Sometimes there are movie that change the way an entire generation looks at a subject.An Inconvenient Truth“ was such a movie. „Holocaust“. or maybe „We feed the world“. The Netflix production “The Social Dilemma” stands in this line for me — although maybe the documentary didn’t quite achieve the impact it deserved. After all, it’s about a big topic: It describes the enormous influence that social networks currently have on us, our thinking and our social cohesion.

The movie is not even outstandingly well made. Unnecessarily fast cuts and a deliberately dramatic sound stir up emotions and overwhelm the audience. Acted scenes and a dark voodoo metaphor are meant to show the manipulation an ordinary teenager under the spell of his personalised newsfeed.

Yet, the film has an important educational concern:

He addresses a whole series of issues that every responsible person today should be aware of. It elaborates on these aspects and lets some of the world’s most competent key witnesses have their say: The masterminds of the algorithms of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter & Co. A whole bunch of these top-class specialists from Silicon Valley have questioned their brilliant careers and changed sides. They are people who have grown rich, who have sought distance and who now take a very different, sometimes extremely concerned look at their own actions.

An important protagonist is for example Tristan Harris. He was a design ethicist at Google and wrote an alarming memorandum at the time that caused a considerable unrest within the corporation, but ultimately remained inconsequential. This may be symptomatic of the mentality in Silicon Valley: People are certainly thoughtful, but ultimately stuck in their routine of making money in an extraordinary efficient way. Thus, the decisions of perhaps 40 young designers influence the daily lives of no less than half of humanity.

„Knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my [own] usage.“

Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook and CEO at Pinterest

Two scenarios this year have shown us how tangible our social-media-mediated loss of reality already is: the U.S. election and the Corona pandemic. That a large-scale election fraud had taken place in the U.S. was a transparent false claim with a long lead-in — and yet millions believed it (or still do) and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in outrage. And the second wave of the Corona pandemic, long predicted by experts, is a verifiable fact that many people still refuse to believe under any circumstances.

That’s about like saying, “No, there are no multi-resistant germs in hospitals, it’s all lies!”, “Traffic fatalities — a huge hoax!” or “Wind turbines cause climate change”. Even these headlines could probably convince enough people on social media when repeated often enough.

The crucial aspect in the film for me was formulated by Tristan Harris in a lecture for his Center for Humane Technology:

“We are all looking out for that moment when technology will overwhelm human strengths and intelligence. When is it going to cross the singularity, replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there is this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses.

Tristan Harris

In other words, it doesn’t take fabulous strong AI but simple self-learning algorithms to influence our very personal perception of the world through social media today. The comforting thought that we could eventually pull the plug on an AI that is getting out of hand is already passé. Today, armed militias are already forming in the USA. Today, angry citizens who have polarised themselves on social networks are already clashing in the streets. Pogroms like those against the Rohingya are, of course, not an invention of the social media age. But we had hoped to overcome such conditions through education and information, rather than opening new doors for them.

“Do you check your smartphone in the morning before you pee or while you pee? Those are the only two options.

Tim Kendall

Social media are considered “disruptive”. They change the rules of the game and bring about profound change. I, too, initially had the popular argument in mind: “The printing press, radio, television … New media have always caused upheavals when they were invented. It just has to settle down.” And there is some truth to that. Yet we are dealing here with a far more mutable type of media, namely one that self-optimises in short cycles. As soon as Facebook fades a little, TikTok appears as an even more seducing proposition.

Our debate about these media (e.g. in the film discussed or in this article) is precisely part of this settling — of a certain awareness, self-defence and emancipation. But this does not happen by itself, and only with some effort at the pace necessary. And as soon as we are not watching out, the gatekeepers of the new media will shamelessly exploit their power, with enthusiasm and chutzpah. Because they can.

„Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.“

Cathy O’Neil, PhD, data scientist, author of “Weapons of Math Destruction”

So, what specific problems are being identified?
And what answers are being discussed?

From this rather messy number of aspects covered, I identified twelve phenomena that can be considered basic issues in dealing with social networks. There are solutions or answers for some of them. In the movie only touches on them in passing, which is a pity. So what exactly are the problems and what are the solutions?

1. Financing by advertising

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” More specifically, our attention is the precious resource, as Jaron Lanier points out in the film. To be more precise: The very accurately predictable change in our behavior on a very specific point, that is the product that can be sold to the highest bidder or pandered to whatever ideology.

— The solution to this is obvious, but it’s a battle against windmills: Overcoming the cost-free mentality. Only very slowly the press is establishing financing models online. The most essential achievements of the civil society in the web are only barely secured with donations. Data mongers and advertising networks, on the other hand, can live to the full in exchange of useful little favors. A stronger awareness is only slowly emerging. Privacy advocates are called fetishists … Some people apparently have to learn from their own mistakes.

2. Detailed surveillance, profiling and manipulation

The networks know more about us than our best friends — or than we even do ourselves. As a result, we become predictable and manipulable. This may feel silly enough when the motive is to sell us chocolate or sneakers. But what if, at some point, more tangible interests are at stake: corruption, health policy, or power issues? When, for example, it’s about preventing certain groups from participating in elections or spreading doubt about their outcome?

— The European GDPR strives to put a stop to excessive profiling whenever it is against the interest of the subjects. Here, too, the question is: Which trade-offs do we accept? To whom do we give away our data and what are the agents involved allowed to do with it? Legal hurdles in combination with a developed awareness can help to prevent the worst. Our own behaviour plays a role, but also the political party we vote for, the demands we promote, the initiatives we support.

3. Disinformation on a new level

Fake News, targeted false information, spread several times faster than accurate news. They are more entertaining, exciting and often easier to understand than reality. They help us get some shine and attention and provides us with a clear opinion. As old as the rumor is as propaganda means and artifice of war, it has never been as convincing, vivid and fast as it is today.

— Enlightenment, fact-checking, counter-speech. It may be tedious, but there is no other antidote to make unsuspecting or deluded people aware of the mechanisms they are being duped by. We will never reach the last flat earthers and QAnon cult disciples. But that’s exactly why we have to start in an earlier state: How can you recognize a hoax? What are reputable sources? How do I read a statistic? What can I find out for myself? Which ideologies are there and to which distortions do they tend? When is self-criticism appropriate and when is it not? What is a deep fake, etc.

4. Filter bubbles: Loss of reality, polarization, ignorance, tribalism, radicalization

You don’t notice on Facebook or Instagram how your own newsfeed aligns with your individual worldview and reinforces it. The result is a tightening of our perspective that may lead to conspiracy myths and radical positions. The social consensus is crumbling.

— There is a rising awareness of these processes, and also timid attempts to defuse them. The word filter bubble has become common knowledge. Cognitive distortions are sometimes mentioned in discussions. But so far, this has done little to challenge the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Civil society and the social platforms must take scientific action here and implement pluralism, allow friction with counter-positions. This valuable reality check should be promoted in their algorithms and counter-models.

5. addictiveness (engagement, screen time as a business model).

The mechanisms of the business model trigger the human brain’s reward system. Dopamine is activated every time the Endless Scroll is activated, just like in a slot machine. This leads to a real addiction to news, lols, likes and views, to continual confirmation by the peer group. With a pre-formed addiction structure, it easily leads to a serious dependency. And depression can also simply be a consequence of too little exercise, constant tunnel vision and too little sleep.

— Anyone who realizes that they are trapped here should definitely take radical measures to live free of social media constraints and self-determined again. Time-outs, detox, sunlight and genuine human encounters are the order of the day. A change of perspective, other pursuits like music, sports, cooking, doing some fixing or crafting, new interests. This includes enduring the withdrawal, the boredom for quite some time.

6. Distraction

Almost everyone finds it difficult to resist the lure of personalized recommendations. Young people in particular, but adults as well, often need more discipline to focus than they actually have. Longer conversations without the distraction of incoming messages become a rarity. Teachers can tell you a thing or two about the fact that the attention span of their students can be measured in the duration of a YouTube video.

— Focusing on the here-and-now within reach of the virtual world demands some training from us. But there’s no alternative: How much longer are we supposed to accept the impertinence of someone constantly intruding on our lives? Those who want to avoid the struggle switch off entirely. Those who are advanced my just mute their cell phones and set times for online communication. Undivided attention on the given channel — in real life or online — should become a standard and may also be demanded if necessary.

7. Norming, declining self-esteem, bullying

Social media and professional influencers bring us to promote idealized images of ourselves — and at the same time to compare ourselves to the unrealistic ideals we encounter. Of course, living up to them is hopeless from the start. Deviations from the norm are being exaggerated, our self-esteem becomes based on outward appearances and superficial life goals. And even worse, anyone who is exposed to actual bullying can hardly escape this traumatic experience.

— The remedy here is to make information about these phenomena available. To show how many others feel the same way. To look behind the surface and recognize the value of a person. To consciously promote and train appreciation. To cultivate diversity and specialness instead of suffering from it. People who deviate from the norm can organize themselves into communities of their own and self-help on a supra-regional basis.

8. Heating-up, emotionalization of debates and communication

What amuses or outrages us, attracts attention — and attention is the currency of social networks. For our culture of debate, this means that hate speech, polarization, ridicule and slander find plenty of nourishment and plenty of resonance in our newsfeeds. Just one glance to Twitter or Facebook is often enough to see which outrage it is again today, which circus is being rolled out today. This doesn’t exactly advance the cause. Any initiative against climate change, for new mobility solutions, against child abuse, for data protection in schools, whatever … is constantly accompanied by a cacophony of haters and hyperventilating know-it-alls.

— Apart from the fact that everyone can restrain themselves and contribute to the objectification of the debate … Here the platforms really do have a duty: To fulfill their customer promise (to bring people together, promote communication, etc.) by adapting algorithms accordingly. More can probably be expected from this than from content moderation or automatic filters. Those who cannot master the quality of their product must feel the pressure — from politicians, from their users, from NGOs and the civil society. What has yet to emerge, however, is quality awareness in this regard and clearly recognizable criteria that can be set. Until that happens, initiatives like HateAid or #IchBinHier must stand by those affected as best they can.

9. Algorithms reinforce prevailing judgments — and prejudices

The tendency is just all too human, to be satisfied with a self-learning processes as soon as it seems to sufficiently deliver the desired result. Which means that our standards, that are often too short-sighted, are being cast in algorithms and thus made absolute. Too much trust in IT systems then leads to, for example, discriminatory standards being applied unquestioningly. In social media, recommendation algorithms serve the fulfillment of the corporate goal: keeping the user interest up. This may go hand in hand with the creation of a completely one-sided world view of the user, even to the point of extreme radicalization. (There are successful attempts to use de-radicalizing recommendation algorithms. So far, these are only attempts. More on this topic soon).

— Making algorithms transparent, analyzing them and, if necessary, defusing them is an important demand of various NGOs such as Algorithmwatch. This demand has also been reflected in the current draft of the EU’s Digital Services Act. But we as individuals are also free to recognize the bias and express our distrust of the technical systems. The justification “that’s what the computer says” is no justification at all.

10. Monopoly position of a few networks

Even if there are occasional surprise successes by outsiders in the social media universe (like the rises of Snapchat or TikTok), the Big Five have now amassed such a large war chest that they can easily buy up or fight off competitors. On the political level, they exert such enormous influence that one sometimes has to worry about the “primacy of politics”. Their commitment to charity and the common good are an integral part of their U.S.-influenced philosophies, which are less about fair market rules and regulation than about the image and the (more or less) responsible actions of corporations.

— A European regulation of the markets and safeguarding fair competition are needed here as a counterweight. With the draft Digital Services Act, the EU Commission has made a surprisingly powerful start. We should better not stand by and watch as the intended regulations are spoilt by corporate lobbying, but instead build up pressure on our part to take account of the interests of civil society.

