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Unpacking Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’

And why it doesn't really have to be a dilemma at all.

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Still frame from the Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma'
Courtesy Neflix
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Remember when you learned about the concept of subliminal advertising? Movie theaters were accused of flashing subliminal messages about popcorn and soda during movies to increase concession sales. You’re entrenched in a movie and suddenly you get a hankering for a big old tub of buttered popcorn. Was it your tastebuds or your subconscious brain that triggered that craving?

Courtesy Netflix

The same thing is happening today but on a much larger, and more dangerous, scale. If you haven’t heard of the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, you must be living under a social media rock. In a real twist of irony, it’s been the trending topic on social media these past few weeks. It’s a documentary, more of an exposé, on the tech industry’s seedy, manipulative, and underhanded attempts to control our social media behavior way beyond posts and likes. The film’s allegations are substantiated by former social media insiders who have become somewhat of the tech industry’s whistleblowers. It’s filled with aha (or rather, “Oh sh*t”) moments that we’ve all long suspected about social media and its impact on human behavior.  We’re all part of a modern day social experiment that’s at the intersection of utopia and dystopia.

I will admit, as I was watching it, I had my finger on the "deactivate account" button of my social media profiles. But I fought the urge partly because I do love social media for its positive aspects and, secretly, I want to outsmart the coders to show them who is really in control.

I won’t give away the highlights of the film but The Social Dilemma is really about the dilemma these media companies face in balancing being profitable with manipulating their users. Manipulating is putting it mildly — it’s more like mind control.

AI, dopamine, and addiction are the buzzwords of the film. In acknowledging the addictive aspects of social media, one former industry insider notes, “There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software.” Yikes!

The film tackles the commonplace tech-averse topics of data privacy (or lack thereof), disinformation campaigns, and the mental health struggles fueled by social media, especially among younger generations. But I really lost sleep over the film’s acknowledgement of the threats to our democracy. The point is made that hackers aren’t hacking these platforms; they’re simply using the tools that were created for users for their own nefarious purpose.

But enough about the film’s content. What’s the solution? To me, the dilemma really is in the hands of those of us who use these social media platforms. And for me, it’s not much of a dilemma. Like so much in life, it’s about personal responsibility. I love the fact that I have reconnected with old friends on Facebook. I’ve now taken two trips with girlfriends I had not seen in 35 years. I’ve helped raise money and donated money to good causes. I’ve helped friends in need. A funny meme has brightened my day. I believe in using social media for good, and I will resist the bad. I hate the political infighting and unfriending that’s going on. But using my prerogative, I simply scroll by. And I’m a master at that old “snooze“ button. I do not engage in passive-aggressive discussions. I pay attention to my privacy settings.

I’m also intuitive enough to know when social media is trying to feed me subliminal messages. I know when they want me to click on a diet ad so they can start feeding me health offers. I know they know that I love animals so I firmly resist those enticing impulse purchase ads. I do not play the contests or games designed to help build out a more extensive profile of me. It’s easy to pick up your phone at that traffic light or in a waiting room and do some quick scrolling. But you have to use it mindfully. Think about every click.

Again, the dilemma lies in each of us. The dilemma to resist or give in. I believe that the solution to taking back our control as it relates to social media begins with education. Everyone should watch this film and realize that you, and only you, have the control. You can choose to NOT participate in their mind control. The quote that really summed it up for me was, “we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” Whether you deactivate your account or not, social media is here to stay. So, if we all use the genie for good deeds, we won’t need to put anything back in the bottle.