/The Social Dilemma - Summary of the Documentary with Personal Reflection

in Home Edders3 months ago

A few weeks ago, my wife and I stumbled upon the Netflix documentary
/The Social Dilemma. It was an eye opening experience.

Over the last few days, my wife and I have been watching it again, but this time with our three oldest kiddos. This post is a combination of quotes from the documentary, summaries of ideas presented in the documentary, and some personal reflections.


Social Media and Manipulation

Early on in the documentary, Tristan Harris communicates the idea that because of social media, users “will have thoughts they did not intend to have because of the way the application was designed.”

We often think of social media as a tool – a neutral object or item. But a tool “genuinely sits there waiting to be used.” Per the documentary, social media should not be considered as a tool because these types of apps are demanding things from users, seducing users, and manipulating users.

The goals of the users are not prioritized. Social media has it own goals and own means of manipulation.

What is the Purpose of Social Media?

A lot people believe that the purpose of social media is entertainment, education, and connection. While that might be the intention of the end users, we need to be aware that big tech companies are interested in making money and pleasing shareholders.

The business model being implemented encourages big tech and social media companies to find new ways to get people to engage the screen. More screen time equals more money.

So it is not surprising that every single action a user performs is monitored and recorded. The old say, you can manage what you measure applies here.

Big tech knows …

  • every single image you view and how long you looked at it
  • what you are doing at night
  • what rabbit holes you are prone to follow
  • etc.

From this information, big tech can determine …

  • personality type
  • emotional status
  • what advertisements they should push
  • etc.

The information we are pouring out (freely, I might add) is being feed into supercomputers that build models to predict our actions. And as more data pours into these systems, the models become more and more accurate at predicting future action.

The goal of social media (from the company’s perspective) is growth. There are clearly defined usage goals (ideal time a user spends on a given platform), growth goals (the number of new users being added to a platform), and advertising goals (amount of money that is coming in). Complex algorithms decide what content, notifications, products, etc. are pushed to users in order to achieve the desired goals.

But Isn’t Social Media Free To Use?

I did not have to give a create card number to setup my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account. On the outside, it appears that social media is free to use. But “if you are not paying for the product then you are the product.”

The applications we use are not the products. We are. Over the last 10 years or so, the biggest companies have been selling their user data to their true customers – the advertisers who are willing to pay for our attention. And to be more specific, big tech is in the business of selling certainty. To guarantee results to advertisers, these companies need a lot of data – our data.

I always tell my kids that nothing is completely free. Someone always has to pay somewhere down the line. Although social media appears free to use, the services are not free. Advertisers are gladly paying for our attention.

In the documentary, Jaron Lanier stated that the social connections that we all need and want are being encouraged by people interested in manipulating the situation for their own benefit.

He goes on to say that it is not just our attention that is the product, but rather “it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”

Social Media and Addiction

Since social media needs a lot of data to sell certainty, it makes sense that big tech would need/encourage its users to be addicted. There are only two industries that call their clients users - illegal drugs dealers and software companies.

Social media triggers dopamine release as we connect with others. When big tech optimizes social media apps to improve and enhance social connection (which results in the dopamine hit), users are susceptible to addiction.

Tech companies started investigating the idea of “persuasive technology” and “growth hacking.” Entire engineering teams are dedicated to hacking human psychology to get people to use social media even more.

A few of the more common features that draw us in include:

  • “Pull down and refresh” – This positive intermittent reinforcement technique is like a slot machine. You know you are going to get something, but are not sure when, so you keep coming back because you don’t want to miss out.
  • Photo tagging – An email with notification is sent to the user, which has become something that we “can’t” ignore. The email does not contain the photo, which would be an easier and more efficient workflow. Instead the user receives a link to the photo and is drawn back into the app to increase usage and engagement.
  • Ellipses – The three dots shows other peoples’ engagement/activity in real time, which causes you to stay engaged with content more regularly.

Our addictions have caused social media to become a “digital pacifier.” It calls to us when we are lonely, afraid, uncertain, mad, etc. We come back and back again because we want to “feel better” and get our fix.

How Social Media Impacts Children

Several former big tech executives confessed that even though they understand the techniques that are deployed against users, they still struggled with their own social media addiction. For those who had children, they either had a complete no use policy or a very restricted use policy.

One of the interviewees had the following recommendations:

  1. All devices must be placed outside of the bedroom at a fixed time every night. This was applied to all members of the household.
  2. No social media until a child turns 16 years old. He stated that middle school is hard enough without complicating things with social media.
  3. Develop a time budget regarding social media use. Allow children to participate in the conversation.

Tristan Harris stated that big tech was not designed to nurture and protect children, as it is not regulated like Saturday morning cartoons once was. Instead, “social media starts to dig deeper and deeper into the brain stem and take over kids’ self worth and identity

We all seek social approval from the people around us (very natural), but we were not built to seek the approval of 10,000 people. Adults struggle with conflating likes with value and truth. This is even more concerning as impressionable children are seeking the approval of hundreds or thousands.

