Movie Review: The Social Dilemma

I’d been hearing about the Social Dilemma the last while, and I finally took some time to watch it myself. It’s focused on the (mostly harmful) effect social media is having on us as a society. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film by any stretch, it does raise some very valid concerns I’ve already had for quite some time, and I think it’s an important movie for people to watch, if only to be aware of the sort of influence social media (and other technologies) can have on our lives and our societies.

The premise is quite straightforward: platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest make money by selling ads to their users. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very disturbing at all. After all, we’ve had ads sold to us on television for decades, and that hasn’t destroyed society, right? (Unless you count the fact that I can still remember the jingle for AlkaSeltzer thirty plus years after I heard it on TV.)

Then again, Facebook touts its ability to sell targeted ads, ensuring marketers can reach just the right audience. But still, I remember growing up (back in ye olde days when I actually watched normal television) that the ads I’d see on TV on Saturday morning would be different than the ones I’d see watching Murder She Wrote in the evening with the fam. (For some reason, there were far fewer ads for Transformers. Likely because adults didn’t appreciate the finer things in life.) So there have been targeted ads for quite some time. Why worry about Facebook all of a sudden?

The trouble arises in the way technology is able to profile us these days. So much of what we do is done online, and a ton of it is on social media platforms. Facebook can tell how long you look at a post, whether you click on an article, what interests you, what disinterests you. Technology is able to tell things about you that you might not have told to anyone else. (Famously. Target sent a “so you’re expecting” coupon book to a teenaged girl living at home with her parents. It’s algorithms had analyzed people’s shopping searches to recognize when someone was expecting, and it sent out ads to those people. And yes, the girl was expecting, but no, her parents didn’t know about it, and yes, this caused problems.)

Even more troubling (and something the documentary doesn’t go into) is the fact that tech companies can begin to build profiles of you even if you don’t extensively use their platforms. Even dabbling is enough. Why? Because they’re able to track patterns across huge populations. In an easy-to-understand example, if a high percentage of people who like a certain musician tend to be liberal, or who watch a TV show tend to be conservative, and then you mark down that you like that musician or TV show, then the platform begins to make certain assumptions about you. It gets to be like Sherlock Holmes, taking seemingly random tidbits of information to deduce you’re a fifty year old grandmother of seven living in Arkansas, with a penchant for action movies and a history of flatulence. All because you said you liked a certain TV show.

And that’s not even taking into account Google and its massive, massive databanks about you. What you search for when no one knows you’re searching. Google probably knows you better than almost anyone else.

Pair this knowledge about its users with the ability to sell ads to those users, and you get a dangerous combination. An unregulated combination. We recognized it’s not right to use cartoon characters to market cigarettes to children, so we made laws against it back in the day. Well, Congress is about as able to keep up with tech trends as an untrained cocker spaniel, and targeted ads online are pretty wild west right now. Yes, you’re supposed to be 14 to have a Facebook account, but even targeting ads to 14 year olds can get into icky territory.

The simple fact is that ads influence people. Anyone who says they don’t needs to explain why companies are willing to spend billions of dollars on them. And Facebook can see precisely what sort of an effect its ads has on its users. It can see which ones make a difference.

Let’s go straight to the more disturbing areas. Ads make a difference. Political ads can make people want to vote a certain way (or discourage then from voting at all). Russia has been using Facebook and other social media platforms to sow discord in American society, to great effect. If a company has the power within its grasp to sway an election one way or another (not just in America, but anywhere it has a presence), should that be something that’s enabled? Should there be some restrictions on how that power is used?

But it’s not all outside agents, and it’s not all about elections. One of the points of the film that stands out is that social media can get people to believe crazy things. The go-to example is always flat-earthers, which seems like such a blatant instance of people denying long proved facts, but not all flat-earthers are crazy or stupid. A significant chunk of them are just people who are bad at evaluating sources. As I wrote about conspiracy theories before, it’s really hard to get out of one once you’re in one, because they’re self-confirming. Any efforts to dissuade your belief can also just cement it further. If social media can propagate things like flat earth theories, then why in the world wouldn’t it be effective growing belief in everything from Pizzagate to Qanon?

The film takes a heavier hand with this than I would have liked, and I worry that can tune some people off of its message, but the core of the message is still there, and this is one of the best ways I’ve seen of getting that message across.

The question then comes up, “What now?” If you believe all of this is happening, then what should you do about it? Time to throw away all your smart phones and social media accounts? Speaking as a person who’s known about this for a while, and yet is still a tech junkie, here are some recommendations I have if you’ve seen the movie and want to adjust your life somewhat (without going into full hermit mode):

  • Do not get your news from social media. Period. Let me restate that one more time for emphasis. Do not get your news from social media. Sometimes that news will be an ad. Often it will be something shared by a friend (or a bot) and not fact checked. If the news is something that really sets you off (for good or bad), then go to one of your trusted news sites and look it up there, or at least confirm the story. I go to several news pages each day to see what’s happening. I visit the actual sites, or if there’s an RSS feed, I check the updates on Feedly. Anything that’s just funneling information your way should be suspect. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but you should treat it like a piece of candy you found on the ground. It might make you think you’d like to eat that little sweet, but maybe go to the store and buy a fresh piece instead.
  • Set boundaries on your social media use. A time limit would be nice. They are designed to soak up as much time as you will give them. The good news is that they’re generally also designed to put the most interesting things first. Read the first few stories and posts, and then move on with your life. If you find yourself constantly wanting to check the latest news, then you might have a problem. Boundaries are good.
  • Curate your feed. Again, this isn’t to say you should just unfriend anyone who disagrees with you, but I do think you’ll save a lot of stress by slimming things down. I friend just about anyone who wants to friend me. (Or at the least, I don’t refuse the request, and I let them follow me.) But to make it into my actual feed takes more work. Instead, I typically “friend and unfollow.” If you’re not someone I haven’t seen and interacted with in real life more than a day or two here and there, then why do I need to know what you’re up to? Unfollowed. Likewise, I will unfollow anyone whose posts just make me constantly think less of them. I don’t want bad interactions on Facebook to make me start disliking people in real life. Then again, as long as the person is posting some things that are worth it, I’m willing to tolerate a fair bit. I have some friends who are rabid Trump fans, believe it or not. And they’re not hidden, despite them linking to Fox News stories semi-regularly.
  • Curate what you share with others. Don’t just post something without looking into it first and confirming it’s accurate. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  • Talk to your kids about social media, and make sure they’re aware of what it does (and shouldn’t do). I tend to think the vast majority of the country is just on Facebook or Twitter or the like and not really thinking about how it all works. It’s like electricity to them. Flick a switch, and it turns on. What technology should you be cautious around? Anything that’s free, basically. If they don’t make money from your wallet, they’re making money from you in other ways, whether by selling your data to others or selling access to you.

Anyway. Just a few thoughts. Do check the movie out, and try to look past its weaknesses. The thought behind it is very valuable. 7/10


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *