Like a lot of people who work closely with social media, I recently watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, a documentary that explores the impact of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on society. Important issues like online addiction, fake news and social media’s influence on politics were unpacked and explored by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jeff Orlowski.
The Social Dilemma features former employees of Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter, who share their ethical concerns about the platforms they helped to create. As these now wise, all-knowing experts talk about their addiction to social media, email and Reddit, we cut to shots of syringes loading and hear ominous music. Wow, I guess my love of Twitter is a bit like shooting up heroin in an alleyway, then becoming so addicted I rob the local store, ending up in prison.
Another part of the documentary focuses on online advertising, specifically how the world’s great tech giants collect our data and monitor our actions, turning us into ‘products’ they sell to brands, who then sell us the perfect product at the perfect time on Facebook and Instagram. If only online advertising was this simple and effective, we’d all be mindlessly buying stuff we don’t need, and my job would be super easy.
As a whole, the documentary presents a somewhat dystopian, very one-sided view of social media and younger generations. Not much credit is given to millennials and Gen Zs, who appear unable to think for themselves. They're depicted as powerlessly trapped in a Black Mirror like world—mere pawns being controlled and sold to against their will.
As you can probably gauge from my sarcasm, there are certain aspects of the documentary that could have been handled with more subtly and less sensationalism, particularly the scenes featuring the all-American family being affected by the evils of ‘social’.
I agree with the key message of the documentary—that social media needs to improve—but unfortunately this 90-minute long documentary spent 87 minutes highlighting the obvious problems and only three minutes discussing potential solutions. Nor did this ‘clickbait’ documentary discuss the many positives that social media has created. So please allow me to further the debate by suggesting a few ways we could fix this 'dilemma'.
With each platform there is room for improvement, and this is the obvious intention of The Social Dilemma. But social media will always be in development. Technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are unlike alcohol, tobacco and drugs which can be easily moderated.
As technology changes, so too will the platforms, especially now with the rise of social commerce, which is sure to create a whole new set of challenges. But how do we fix today’s problems? No one is quite sure, but what most agree on is that we can’t simply ban social media, nor can we overly censor it.
Facebook already has algorithms that flag content that references terrorism, white supremacy and most of the other hateful things that mainstream society frowns upon. But once blocked, this content is simply reuploaded with a different title or with pixelated footage that covers offensive symbols like Nazi flags. The truth is, it is very hard to stop human will. A person who wants to spread hate online will always find a way, and unfortunately, because of the current make up of Facebook that hate spreads quicker.
Perhaps the solution to fix some of these problems is to actually create more social media, not less.
Because competition is usually the key driver of innovation, maybe we need more platforms? Maybe if a genuine alternative arose tomorrow offering a better way to connect, and it was free of fake news and designed to be less addictive, most would join this new platform? And this would obviously force the Facebooks of the world to evolve how they operate.
There actually are many social platforms that are free from advertising and don’t share data with third parties. Most of these are open-source, not-for-profit platforms like Ello and Mastodon. Unfortunately, none of these platforms have reached mainstream popularity.
At this point our governments seem unable or unwilling to enact legislation that moderates social media, so maybe change will naturally happen through competition. The optimist in me hopes this will happen. The skeptic in me believes that without government intervention, these businesses will never change. Because they are businesses, after all, with shareholders to answer to and margins to hit. No matter how noble their mission statements may be, it’s unlikely they will change a system that is very profitable.
Another solution that was briefly mentioned in the documentary is data taxation. Essentially governments could charge these tech giants tax for the data they have on their citizens. The more data you have, the more tax you pay. The data taxation theory works on the principal that these tech giants will become more accountable for the data they own and how they use it—because that data will now come at a higher cost.
By opening their data to taxation, these platforms also open themselves to more scrutiny. The public will now clearly see how much revenue Facebook generates from fake news, Russian bots, terrorists, republicans, oligarchs, and so on. This theory sounds simple enough, but who is going to monitor this data? And who is going to pay for the monitoring?
There is a particularly confronting moment in the documentary where a social psychologist reveals there has been a rise in depression, self-harm and suicide amongst teenage girls in America that directly correlates to the growth of social-media platforms. This is a clear sign that something is wrong and has to change.
Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others are clearly having a negative impact on the mental health of many. So, just like we limit the use of alcohol and penalise people for drinking too much when they get behind the wheel, maybe we should do the same with these platforms.
Imagine if after 60 minutes on Instagram, you were then locked out, unable to use the platform for the next 24 hours. The problem with this approach is that users will just have multiple accounts they jump to once 60 minutes has elapsed. Even if this approach was viable, it would have to be developed in partnership with hardware manufacturers, and I’m not sure they’d willingly want to dictate to people how they use their devices.
Another factor to be considered with this approach is the companies that use social media. Is it fair to limit their usage considering they use the platforms to run key aspects of their business?
For me education is the key to this dilemma. Just like we teach our young about alcohol and drugs, we need to do the same with social media, and I would get the big tech players to pay for this education through taxation. We tax the alcohol and tobacco industries to clean up some of the mess they create, so why can’t we tax the tech companies to fund education programs that teach our young about fake news and online addiction?
Imagine if every primary school in the world had a ‘Social Media 101’ class funded by Facebook. Imagine if every 9-year-old was taught to think critically about that strange video they just watched on YouTube. Imagine if every 11-year-old was taught that filters aren’t a true reflection of reality. These types of programs are emerging in many schools, but really only in wealthy nations, and this is why we need the tech players to pay.
Just like how Facebook is funding fiber optic cables in the developing world, (setting up another batch of customers?) so too should it be funding educational programs. There, here, in fact everywhere. If social platforms want to connect the world and make it a more open place, then they need to also teach the world about the positives and negatives that come with this openness.
Keith Byrne is creative director at Digitas Singapore.