The documentary highlighted some concerning changes that started between 2011 and 2013. Gen Z, the first generation to be able to access social media in middle school, are exhibiting the following:

  • more anxious
  • less likely to drive
  • less likely to be in romantic relationships
  • more likely cut themselves or commit suicide

Social Media - Super Computers

/The Social Dilemma also highlighted our primarily opponent in this social media war – super computers who are making decisions on their own. The human brain has not changed much throughout history, but today’s computers are quadrillions times faster in processing information than when the computer was first released.

It like we are playing a game against the supercomputer (the AI). Unfortunately, it knows everything about us, and we know relatively nothing about it. The odds are stacked against the user in this unfair fight.

These super computers execute algorithms embedded in code. A developer has built the machine and the code, but the computer is allowed to run itself. These machine are not objective, because when they were built they were coded with some definition of success (in most cases, make money). Once the stated goal is provided, the artificial intelligence starts working to reach the goal.

Tristan Harris remarked, “We are looking for the moment when technology overwhelms human strength, but there is a far earlier moment when it overwhelms our weaknesses – this moment, checkmate on humanity.”

Social Media and Truth

In addition to some of the concerns presented above, the documentary spoke about how social media is changing peoples’ perception of truth.

Jaron Lanier explained that when two users view an article on Wikipedia, both people see the same article. The same is not necessary true for our social media feeds. Different people see different results in their feeds based on where they live and specific information that big tech has gathered about those users.

We are given carefully, calculated “realities” that support our own biases and views. With these manipulated feeds (which causes increased engagement), we falsely assume that “news” supports everything that we already believe. We falsely assume that everyone agrees with us. Once we have succumbed to this setup, we easily manipulated.

We ask of the other side, “How can those people be so stupid?” and “Don’t they have access to the truth?” The simple answer is that people who disagree with us are being offered a different version of “truth.”

Polarization is extremely efficient at keeping people online and consuming content. The super computer algorithms are not designed to give people what they want, but rather drop them in the rabbit hole that is closet what the user wants. As the divide continues to widen and as we hold on tighter to our version of the truth, we remove all reason to compromise or even interact with people who have differing viewpoints.

The entire system is biased towards false information because polarization and disunity makes more money, not less.

Social Media as a Weapon

So far we have been talking about corporations and advertisers who want to make money, but would happen if dictators, terrorists, or other bad actors used these manipulation techniques?

Any person or entity (including governments) can weaponize social media with the goal of spreading manipulative narratives. Increasingly, social media is being used to destabilize countries and target democratic states.

And it is not appropriate to say that someone is hacking Facebook or other social media apps. It is more accurate to say that bad actors are using these resources for nefarious purposes, in the same way that legitimate advertisers use the same resources to reach out to potential clients.

But instead of selling you a pair of shoes, the bad actor wants total chaos and division. The goal is to create two or more opposing sides within a country that can longer hear or trust people with a different viewpoint.

The Existential Threat

So what happens now? I have experienced by own struggles with social media addiction, and I believe that unless controlled on an individual level and at a societal level, the global implications will continue to increase.

Can we trust big tech companies, the ones who created the technology and allow it to operate as is, to fix the problem? I am not ware of the AI being able to selfheal. It is only acting per its prescribed stated goals.

Can we trust government to fix the problem? I am for additional regulations, but social media already has and can potentially be used in the future to manipulative segments or an entire nation of people. Governments are too prone to provide new, but equally harmful stated goals.

Can we trust ourselves to fix the problem? “The race to keeps people attention is not going away. Our attention will be more valued, the AI will become smarter.” We are fighting a powerful opponent – machines that are designed to manipulate us.

But if we don’t start having honest conversations and taking proactive steps to remove ourselves from the manipulation machine, we will continue to server in a “weird role where we are just a computing node for this giant brain.” Remember that computing nodes are programmable. We are the product. We are being programmed as we allow others in influence our behavior and perception.

I appreciate the opportunities and conveniences that technology brings to my life, but I must remain on guard. I need to be aware of potential goals that big tech has for the applications I use. Perhaps, the technology is not the threat. That might be true. But if left unchecked, the tech can and will be used to bring out the worst in the human race – hatred, greed, division, empathy, etc. This impacts all people within a society, even those who are not users.

I believe that Harris summarized the best next step with the following statement. “At the end of the day, this massive machine is not going to turn around until there is massive public pressure.”

We have a choice:

  • to keep our social media accounts or not
  • to fall into the rabbit hole of recommended content or not
  • to step away from our phones or not
  • to engage the people within our homes or not
  • to protect our kiddos from addiction or not
  • to speak out or stay silent

We have the choice to vote with our clicks (or not)!

Thanks for stopping by, and as always, I want to hear more from you. See you in the comments section



I haven’t watched it myself but I’ve heard of it and it seems like it’s a pretty good thing to watch. The way these companies have control and manipulate millions of people around the world is crazy.

