“Facebook is like a pocketknife:  You can use it to peel an apple or stab a janitor at school.”  So said tech analyst (and talk-show host) Jimmy Kimmel.

Noam Ebner (not a talk-show host) wrote, “Its positive characteristics and opportunities notwithstanding, the Internet has become something similar to a bad neighborhood after dark. … Even as the Internet has developed into a global library, a world of potential and a connecting media allowing meaningful interactions between everyone on the planet, it has become a hunting ground for predators looking for prey.”

I’m sure no tech expert like Mssrs Kimmel and Ebner, but I agree.  You would not be reading this brilliant post right now were it not for the internet.  But I have been alarmed by anti-social effects of social media.  (Of course, social media are only one part of the internet, but they are obviously related.)

In the wake of recent disclosures by the “Facebook whistleblower” Frances Haugen, this is a good time to watch the 2020 Netflix film The Social Dilemma.  It’s a searing indictment of social media platforms, projecting a similar sense of impending catastrophe as did Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, describing climate change.

The Social Dilemma features interviews with numerous former high-level executives at major tech companies who warn about present and future dangers of social media.

The film highlights increased anxiety, depression, and suicides by teens related to their use of cell phones and social media.  It shows social media fueling disinformation, political polarization, radicalization of extremists like white supremacists, and domination of populations by authoritarian regimes.

Experts describe how tech companies “monetize” their users. “If the product is free, you’re the product.”  One company literally has a department of monetization.

What’s your product?  Your time and attention.

Social media platforms manipulate behavior through predictive artificial intelligence –  “attention extraction” – designed to keep you watching and clicking for as long as possible.  The companies scoop up all this data, sell it to advertisers, and give consumers the media they want – for free!  All good, right?

Not if you think that self-determination is a good thing.  One of the tech executives described how, even though he understands how social media create psychological dependency and he consciously tried to fight it, he couldn’t beat the system controlling his social media use.

The experts interviewed in the film say that this is not the result of evil scientists.  It’s just the logical consequence of companies trying to maximize their profits, with AI being extremely effective in delivering consumers to businesses.

I have two reservations about the film.  Although I found the experts very credible, the film is a piece of advocacy and it doesn’t include other points of view.  I am skeptical of self-serving statements from the tech industry, but I wonder if some independent experts have different perspectives.

Also, the film is interspersed with fictional scenes illustrating problems described by the experts.  Some of these scenes are better than others.

The Social Dilemma

Even people who are completely off the grid are affected by the huge number of people who are heavily influenced by the social media ecosphere.  This really is a social dilemma.  Social media intentionally and unintentionally spread disinformation, harm individuals, and sow social chaos and conflict.  Such effects hinder our ability to live autonomous lives, respect differences, and cooperate to deal with our major social and political issues.

Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, “provided documents to Congress that show Zuckerberg knew the company could have intervened to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation in at-risk countries, but he did not, because it would have negatively affected ‘meaningful social interaction,’ a key metric Facebook uses to measure communications between family and friends.  Haugen said the company tied the metric to employees’ bonuses and chose not to make changes that could cost Facebook money.”

“She said Facebook had purposely hidden disturbing research about how teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products and how it was willing to use hateful content on its site to keep users coming back.”

Ms. Haugen’s testimony seems particularly damning because she provided a lot of corroborating documentation.

Other employees have complained about problems at Facebook for years and have been rebuffed.  A Washington Post article states:

Brian Waismeyer, who like Haugen was a member of the company’s integrity unit, broadcast his displeasure in a farewell post on the company’s internal message board — a familiar venue for expressing the mounting dissent within a company whose own employees have become a formidable force for criticism. He said the social network made it “uniquely difficult” for people with jobs like his — reformers within a growth-focused social media service — “to the point that it impedes progress and burns out those who grapple with it.”

The overall picture portrayed in these scathing farewell missives, many of which have been obtained by The Washington Post, echo accounts from dozens of current and former employees interviewed in recent days and over the past several years:  Facebook is obsessed with growth, unwilling to undertake systemic reforms in the face of documented harms and ready to accommodate the politically powerful, especially President Donald Trump in the years before he was banned from the platform after the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol.

          …

“I’m glad that these documents prove what many have been saying:  Facebook’s leadership prioritizes growth and political power over the public good — and anyone who tries to change that continuously hits a wall,” said Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook executive.

These issues are not limited to Facebook.  The entire social media ecosphere is subject to intense pressures to satisfy powerful economic and political interests.  Moreover, malign state and non-state actors regularly disrupt and corrupt the system.

Experts in the film provide advice for people who want to exert more control over their own social media use.  People can delete apps, and should definitely turn off notifications for things they don’t want to interrupt them.  People can set limits, such as not taking cell phones into bedrooms at night or using them during meals.  They can monitor their kids’ use of social media and negotiate limits on their usage.

Steps like these can mitigate problems of individual users, but they don’t address the broader social dilemma.  How big a problem is this and what should be done?

Did you see the film?  What did you think?

Click here to see what else I have been reading.