Trailer of « The dilemma of social networks » Netflix documentary

Disinformation, polarized opinions, the imperious need to please the other and addiction to screens These are some of the harmful consequences that came from the hand of the computer giants, as analyzed in the documentary The dilemma of social networks by New Yorker Jeff Orlowski that has just released Netflix and that is giving a lot to talk about.

The film analyzes some of the phenomena that have been arising for a long time from different sectors of the academy, the media and even by governments in different parts of the world. Just think of the scandal Cambridge Analytics, the scrutiny to which they have been subjected the big tech in Europe and U.S, or the multiple studies that address the harmful effects that could derive from being plugged into a screen 24/7 to understand that talking about the dark side of the digital universe is not entirely original.

In this sense, it can be said that the documentary does not make great revelations, since it addresses questions that have been reflected on for a long time. But that is not why it stops being interesting: it invites reflection and stands out especially for the number of testimonies from sources, outstanding and relevant, which it gathers and synthesizes in one hour and 34 minutes.

Netflix defines this production as a « hybrid between documentary and drama that delves into the business of social networks, the power they exercise and the addiction they generate in us: their perfect bait. » We speak of a hybrid because the testimonies offered by former executives of Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, as well as psychologists and other experts, is added the dramatization of a family played by Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward and Vincent Kartheiser that seeks to represent the consequences that watching and living life through networks can generate.

« The dilemma of social networks », a documentary that invites us to reflect on the impact of technological platforms in our lives

Addictive design and the continuous need for rewards

Tristan Harris, former Google designer and founder of the Center for Human Technology, is one of the voices that analyzes the phenomenon of digital technologies in documentaries. Harris is recognized for having given multiple talks about the addictive nature that, in his vision, platforms have. Specialized in persuasive technology, he assures that this is not accidental but is an inherent part of the designs that are implemented in networks, mail and messaging services.

The user has an urgent need to receive a reward that comes in the form of a comment, a « like », a retweet or a feed that is continuously updated. Companies have created platforms that seek to take advantage of this dopamine, a neurotransmitter that participates in motivation and rewards for pleasant stimuli, which is stimulated when a notification arrives indicating that someone has noticed us.

The herd instinct and to please that humans have is enhanced by the very design of these technologies, which generate small intermittent reinforcements in the form of warnings, alarms or notifications and in that sense they work like slot machines, according to Harris.

Justin Rosenstein, who was a product manager at Google and also one of the creators of the « Like Facebook » button.

Competition for user attention

Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook and former president of Pinterest, is another of the voices that speaks of the need to capture attention that social networks have. The platforms emerged as a space to make opinions visible, to enhance public participation, which have generated some positive changes: have become the public square to spread ideas or movements like Me Too, for example. It can be said that the networks contributed to giving a voice to a wider sector of society.

But they have also become spaces that can lead to manipulation. The problem, as analyzed in different testimonials, is that the networks feed on advertising and this business model requires that the attention of consumers be continuously captured. Why? Because sites need to be popular. It is popularity, your ability to attract visitors, that is monetized.

« If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product », It is mentioned in the film. Definitely, what is sold to advertisers is the time and interaction of visitors. As a consequence, all platforms seek to optimize their product in order to keep people’s attention.

Aza Raskin, former employee of Firefox and Mozilla, speak about this and other issues related to the B-side of the platforms; Alex Roetter, who was once the vice president of product for Twitter, Jeff Seibter, who worked as a product manager on that same social network or Justin Rosenstein, who was a product manager at Google and also one of the creators of the « Like » button on Facebook.

The film was made by director Jeff Orlowski

Opinion polarization

Another point that is addressed in the documentary, both from the testimonies of the sources consulted and through the representation with the actors, is how social networks have contributed to the polarization of opinions. The algorithms seek to enhance the interests of the user who, according to the film, ends up entangled in a microworld where they consume content that strengthens their positions. In this sense, it can be said that each one ends up seeing the world they want to see.

To prove this point, among others, a study published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 based on a survey of more than 10,000 adults in the US is cited, which concludes that Republicans and Democrats are more ideologically separated than at any other time in history recent.

If we talk about ideological cracks, it should be remembered a study conducted by the Web Foundation in 2018 at that time, it was showing Facebook information in Argentina and its impact on users according to their different political views. The study concluded that the information users saw varied according to the different profiles and their affinities, but it was not clear what the criteria, or the algorithm behind, was.

Tristan Harris is known to be a staunch critic of what he describes as the addictive design used on platforms to capture the constant attention of users.

Fake news

Social networks tend to promote the dissemination of fake news as well as conspiracy theories. In this sense, remember that unsupported ideas such as flat Earth or that 5G is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus have used platforms to become viral.

Ensures that the fake news They go viral up to six times faster than real information, and this often happens because conspiracy theories tend to be more attractive. « The truth is boring », reflects one of the specialists. And yes, the strange, the particular or what seems to be an explanation full of twists and turns and mysteries has an irresistible attraction for many and the « share » button is so within reach hand in hand that can be overly tempting. This is a real problem and it is not the first time it has been mentioned. There are hundreds of studies that account for this.

But what it does not mention in the documentary is that, in light of these facts, the platforms have been taking more and more measures to stop spreading fake news. It should be noted the tags that Twitter uses to mark tweets that include misleading or violence-promoting content or the options offered by Instagram, Facebook or YouTube for users to report when any of the community rules are violated. Or the limitations on the messages that can be forwarded that WhatsApp implemented to reduce the spread of fake news. Some might see this as limitations on freedom of expression, and others as responses to a problem that requires some moderation.

And regardless of how it looks, the truth is that it is not a forceful solution, but just some initiatives that have to be accompanied by education in this regard so that people stop falling victim to deception.

Social networks can generate a contact need to be connected, according to the film (. / Sascha Steinbach / Archive)

In this sense, it must be said that several investigations have been carried out and digital literacy strategies are being implemented, from different entities, so that users learn to discern reliable sources from others that are not and, above all, to than do not be in a rush to share any posts or messages you receive. In this sense, the viralization of fake news has also generated, at least in a segment of the population, the need to consume quality news in the media.

The Depression

In the documentary, studies are mentioned that show the negative consequences that social networks can cause, especially in adolescentss. At a stage where the personality is being built, the need to please becomes imperative. And the bulling that can come from the platforms not only does not contribute to this stage but could promote depression.

So far, it can be said that the film analyzes a point that has been mentioned in several studies but goes a little further when a specialist seeks to link the increase in suicides of adolescents and young adults registered in the US in recent years with excessive consumption social networks. Linking the two data in a causal relationship seems, to say the least, simplistic because it lacks arguments to relate these indices.

The film has the testimonies of former executives of the most important technology companies in the world.

The debate and visibility as an engine of change

The film closes with an encouraging message: change is possible. Making visible what is wrong, the B or harmful side is the first step to make changes. In summary It is about making the population aware of these issues in order to generate positive technology, that is not based on capturing 100% of the user’s attention and that gives space for people to look into each other’s eyes again, to use their voice, to move in the analog world.

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