A Netflix documentary that blames Facebook, Twitter and other social-media companies for our growing political polarization is drawing record audiences. And while the movie has several shortcomings, it may help put greater pressure on those companies to clean up their act.
“The Social Dilemma” was Netflix’s most popular movie in September, according to Forbes magazine. It’s airing in 30 languages in 193 countries, its promoters told me.
It features several former executives of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies who have become disillusioned with the products they helped create. They denounce big tech companies for creating political polarization, disseminating fake news and promoting tech addiction for profit.
I talked to Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist and founder the Center for Humane Technology. He’s the star of the Netflix documentary, and his main point is that political polarization, fake news and tech addiction are not unintentional by-products of social media. They are part of their business models.
According to Harris and the other former tech executives in the documentary, social-media companies fight for your attention — and addiction — because they are paid by advertisers according to the time people spend in their platforms. The industry calls it viewers’ “engagement time.”
Social-media firms work to keep you glued to your screens with “recommendations,” “notifications,” “message alerts,” “likes” and other gimmicks designed to keep you engaged and affirm your existing political beliefs, they say.
If you follow people who are pro-Trump, Facebook’s computer program automatically will recommend other pro-Trump people to follow. If you follow people who are pro-Biden, Facebook will put you in contact with other people who support him, too, because its algorithm assumes that you will spend more time on the screen following people who affirm your beliefs, Harris told me.
“That makes us have a narrower and narrower view of reality,” he said. “It’s a business model that profits from dividing us, from making us angrier, because those things are better to keep our attention.”
He added that social-media firms profit from spreading misinformation, because sensationalist or made-up stories are watched much more than accurate news. One study showed that fake news spreads six times faster than factual news, he said.
“The scale of this disinformation is totally new,” Harris said. He cited the case of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose fake-news InfoWars videos were viewed many more times than the combined audiences of CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post and several other mainstream media outlets.
When I told Harris that there’s always been fake news, he responded that, “We’ve always had bombs before, but a quantitative change turns into a qualitative change because a nuclear bomb is totally destructive at a different level.”
I do have some reservations about the “The Social Dilemma.” First, it failed to interview spokespeople for social-media companies or people who represent their views.
Second, it crammed too many big issues into a 90-minute documentary, making its final message more diffuse. It would have been better if it had been a three-part series dealing with polarization, fake news and tech addiction.
Third, the movie failed to fully acknowledge that Facebook — its main culprit — and other companies have begun to address the problems they are being blamed for. Facebook and Twitter have begun banning or labeling tens of thousands of entries, including President Trump’s posts that falsely claimed that COVID-19 is no deadlier than the flu.
But, overall, the movie imparts valuable information that all social-media consumers should know.
Just as public opinion forced oil companies to take measures to stop polluting the oceans, or supermarkets to stop selling us spoiled food, this documentary will put additional pressure on social-media companies to spend more of their resources to eradicate fake news or take down algorithms that drive us to live in closed information bubbles.
I applaud Harris and “The Social Dilemma” for stepping up the pressure on social-media companies to stop the tsunami of disinformation that is polarizing our societies like never before in recent history.