A Documentary Sounds the Alarm on Social Media

By Ally A.L. ’23

You are being watched. 

This sounds like the intro line to a dystopian science fiction movie but it’s not— it’s real life. Every move you make online is being watched, recorded, and then used to create customized advertisements and recommendations specifically for you in the hopes that you’ll spend more time using these companies’ digital creations. 

This was the lesson I learned from watching The Social Dilemma, a documentary by Jeff Orlowski that was released on Netflix earlier this year. The film features interviews with tens of former executives at top Silicon Valley tech companies— Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Google and the like— who answer the question, “What’s the harm of social media?” 

If you have social media, and even if you don’t, I’m sure you’ve been warned of its many dangers countless times; it’s a time suck, it devalues face to face interactions, it portrays an unrealistic, unattainable existence, it lowers your self-esteem. These are all valid points that most of us are familiar with, even if we don’t really register them because of how ingrained social media’s use is in our daily lives. But the way this documentary brings these risks to reality is pretty terrifying, to say the least.

The film centers around Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist and product philosopher at Google who became so concerned with the harmful effects of social media use that he left the company and founded The Center for Human Technology, which dedicates itself to sounding the alarm on the dangers of social media. In The Social Dilemma, he and countless other former tech executives discuss the importance of understanding what’s really going on behind your screens. “Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used,” warns Harris in the film. “It has its own goals and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.” 

The Social Dilemma explores just exactly how this sentence has become reality. One story line of the film focuses on a fictional family with screen addicted children. Hidden inside the screen of every person in this dystopian world are controllers—people whose job is to make the user spend more time on their phone. The controllers’ singular goal is to send notifications that make the person want to pick up their phone and then stay on the screen— whether it’s sending news of an ex’s new significant other, updates about likes on a new post, or matchmaking a potential relationship. Watching this social media addicted family move about in their grim dystopian world feels like a distant fantasy, but our own world is more similar to it than we like to think.

While in the real world each person obviously doesn’t have a physical group of people hiding behind their screen pulling triggers to make them pick up their phone, the reality is not far off. “If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you, it’s manipulating you, it wants things from you,” Harris says. Tech creators have designed social media apps to send you carefully crafted, tempting notifications to make you click on them, to convince you to devote more time to their apps, and to give them more information about yourself. Every time you tap on a post, a recommended video, a link— your phone is learning more about you and devising better and better ways to lure you in. Every single click is being used against you— to trick you into devoting more and more of your life to a time absorbing, manipulative, black hole of information.

If that’s not terrifying, I don’t know what is. As teenagers in a digital age, social media is inevitably a big part of our lives, and therefore we all have a duty to know what it’s really doing to us. If social media is going to be an aspect of our lives and identities and is going to take up so much of our time, then shouldn’t we know its true intentions? Because from watching this film, they’re not all good. Another hair-raising quote from the documentary, accredited to Edward Tuttle: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” We are being used. We are the products that these companies are targeting. Our time is valuable, and capturing our attention, energy, and money is the driving force behind technological advancement and development. And we should be aware of it. 

In my opinion, I don’t think we need to all stop using social media, but at this point in time we are definitely at a crossroads. We can let this technology overpower our decisions, our politics, and ultimately our lives— as it has already begun to— or, we can salvage the positive aspects and with awareness, moderation, and good intent, gracefully integrate it into our future. As the generation most targeted by these companies, and as the generation who will become the future of the technological industries, now is our time to become aware of the manipulative reality we are all subjected to. The Social Dilemma’s chilling warning is by no means a pleasant one, but it draws attention to what we need to be aware of before it is too late. The true intentions of the tech industry that the film exposes, shared by some of the most knowledgeable technological experts in the world, are shocking, disturbing, and frightening all at once, yet if I could recommend any movie to watch this year, this would absolutely be it. 

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