How many times did you check your smartphone today? Depending on your age, the number will be around 100. We’re a screen-dependent culture and we’re online all the time. Our smartphones are deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

That social media is addictive and often fraught with misinformation is nothing new. But in The Social Dilemma, a new documentary from director Jeff Orlowski, a variety of former employees from Google, Facebook and YouTube who built these platforms talk about the warping effects these technologies are having on our collective humanity.

They explain that the addictive and polarising qualities of social media are deliberately and precisely engineered into these platforms to keep users constantly engaged. But the most revealing and chilling aspect of this was the revelation that algorithms recommend new content not simply to predict our actions, but to influence them.

The documentary alleges that social media users are being manipulated on a mass scale.

Articulating the nature of the problem, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, chair of the commerce committee in the US Senate, said this in a United States Senate hearing on persuasive technology:

‘Social media and other internet platforms make their money by keeping users engaged, so they’ve hired the greatest engineering tech minds to get users to stay longer inside their apps and on their websites, and they’ve discovered that one way to keep us all hooked is to use algorithms that feed us a constant stream of increasingly more extreme and inflammatory content, and this content is pushed out with very little transparency or oversight by humans.’

These platforms invest so much in attracting our attention because ‘we live in a finite attention economy,’ says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, and co-founder and President of the Centre for Humane Technology. ‘There’s only so much human attention. Companies are all competing for the same finite resource. This race for attention extraction causes a gradual global change of culture; a slow erosion of the social fabric.’

Editors and journalists have always vied for people’s attention, but the game today has several significant breaks with past. The documentary reveals that Google and Facebook and major social media platforms have billions of dollars of supercomputing infrastructure that, as you scroll through your newsfeed or watch a video, does predictive analytics on what the next video or article that you’d most likely click on next.

If we feel addicted to our phones, it’s not that we lack self-control; it’s that the world’s most expensive and powerful supercomputers have algorithms that collect billions of pieces of data on us and serve us content that it knows we will find irresistible.

The point is not to help you learn, but to keep you glued to the screen, according to AI expert Guillaume Chaslot who helped write YouTube’s recommendation engine. He explains that the priorities of the algorithm selecting the next video will often provoke outrage, conspiracy theories and extremist views to keep people watching. Much like the effects they’re describing, there’s something both sickening and compelling about watching the people who built the social media landscape discussing the effects these platforms have on people’s mental health and, notably, their political views. If you have noticed an increasing political polarisation amongst friends and family over the last few years, this is one of the causes.

Through creating an online informational bubble unique to each of us, social media has distorted the way we perceive reality. It’s led to shortening attention spans, more irritability, and more polarisation, escalating to unbridgeable divides, real-world conflict, and mass destabilisation.

As an example, an early investor in Facebook Roger McNamee reveals that state actors like Russia did not ‘hack’ Facebook in 2016 to influence the United States federal election. They merely used Facebook, legally, to target and influence American voters. McNamee revealed that it was not only possible to destabilise countries this way, but that the practice was, and is, commonplace.

Then we have the conspiracy theories which are enjoying something of a renaissance, owing to this same set of algorithms. Over the last few years, we’ve seen how social media has facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories and false information leading to real-world damage.

Take measles. Since 2018, the WHO reports the measles outbreaks have increased 300 per cent in western countries, and 700 per cent in African countries, largely fuelled by anti-vaxxer misinformation spread online over platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Because a measles vaccine exists, this disease is completely preventable. There’s no reason a measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019 should have led to the deaths of 81 children. What’s more tragic is that the places experiencing outbreaks are parts of the world where this virus has previously been eliminated. The stakes of false information floating around our digital ecosystems are high, and the need to inoculate ourselves against misinformation spread over social media is urgent.

Much of the material sounding the alarm on social media isn’t unfamiliar, but the human cost is what is presented in The Social Dilemma with chilling clarity.
Perhaps most alarming was the effect on children and young people. Social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt features in the documentary where he notes a ‘gigantic increase’ in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide among pre-teen and teenage children who have been exposed to social media since primary school.

Particularly worrying was the number of teenage girls admitted to hospital for self-harm, which since 2011-13 have risen 62 per cent for 15-19-year-olds and 189 per cent for pre-teen girls.

‘We've seen the same pattern with suicide,’ Haidt adds. In older teen girls, rates of suicide are up 70 per cent compared with the early 2000s. ‘But in pre-teen girls, who had very low rates it’s up 151 per cent. That pattern points to social media.’

Social media can isolate us, enable the spread of falsehood, sow confusion and depression, and incubate outrage. It also makes violent ideologies more accessible and appealing to those seeking approval.

However, can we or should we just unplug? We rely on social media especially in a time of unprecedented social isolation. In lockdown, it’s a lifeline, and can be an essential tool of connection and acceptance. It’s also an inherent part of social infrastructure. Almost to the degree where Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter ‘have become public utilities’, says Orlowski.

Online connection is good, but not when the platforms’ business models reward shackling people to their screens with an endless parade of content that pushes them to the political fringes.

This coincides with a statement released by the Vatican on 29 September on the theme of World Communications Day 2021. ‘In a time that obliges us to social distance due to the pandemic, communication can make possible the closeness that is necessary to recognise what is essential and to understand truly the meaning of things,’ said the Vatican statement.

‘In the world we live in, information makes up an integral part of our daily life,’ Pope Francis said on 18 September in a private audience at the Vatican with staff members of Tertio, a Belgian Catholic magazine.

‘When it is quality (information), it lets us better understand the problems and challenges the world is called to face,’ and it inspires people’s attitudes and behaviours. Professional Christian communicators ‘must be heralds of hope and trust in the future. Because only when the future is welcomed as something positive and possible does the present become liveable, too.’

In The Social Dilemma, the former co-founders, employees and tech insiders from these platforms propose that with the right adjustments to the social media business model and the right government regulation, these tools can once again become a less destructive force in society.

In the meantime, if we can’t avoid social media, we can educate ourselves about the problem and strive for truth in the material we consume.

And crucially, we can stop reading, watching and sharing ‘outrage’ media. COVID-19 has highlighted our political and cultural tensions, and in such a climate of uncertainty, it’s never been easier to give in to fear or anxiety. But we can still reject news that treats people from the other side of the political spectrum as an enemy to be feared. We can recognise that any media company that produces material designed to provoke or inflame us into cataclysms of rage is not a safe place to be getting our information.

‘It’s not just that the other side is wrong,’ says Tristan Harris. ‘It’s that we’ve all been living with such narrow views of reality that we’ve lost the ability to empathize with each other. And that shared understanding of why we’re each so distorted is the only thing that scales to the current moment… We have to rewind our minds out of the psychological warp we’ve been under.’

In an era of ‘alternative facts’ where the informational water has been muddied to the extent it has, the truth is more valuable than ever. We can return to trusted publishers that still employ the editors, the journalists, the researchers and that still have accountability. And when we find material online, we must get used to doing our own research, finding out what is credible, finding out what the sources are, identifying biases and trying to correct them.

We can also try putting the smartphone down and having an actual conversation. And most critically, always regarding with grace and compassion those who disagree with us.

The Social Dilemma is available to watch on Netflix.