Fakebook was originally an MIT / CIA project started by the American government. The goal of it was to convince people to tell them every aspect of their lives; when they ate, what they ate, who they talk to, who they don’t and the list goes on. The researchers in the early 2000’s thought they were crazy because the privacy factor was completely ruined but they persisted and the literal day before Facebook was founded, Zuckerberg was one of the project leads, the entire project was scrapped by MIT and everyone was fired. The next day, the company and website of Facebook was founded. James Corbett at the Corbett report has done a number of videos and research on this and it’s crazy.

The money these companies make is completely from selling our information to the highest bidder, often governments employed through fake companies and stuff. It’s crazy what they want to do with it and we see the goal post being slowly pushed forward as far as crazy things that happen in our world.

The other bad aspect of it is random events throughout the world and disasters are much more in the front of our minds. They happen and it’s terrible but news about it spreads like fire and people get sick over worrying about things that really don’t have that much of an impact to our lives overall if they really took into account statistics of things happening.

It is scary how easily society is susceptible to manipulation. In the documentary the reference how a magician know something about the human mind that most people don't understand. Big tech is using some of the same methods.

Regarding the money, these companies will not want to change because if they do, then they loss the cash flowing in.

There was a statistic that "fake news" spread 6x faster in twitter than real news. It is almost like we don't have the time to process all of the information is being pushed at us. We are being overloaded which of course leads to poor decisions about the info we receive.

Thanks for the comment and interacting with other posters as well. Much appreciated!



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I watched this with my husband a couple of weeks ago. It is really very insightful and eye opening.
Since nowadays, the only way we can communicate with our loved ones is thru the internet, our option is to have a soc med detox every now and then. Those recommended vids are really demanding attention but after my first try of not accessing fb, IG and twitter, the time I spend on those each have lowered.

What triggered me the most was the part where the teenage girl began feeling conscious about her ears. My idea of not making a social media account for my kid was set in stone. Definitely no soc med until her perception of beauty, and self worth is already stable and strong.

This is a very good movie, you reminded me to watch it one more time.

Very important here! I can't stress enough that children, particularly girls, need to stay AWAY from this stuff! A friend of ours is a police officer and he said the worst times for teenagers was the evening and at night. There were a number of suicide they had to respond to and it was driven by social media and fighting or bullying that was going on it.

This breaks my heart, especially as a father of daughters.

Everything else in life is hard enough as it is. And I understand from the movie that the creators did not have a sinister plan when they created the platforms. It's heartbreaking to see something like this happen.

Yeah, maybe other platforms but Facebook was designed and implemented by the United States Central Intelligence Agency specifically to spy and track people's movements so I know for sure that's pretty crappy. I'll find the video that goes into its origins, it’s well sourced so it’s not done in a way that uses false information.

Here's the episode of you are interested, educational purposes only. If you aren't interested no worries!


@romeskie - I really believe it is worth watching at least twice. Congrats on the social media detox. I am not ready to delete my accounts (per Jaron's suggestion), but I think it is good to pull back more and sometimes pull completely away for shorter periods of time.

It was sad the teenage girls started crying because of the comments she received about the photo she posted.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


Oh I would say it's more conscious effort to pulling back more frequently that I'm doing. I am seriously considering deleting my facebook account and just create a different obe for my online business but I think for now, one or two days of soc med (fb, ig, twitter) would do. It helps me connect more with reality.

That is the challenge I am dealing with. I think I need social media for business ideas, but I let it take over too much personal time.

My goal is exercising more self control. So hard.

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I might have to see if we had that on Australian Netflix. Sounds like it explains an awful lot of behaviour of late.

The social media is in many ways the latest form of large scale manipulation. Even on here it's nice to see our notifications, wallets growing and other things. It's a much different feel to it than the other ones highlighted but it's certainly similar! One of the biggest things that I noticed and didn't like was the programmed echo chamber effect. The fees you got was designed for you by the algorithms to steer you in a particular direction, even if you had lots of different viewpoints you follow. Sketchy!

I can certainly see how the echo chamber effect would certainly have you believing one side of something as being the absolute truth. Each chamber effectively becomes an army ready to go to war with the other echo chambers.

I believe that there are some truths worth defending, but there is so much "truth" that is just opinion or preference. We need to learn how to communicate better with others about what we disagree on.

It is definitely worth a watch in my opinion. It definitely explains some of the problems of our days. I am just worried about how much worse the problem will get if we don't start making changes now.

There are days when I wonder if a massive solar flare to take out all electrics like a giant EMP would be a good thing. Unfortunately, it would likely cause loss of a lot of lives too.

I understand the sentiment, but I hope that we avoid that type of scenario for some time. Not only are there people that require electricity for medical equipment, most westerners are to soft to be able to survive without electricity. It would be tough here since the temps will be dropping soon.

Not to mention all the fires it could start and bushfire season is already upon us here. Maybe just take out the internet for a bit, I say as I chat to people on Hive...

It is definitely worth a watch in my opinion. It definitely explains some of the problems of our days. I am just worried about how much worse the problem will get if we don't start making changes now.

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Very good