11. The broker position: normal interactions become the subject of a mediating operation

It’s the wet dream of all infrastructure companies: to turn ordinary things like water, air, or a phone call into a paid service, and possibly in a monopoly position. For an average person in India, Facebook is the Internet. Others make phone calls via WhatsApp or use Google for just about everything. Open protocols such as e-mail or telephony are falling into the private hands of oligopolies.

— One important requirement is that the platforms commit to open-source standards and open interfaces. So that, for example, you can address your girlfriend on WhatsApp from any other messenger. Last but not least, reliable end-to-end encryption must be the responsibility of the users, who cannot rely on half-baked promises from platforms like Facebook or Zoom.

12. Loneliness

Social media keep us glued to the screen for as long as possible – that’s their business model. This often leads to less sleep, more fatigue and imbalance. Contacts become more virtual and physical encounters less frequent. When notifications are turned on, it often leads to less attention in conversations. On the other hand: social media make it easier to stay in touch (e.g., in case of illness, change of residence) and to make interesting new contacts (special interests, etc.).

— The solution here is a more conscious and distanced approach to social media. Genuine encounters must be actively sought and encouraged. The topic should be de-tabooed and addressed among friends or even on social networks. People who are physically present should always be given undivided attention. Our expectations of ourselves and others should be realistic: Nobody is perfect — it is our mistakes that make us human.

The younger generation will do better …

„We are more profitable [to them] when we stare at advertisements on a screen than when we live a fulfilling life.“

Jaron Lanier, author und IT entrepreneur

All the 12 problem points mentioned above lead to an overwhelming. An overwhelming of our brain, our vanity or seductiveness. And to an overwhelming of society, which cannot learn so quickly to see through the mechanisms that are constantly evolving and refining. Both, it seems, can’t cope with the billion-dollar technology and powerful self-learning algorithms of the corporations. It’s time for the balance to shift.

“The Social Dilemma” has been accused of drawing a dystopia without offering any solutions. However, a whole series of very practical solutions on how to change one’s own behavior are mentioned in the film’s ending titles. These and others are mentioned again here below. (Another list can be found here: Take Control.)

  • Turn off notifications and sounds
  • Delete apps that annoy you
  • Never follow recommendations (such as on YouTube)
  • Pay attention and reject when something is obviously optimized to trigger your emotions
    (ironically, the movie is doing just that — decide for yourself if that feels legitimate to you)
  • Check facts at neutral sources
  • Ensure real diversity in your own information sources
  • Keep kids off social media as long as possible (16 — in words sixteen — is cited as a good age to start!)
  • Reduce children’s screen time
  • Negotiate and monitor time budgets with yourself
  • Educate young people about the effects of social media (e.g., distorted self-perception,
    filter bubbles, normation, bullying, etc.), using real-life examples.
  • No devices in the bedroom
  • Use search engines and messengers that don’t spy on you
  • Reduction, detox, abstinence: go offline one day a week
  • Observation, awareness
  • Support local and independent journalism

The now young generation will (have to) become much better In all these things — better than almost all of us are at the present time —, if values like self-determination, peaceful coexistence and enlightenment are to endure. I think that impulses such as those emanating from “The Social Dilemma” will play an important role in a positive development.

Finally, to what extent does the film actually describe a dilemma — and not simply a series of problems? The answers we find above always start from the premise that we want to use social media. If we follow Jaron Lanier’s recommendation to delete our social media accounts immediately, then we have no dilemma. Perhaps we will then have become richer in some respects, but certainly somewhat poorer too: In terms of the inspiration, information, entertainment, debate and friendly interaction that social media offer to us in spite of everything. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so damn successful.

Anyone who wants to hold on to it, even in part, has such a dilemma — and must solve it for themselves and others.


The Social Dilemma
USA, 2020
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Script by Jeff Orlowski, Davis Coombe and Vickie Curtis
View on Netflix (paywall)