What harm could social media do? Civil war! The end of civilization as we know it! That is the verdict of Silicon Valley’s renegade luminaries, lined up in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. As former Google employee Tristan Harris puts it, in a very TED Talks axiom, social media threatens “checkmate on humanity.”
If you think all that sounds like moral panic, you wouldn’t be far wrong. The dead giveaway is the enormous gap between the purported problem and the solutions — tax data collection, realign financial incentives, and no devices before bedtime. This is a documentary made for worried parents, #resistance liberals, and #NeverTrump Republicans.
All the villains of the liberal techlash are here: fake news, Russian cyberattacks, foreign dictators, “bad actors,” political polarization, and depressed teenagers. The Social Dilemma trundles out one jaded platform boss after another to deliver this familiar homily, dramatized with a background story about a suburban family from Anytown, USA torn apart by social media addiction.
Clichéd though it is, there is something to this. Moral panic usually isn’t wholly manufactured. It tends to be founded in a reality which it distorts. And the industry this documentary is describing in such lacerating terms — let us call it the social industry — deserves all the criticism it gets.
“Like a Dopamine Hit”?
It is by now old news that we, the industry’s users and lab rats, are a product whose every click, scroll, hover, and view is painstakingly monitored by the data giants. This data is collected, aggregated, and then segmented into markets far more precise than any in history.
The main commercial purpose of this data is to sell us as markets to advertisers and more efficiently manipulate our responses. Predicting and manipulating how we will think and act in future, based on the data, has become a huge market in itself: the “human futures” market, as social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff puts it in the documentary.
Perhaps less widely understood is the extent to which tech designers are systematically trained in psychological persuasion by their employers — with the intention of using that knowledge in the design of platforms to make users more suggestible.
Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook exec and now a “conscientious objector,” spent his time there constantly experimenting on users, trying out minute tactics that would work below the radar of conscious awareness to keep them hooked and goad them into “engaging” more. Default settings, infinite scrolling, “read receipts,” and alerts that another user is typing, are all examples of such tactics.
Sean Parker, a former Facebook boss, argues that these techniques knowingly and deliberately exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology.” Using these techniques, they created an addiction machine. User numbers and engagement soared spectacularly. The industry became the most profitable in the world.
Do they know why their techniques work? They have a theory. Palihapitiya argues that social media features, such as “like” counts and bright red notifications, are designed to reward engagement with a “dopamine hit.” Dr Anna Lembke, adding scientific authority to this Silicon Valley shtick, argues: “Social media is a drug. We have a biological imperative to connect with other people.”
Given this evolved imperative, when we receive news of “likes” and other signs of approval, the “reward pathways” of our brains light up, and we receive our hit. The rewards are more effective for being “intermittent” rather than predictable. And the more we repeat the action and get the reward, the more we “learn” to be addicted.
This is nonsense, based on ancient, discredited behaviorist myths. Dopamine doesn’t give anyone a “hit.” And people do not “learn” to become addicted through rewards and reinforcements. William Brewer’s classic review of behaviorist experiments found that the presence or absence of reward stimuli or negative reinforcements made no difference to whether subjects learned or did not learn the behavior that the experimenters were looking for.
Yet, unexamined behaviorist ideology has seeped into addiction research, generally fused with the most reductive evolutionary psychology — and this documentary has more dubious evolutionary babble than a pickup artist’s handbook. Silicon Valley executives have adopted this as if to explain why they’re capitalist geniuses for stumbling on a new way to make money. Thus telling us that they have no idea what they’re doing.
What of the effects of addiction? Here, The Social Dilemma turns to social psychologist and centrist scold Jonathan Haidt to offer the usual array of alarming statistics. According to him, depression and anxiety is up 62 percent among older teen girls since 2011 and suicide up by 75 percent. For preteen girls, the equivalent figures are 189 percent and 151 percent. Those statistics are for the United States, but similar data has come up elsewhere.
Tim Kendall, former president of Pinterest, is emphatic that “these services are killing people.” A more scrupulous documentary might have examined all these issues more closely. Might there be other causes for the rise in depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among young women? Have the lives of young people recently become worse, for example? If there are other causes, how would it be possible to isolate the role of social media? How could we prove that social media is not simply magnifying and purifying existing social trends?
The Social Dilemma notes that young women reportedly suffer from something called “Snapchat dysmorphia.” Some have been known to seek plastic surgeries to make their bodies look more like the filtered images they circulate. These stories are largely based on anecdotes shared by plastic surgeons.
It seems intuitively plausible that an attention economy based around trading images of self-perfection, of “living your best life,” would encourage young women to hate their bodies more. Yet, the fact that someone produces an image of themselves on Snapchat, tweaking and manipulating it to explain the plastic surgery they want, doesn’t mean that Snapchat is the cause of the desire for surgery. The industrial transformation of female bodies to please some idea of male desire is older than the Boomers blaming everything on social media.
What is it that has been displaced and distorted in The Social Dilemma, to produce this moral-panic cinema? Capital. The documentary is very clear-sighted about aspects of the social industry and how it works. It is, as Harris says, “a totally new species of power.” The social industry doesn’t just monitor and manipulate us. The more of our social lives is spent on these platforms, the more of our social life is programmed.
