we need to prepare for the future: what kind of future is the one in which we won’t be able to rule, to govern, or to give a direction to the people because of the fact we are ruled over by a creepy Big Brother? Because of the fact that our daily life has inevitably shifted into a stasis, with inactivity of the mind and of the soul? So here are our questions: how do we make a mark? How do we make society less divided, less polarized? How do we turn that into a community? How do we change it for the better?
The challenge is to find an answer to all of that. And only as a community we can do that, fostering the debate among us, the very victims of this dominion and, at the same time, the only way to free ourselves from it.