I recently watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. The documentary unveils the secret world behind the social media applications that have become an indispensable part of our lives, especially now in the midst of the pandemic.
It is phenomenal for several reasons: the fusion of drama, animation and interviews provides a varied viewing experience whilst the emphatic but well-reasoned voices create a sense of urgency.
What is most striking about The Social Dilemma, however, is how tangibly its message affects us all. If you are reading this article then the issue of technology’s destructive power is a dilemma not just for society, but for you personally.
Although I won’t be as convincing as the Silicon Valley pioneers that are featured in the documentary, here is a summary of the main arguments. There are two types of coercive influence that social media has on us.
Firstly, because companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter monetise our screen time through advertisement placement, their goal is to keep us glued to our devices.
Profit, not mental health and wellbeing, is their chief aim so it is barely a negative externality to them that between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression amongst 14 to 17-year-olds jumped by over 60% and rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts also increased significantly. But there is more to it than just individual impacts.
The industry’s algorithms are constantly refining their ability to grab your attention and sensationalist media, fake news and conspiracy theories do that better than the truth. As extreme views become more accepted our social world polarises.
Clashes between protesters and anti-protesters are the norm, fringe conspiracy movements are shifting to the mainstream and populism is enjoying its heyday. Who is responsible? Well, human nature. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley is chillingly good at harnessing its worst aspects.
So, what is my proposed solution? A lengthy boycott of the main social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, at least. This may sound radical, but I think it is the only way to force fundamental changes.
You can think about it in terms of applying downwards and upwards pressure. Downwards pressure comes from regulation, but this will not be enough.
As we saw in my article on the Yemen Civil War, the Saudi coalition’s system for holding itself accountable is blatantly inadequate.
Moreover, this week there have been calls to remove bishops’ powers to investigate abusive priests due to past instances of the Church of England sheltering sex offenders.
Such examples illustrate the foolishness of trusting institutions’ abilities to self-regulate, especially when that regulation may be contrary to their interests.
According to the Financial Times, Facebook’s vows in 2019 to become more ethically responsible were nothing more than public appeasement following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Although some measures have been implemented, such as the expansion of security teams, they have not kept up with the rise of dangerous content. External regulation via legislators is also insufficient.
Political disagreements and the fast-paced nature of the tech world mean that antitrust laws are often ineffective. Furthermore, many of these companies are politically and economically valuable, making legislators reluctant to limit them.
Thus, I argue that upward pressure on these companies from consumers is vital. We are the product; they use our data to make money. If we are no longer giving them our attention, they will be forced to make the changes we want to see.
It can begin gradually: try turning off your notifications like I have, or purposefully not clicking on the articles and posts your phone recommends to you. You could remove certain apps from your phone for periods at a time.
Ultimately, a comprehensive boycott of these products is what will really shift the power balance between us and the dreaded algorithms that control us.