Jaron Lanier, the soft-spoken granddaddy of computer science, speaks of the way the platforms introduce a “sneaky third person” between every pair of interlocutors, who is paying for the conversation to be manipulated. But one could go much further, and author Cathy O’Neil does when she says that the algorithms which regulate how we interact are just “opinions embedded in code.” Whose opinions? Largely, those of wealthy white men in northern California out to make a huge profit and reputation. That is an intensely important political issue, which the Left has been slow to grapple with.
The Social Dilemma is right to highlight the power that is at stake here. And when it draws attention, with palpable horror, to the exponential growth in computer processing power, it clearly apprehends that processing power is political power. However, it’s extraordinary that it doesn’t occur to anyone to think of it as class power. For what is being automated most efficiently in the cybernetic offensive on living labor are the imperatives of capital.
The absence of capital from the film’s imagination results in some very strange and telling formulations. We are told that AI runs the world. That “as humans, we’ve almost lost control over these systems.” That a “checkmate on humanity” is afoot. That the machines are “overpowering human nature,” whose operating systems and processing power evolves much more slowly. The only sense in which any of this is true is the sense in which AI is just the programmatic expression of capital.
For The Social Dilemma, the real political questions that arise out of such programmed reality have to do with the way in which the social industry platforms promote polarization and undermine consensus reality. Everyone, we are told, is working with a different set of facts. Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google software engineer, explains that the algorithms which he helped design, such as YouTube’s “up next” recommendation system, work best by polarizing people. There is something riveting about “extreme” content, sufficient to keep users hooked.
Harris points out that “fake news” reportedly spreads six times faster than the truth because “the truth is boring.” There follows the familiar social media horror stories about conspiracy theories, racist propaganda, Flat Earth ideologies, and rumors benefiting murderous dictators — all thriving on social media. And of course, Russia “destabilizing democracies.”
There is obviously some truth to all this, but it’s still just begging the question. For what the documentary really needs to explain is, what is so addictive about conspiracy theories and bullshit? If YouTube and Facebook seem to promote far-right infotainment, that may say more about the societies in which the social industry profits than it does about the algorithms per se. Mark Zuckerberg may be amoral enough to profit from Holocaust denial, but no one is arguing that he is actually trying to promote it.
Perhaps still more insidious is the claim that “polarization,” and disagreement over the facts, is a political problem. There are, visibly, forms of volatile and exhausting cultural polarization that are accelerated on social media, if not exactly caused by it. The online culture wars do tend to favor reaction. However, that is not what the documentary is worried about. What it’s worried about is kids being brainwashed in online bubbles and becoming the sorts of “extremists” who get arrested by police.
Behind that, the worry is that, as Harris insists, we can’t even agree on what’s true anymore. But it’s normal in democracy for there to be some disagreement over the facts. And polarization may be evidence of renewed democratic engagement prompted by real civic issues, rather than of kids being brainwashed into supporting Bernie by TikTok. Unsurprisingly, the political heroes of the documentary at this point — both given their moment to shine, as they decry the collapse of civility — are Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio.
Nonetheless, if all the recent chaos of the US political system, from QAnon to armed militias, can be conveniently blamed on the social industry, then it makes sense for Kendall to claim that a “civil war” is a likely short-term result of the way social media currently works. Lanier goes further, predicting that if we don’t sort this out now, then climate change will not be solved, civilization will be destroyed, and “we don’t survive.”
It is with near-farcical bathos, then, that The Social Dilemma proceeds to its solutions. It tells us we need to realign financial incentives by, for example, taxing data collection; insist on no devices in the bedroom before bedtime; and never click on a “recommended video.” One former executive goes so far as to shrug that there’s little that can be done, as “the toothpaste is out of the tube.” Of all the talking heads, pleasantly prattling away about business models, only Zuboff comes close to the scale of the problem when she says that the market in data — “human futures” — should be abolished.
The emotional heart of this appeal is perhaps best expressed in Lanier’s claim that, every time things have changed for the better, it is because someone has said: “This is stupid, we can do better.” It is difficult to swallow the idea that this immortal legend really heralded the great emancipatory moments in history, from the abolition of slavery to votes for women. Nonetheless, as Lanier explains, he doesn’t want to hurt Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, or Snapchat. This is his world.
Few of the guests really want to do anything other than remedy what they see as a flawed “business model.” But what is the evidence that these companies can “do better”? They are doing exceedingly well. The documentary repeatedly hammers home how this industry has become the most profitable and politically salient in the world. And it is a rapidly evolving industry, learning new ways to game its laboratory subjects. Why would “realigning financial incentives” really deter them?
The Social Dilemma is a slick horror story with an improbable redemptive ending. It lacks the scruple or subtlety to ask how much of the horror emanates from society, rather than the machine. This is because the conversation is being led by liberals hurt by the social industry’s hugely profitable alliance with Trump and the Right — and all this, after Obama and Clinton were so nice to Silicon Valley. This, really, reflects the Left’s tardiness in engaging with this terrain.
The cyber-Marxist Nick Dyer-Witheford once remarked that all programs are political programs. Where is the communist program for the social industry?