Social Media’s Netflix docu-drama: Have you watched it?


Outcry about how social media companies collect and share our data have been around for a while now. Last year it was “The Great Hack”. This year, it’s “The Social Dilemma”. And having watched it, there are a lot of things that are not OK.

It was a force for good…once

That much is easy to understand. Facebook’s “like” button was a simple yet brilliant way of spreading positivity. What developers couldn’t know was how that like and notification would trigger a dopamine (the happy chemical in our brain) release based on the quantity of these likes. Not enough dopamine means you’re going to feel down. Therefore, the more you post, the more likes and reactions you get, the happier you feel.

That then builds a false reality where we crave attention and instant gratification. BeSmartOnline is a campaign tackling that locally, but when there are massive corporations like Google and Facebook involved, it is no easy fight.

How is money made?

We think that everyone gets a similar news feed to ours: that’s not the case. Social media algorithms work in a way were the content you look at is recycled and fed back to you. If you look at cat videos a lot, your video feed will be populated with related material. That way, your attention is kept for longer, and this in turn exposes you to more ads.

This resonated particularly Dawn from our sister company VSQUARED. Advertisers pay for your attention, so, in actual fact, you’re not the product for sale anymore: it’s your change in behaviour and perception. One quote that stuck with her was “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product”. Scary thought indeed. And all of it is powered by data collected.

“It’s not anti-tech people who are speaking about this issue, but people who worked for the big guys like Google & Facebook. They’re the ones telling us how this has all gone out of control.”

Didn’t GDPR tackle data mining?

It should have, but we’re so addicted to our screens, we’ll do anything to remove obstacles between us and the content we want to see. When was the last time you read through the T & Cs on a website? Also, our data is processed by something that’s not human. It’s AIs that are sifting through our data, recognizing patterns better than any person. They predict with increasing accuracy when we’re more likely to engage with content, and ads are placed accordingly.

Our own Martina had this to say: “This has been the same business model used for the traditional media. What The Social Dilemma demonstrates, however, is that social media has taken this business model to a whole new level”. This is mentioned in the docu-drama, and as Martina said, it highlights the depths social networking companies go to in order to create algorithms aimed at retaining user engagement.

“Terrifying as it might be, this is an important insight into the social media platforms we use on a daily basis. Social media can affect us, both emotionally and psychologically, often without us even being aware”

What can we do?

Humans have evolved to live in communities – it’s why there’s a release of dopamine when we meet someone we like. Then, you add something like social media, which is optimized to build connections, and it was always going to have the potential for addiction.

Should we just bin the lot and go back connecting by call, or mail? No. These are still tools for good – you can connect with friends and family across borders, find new music, watch movies…

What we can’t do is trust the people who created this mess to solve it, because they have no reason to fix things, there’s too much money involved. These corporations are almost self-governing, and it’s only at the recent hearings that there’s hope for some accountability.

But, as they said, the genie is out of the bottle now, and we’ve got to live with social media. The only thing we can do is try to regulate the time we spend there, and make sure we’re not missing out on truly enriching our lives elsewhere in the real world.