The Harmful Narrative of The Social Dilemma

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The Social Dilemma has been among the five most-watched programs on Netflix for the past week, but its view is far too simplistic. The attempt to hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for every change society has undergone since its creation is dangerous.

I heard about The Social Dilemma for the first time last January, and got curious about it. Last week I finally took some time to enjoy an evening on my couch and finally watched it. I have to say that at first, I was excited about the idea of a movie shedding lights on the implications of technology in our society, as I believe we don’t talk enough about such aspects.

As I started watching it, I got a feeling of unease.

Don’t get me wrong: being a keen user of social media myself, I could easily relate with many of the concerns the documentary was talking about. Still, I had the impression that they tried to manipulate people and play with their fears (yes, exactly what they accuse social media of doing).

The more I watched it, the more this feeling became overwhelming. So I decided to watch it again, pay more attention to its narrative and analyse it.

1. There are plenty of activists, researchers and people who haven’t worked in tech but have been informing the public on these topics.

In the past decade, social scientists and legal experts have entered the dialogue on the use of algorithms and big data to offer a more comprehensive interpretation of the consequences of technology in our society. They have shared their expertise on the theoretical foundations of critical algorithm studies to highlight the need for an emancipatory agenda for law, policy reform, and international development.

Despite the innovative and influential research coming from scholars, activists and many others who don’t have an “ex-Facebook” background but worked extremely hard to shed light on those problems, the documentary mentions none of them.

As a result, people are given just a partial and sometimes inaccurate perspective of the current issues. A missed opportunity to enrich the conversation with valuable voices, and show how the debates had been out there long before Tristan Harris joined Google.

2. Pathologizing social media use and reducing it to an addiction narrative is inaccurate and dangerous.

In 2018 Vladan Starcevic, Joël Billieux and Adriano Schimmenti published a paper on “Selfitis and Twitteritis” in which they challenge the addiction narrative around pathologizing social media, stressing the need to step away from the medicalisation of people’s problematic relationship with technology.

As stated in their paper: “Unusual and reward-driven human behaviours do not necessarily denote psychopathology and should not always be construed as disorders with a medical name, diagnostic instructions and suggestions for treatment.” (Vladan Starcevic et al., 2018).

Shaping the narrative of social media through the lens of the “addiction narrative” implies that the only viable and “healthy” alternative is abstaining from using those platforms. Such dichotomy is way too simplistic and deliberately excludes the idea that moderate social media use can be beneficial, especially for young people.

Other studies (see video below) have explored how social media can help develop social skills and provide youngsters with greater support especially those who experience exclusion, have disabilities or chronic illnesses.

Besides, the documentary stresses on the surge of mobile social media in 2011 and it casually relates it to an increase in mental health conditions. Again, this account is too simplistic. Multiple other factors could and probably had played a role in the rise of mental health issues.

How children engage with the internet | Sonia Livingstone | TEDxExeter

3. Once again, the global context is missing.

While watching the documentary I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the people speaking were white, Western men who worked for tech companies always hoping and intending to do well.

With more than 3/4 of the online world being from the Global South and nearly half of the global female population being online too, having some non-Western, non-male, perspectives would have been probably more accurate. A nice opportunity missed.

Also, as the major focus of the documentary is the idea of dystopian nightmare/ damages to wellbeing that social media creates, I was surprised to see there was no mention of practices such as doxing and the effects this has especially on marginalised communities.

Inclusivity matters, and the documentary misses the chance to create a conversation which actively includes marginalised and BAME communities, therefore failing to explore the systemic ways in which technology and social media can be, and have been, weaponized against such communities.

Finally, the documentary also fails to advocate the anti-Blackness of the Big Tech industry that has been proved to have a problem with inclusion and diversity — this would have contributed to expanding the issues beyond the Western lens, for once.

I’m wondering if anyone would even bother listening to privacy advocates unless they are white men? I’m not sure about it, but maybe I’m just too cynical.

4. Plenty of companies have access to our data and exploit it, not only social media platforms.

From the documentary, it seems that the systematic manipulation of human behaviour for profit is something that relates only to social media platforms. Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies that exploit data mining practices and manipulative technology.

This is not even mentioned once. The problem with not bringing into the conversation companies such as Palantir is that the audience is not given a real and more comprehensive picture on the real harms of who can access your data and what this is used for.

Since I mentioned Palantir, I want to quickly explain what I mean when I say that the harm extends far beyond your social media presence. Palantir is a private Silicon Valley company that essentially builds surveillance software (and which is about to go public).

Its software has been developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, aimed (mostly but not exclusively) at increasingly automated intelligence officers’ work. It didn’t take too long for them to extend beyond the national security and intelligence sector and sell their service into the commercial worlds to companies such as J.P. Morgan.

Only a few months ago the British Government was in conversation with Palantir to give them access to UK residents’ health data.

Creepy right? It’s not just social media.

5. Protagonists’ naive idea of technological determinism is not convincing enough.

Towards the end of the documentary, there seems to be a general agreement among speakers that is the capitalist logic that moves social media. The emancipatory potential of such new information technologies is highlighted throughout the documentary stressing on how creations such as the “Like” button were primarily meant as tools to “spread positivity”. Then, for these TechBros, there was a sort of religious awakening.

Such optimistic vision of the future, which conveys in the well-known Californian Ideology, seems to ignore the key role of taxpayers’ dollars in the creation of such technology and the effects of the exclusion of public institutions from the construction of cyberspace.

This results in an increase in the fragmentation of the American society into adverse and hostile and racially-determined classes. (Barbrook and Cameron, 1995) To be more specific: the Californian Ideology is mostly based on the idea of self-correcting technological systems which require no intervention by the Governments. 

Unfortunately, the documentary has none or little mention of the current debate around regulating social media, regulatory paths such as GDPR and CCPA and the benefits those brought in terms of data protection to citizens. 

Instead of insisting on holding someone accountable and regulating a system that has an impact on people, the focus keeps being on absenteeism from social platforms and on the need for changing individual behaviour (while being unable to due to the asymmetric knowledge in place).

The documentary’s dangerous narrative

There would be so much more to analyse around the narrative in The Social Dilemma. For example, the stress on the rising of polarisation levels which is mentioned without referring to the partisanship and polarisation shifts which occurred before the advent of social media.

Undoubtedly, some points mentioned in the movie are valid and interesting: the way the engagement on social media works, the filter bubbles we are trapped in, the rise of fake news and the power of algorithms.

But as much as I appreciate the effort in trying to alert people about privacy issues, the documentary also seems to perpetuate a harmful narrative which misses out important aspects and which may result in reinforcing itself due to the popularity the program is gaining.

Bibliography and further readings:


Autrice: Francesca Scapolo