Updated: Jan 26
The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix exposes the manipulative business models behind social media apps like Facebook and Pinterest. Predictably, many viewers are reacting with concern - but what can actually be done to turn things around?
By now, most folks with a Netflix account and an eye for good tech stories will be aware that there's a documentary out that investigates the motivations and tactics that drive social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
The Netflix Original (which in hindsight does a pretty good job of sparing Netflix itself from scrutiny) captures insights from Silicon Valley insiders talking over slick graphics and vignettes from a fictional family whose familial bonds begin to deteriorate under the strain of increased social media adoption.
But does the doc reveal anything we didn't learn from The Great Hack in 2019?
In a way, yes.
On the one hand, both docs show that social media is a powerful force capable of both great good AND great evil (hence the "dilemma").
But while The Great Hack exposed what could be described as growing pains within Facebook, a global ecosystem that was expanding without precedent, The Social Dilemma dives into the cold heart of the business models that drive all social media companies who swap customer influence for advertising dollars.
7 takeaways from The Social Dilemma
Spoiler alert! Here are the key takeaways from the documentary:
The purpose of social media is unconscious manipulation, not entertainment
Fake news spreads 6X faster on social platforms than the truth
The algorithms controlling content operate under their own set of controls
Search engine results are also manipulated to control commercial outcomes
Every person is deliberately shown a different version of reality
Regulation, not more technology (not even AI) is needed to fix the problem
One of the more telling parts of the doc came when the experts were asked to sum up the problem. "Um" and "ah" were typical replies. But editing liberties aside, these reactions showed how difficult it can be to sum up really big problems like social media manipulation.
Getting to the root cause
As we explored in our post about the business World's addiction to applications, the lack of CONTROL that data owners have is a growing issue that impacts nearly every digital service, not just social media platforms.
The enemy of control is the duplication of data, and so we'd like to offer the following as a description of the problem we are facing with our data:
We lack control as data owners because digital service providers lack control as data stewards
This framing of the problem is the focus of the Data Collaboration Alliance and our mission is to promote control as the foundation for meaningful ownership.
What the documentary recommends
Towards the end of the Social Dilemma the experts make a series of recommendations for concerned citizens, which include:
Turn off ALL app notifications
Reject all "recommended" content
Fact check before you share content
Follow people you disagree with
Take your children off social media / no social media until high school
Take all devices out of the bedroom at a set time
Things won't change without massive public pressure...
These are all pretty good tip, but they won't do much to address the underlying cause of the issue.
What we recommend
As the documentary said, "the genie is out of the bottle" and there's no way to unlearn what we know about digital manipulation. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that social media also has potential to support great good in the World.
And while things like Prop 24, the Data Dividend Project, and Article 17 of the GDPR are making real progress, it is our position that they will be much easier to implement once we address the CONTROL issue.
Here's how you can help:
Contact us to add your logo and contribute to our content program.
Sponsor an Open Source project team and help to demonstrate that technology can be delivered while retaining the rights of data owners