The Social Dilemma Manipulates You With Misinformation As It Tries To Warn You Of Manipulation By Misinformation

from the it's-not-good dept

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Netflix Documentary The Social Dilemma, which we’ve been told reveals to us “the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” I know that the documentary has generated widespread discussion — especially among those not in the tech space. But there’s a problem with the film: nearly everything it claims social media platforms do — manipulating people with misinformation — the film does itself. It is horribly one-sided, frequently misrepresents some fairly basic things, and then uses straight up misinformation to argue that social media has some sort of godlike control on the people who use it. It’s nonsense.

Also, I should note that nowhere do they mention that Netflix, the company which funded produced, distributed and widely promoted the documentary, is also arguably the first big internet company to spend time, money, and resources on trying to perfect the “recommendation algorithm” that is at the heart of the film’s argument that these internet companies are evil. I guess some folks no longer remember, but a decade ago, Netflix even held a huge $1 million prize contest asking anyone to try to build a better recommendation algorithm. (Update: it has been claimed that despite this being a “Netflix original” and widely promoted and distributed by Netflix as such, that Netflix did not “fund” the film, which doesn’t really change anything here, given everything else Netflix has done to make this film widely seen.)

There are a number of reasons to complain about what is portrayed in the film, but I’ll highlight just a few key ones. One narrative device that is used throughout the film is that it has these weird… not quite “re-enactments” but odd “afterschool special”-style fictional clips of a family with kids who really use social media a lot. And, yes, there are plenty of kids out there who have trouble putting down their phones/tablets — and there are reasons to be concerned about that (or at least to investigate the larger ramifications of it). But the film not only exaggerates them to a ridiculous degree reminiscent of Reefer Madness type of moral panic propaganda, but it repeatedly suggests (1) that social media can ruin a kid’s life in like two days, and (2) that social media can, within a matter of a week or two, turn an ordinary teen into a radicalized hate monger who will join in-person mobs (leading to arrest).

Even worse, the fictional clips go a level deeper, trying to anthropomorphize the evil “algorithm” in the form of three white dudes standing… on the deck of the Starship Enterprise? Or some other weird sci-fi trope:

Throughout the film, these three guys and their weird computer-ish controls in front of them are shown trying to “increase engagement” of the son in the family through any means necessary — including magically forcing some girl they think he likes to interact with him. And, I’m sorry, but that’s… not how any of this works.

It is literally emotionally engaging misinformation designed to impact our beliefs and actions. In other words, the same thing that the film claims social media companies are doing.

But it’s also the same thing any company has tried to do in the past through… advertising. One theme that runs throughout the film, and is dead wrong, is the idea that social media advertising can somehow “control” you. And… uh… no. Come on. Social media advertising is a joke. Can it better target some ads? Sure thing, and if those ads target stuff you actually find useful, then… that’s a good thing? But, most social media advertising is still garbage. It’s why so many of us block or ignore ads. Because they’re still just not that good.

The film is really designed to showcase Tristan Harris, who probably takes up 1/3 of the screen time. Tristan made his name by being the internal “ethicist” at Google for a little while before setting out on his own to become the high prophet of “internet companies are trying to manipulate us!” But, as others have pointed out, Tristan has a habit of vastly exaggerating things, or being misleading himself. As just one example, highlighted by Antonio Garcia-Martinez in his must-read dismantling of the film, is that Harris argues that we didn’t have these same problems with earlier technologies — like the bicycle. But as Antonio points out, there was, in fact, quite a large moral panic about the bicycle, and the Pessimist’s Archive makes the point quite clearly in this little clip:

As we’ve discussed for years, pretty much every new form of technology or entertainment — including the waltz, chess, the telephone and more — has resulted in similar moral panics, almost none of which proved to be accurate.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t important concerns and messages that we ought to think about regarding the design of the internet and the various services we use. But the problem is that this film totally fails to adequately address any of those concerns and uses exactly the wrong messengers to bring the message. The vast majority of the talking heads in the film are former (and in some cases) current employees from the big tech companies who “regret” what happened with what they built. But they don’t seem to have any more of an idea of what to do other than “put down your phone,” which like “just say no” drug campaigns and sex-abstinence education programs have long been proven to be absolutely useless.

Also, it should be noted that the guy who gets the second most amount of screen time, former Facebook employee and Pinterest CEO Tim Kendall, currently is CEO of a company that tries to help you limit your phone time usage. Anyone think he has, perhaps, alternative motives to play up how “addictive” he made Facebook and Pinterest?

Notably, in nearly every case, the film takes the most nefarious and extreme explanations for what is happening at social media companies. At no time does it present a single person who offers a counterpoint, or suggests that the descriptions in the film are exaggerated and misleading. Again, all it does is use misinformation and manipulation to warn you about other tech companies supposedly using misinformation to manipulate.

On top of that, as many people have noted, there are many, many activists and experts — though frequently not white male former tech bros in t-shirts — who have been working on actual ways to improve technology and services, and to provide real solutions. But the film ignores all of them as well.

The entire conceit of the film is that these few tech giants (again, notably not Netflix, despite it being the leader in recommendation algorithms) have some sort of “total control” on the minds and actions of people. There’s some nonsense in there from Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, coiner of the term “Surveillance Capitalism” which always feels like a useful phrase until you dig in and realize that Zuboff has less than no clue about how the internet actually works. She insists that these companies are selling “human futures” which… is… not… how any of this works.

As Antonio summarizes, Zuboff seems to think that Silicon Valley is doing magic that it is not doing. This is akin to Josh Hawley last week arguing that the tech platforms have “total control” over our brains and our voting abilities:

Less diplomatically, everything Zuboff says is a nonsensical non sequitur.

?This is a world of certainty.?

Then why am I, crusty ad tech veteran, building probabilistic models all day?

?This is a totally new world.?

No it isn?t. I was there, at Facebook when it happened. We copied it all from the direct-mail people who?ve done it for decades.

?They?re trading human futures like we do pork-belly futures.?


The CBC’s coverage of the film, rightly points out that the film is greatly exaggerating reality to the point of it being misinformation.

One of the ways the documentary represents surveillance, Chun noted, is by using three human actors trying to entice someone to use their phone and stay on social media longer. Along with their presentation of social media as an addiction (“there’s a difference between a habit and an addiction” Chun said) is the fear that is created when people think that real humans have access to all of their information, instead of algorithms that predict human behavior.

Though Chun argued users should not be tracked, she said the idea that algorithms know “everything” about you isn’t correct. She argued the film itself is based on revealing “open secrets,” and the information these services use to present personalized ads doesn’t reflect a deep knowledge of users.

“The idea that somehow they control you is overblown,” she said. “At the same time, you can say that a lot of what they know about you is accurate. But then the question you have to ask yourself is: So what?”

Indeed, the claims about “addiction” are so overblown as to be laughable. The film repeatedly argues that once you’re addicted to social media these companies can change your thoughts. But… that’s not what addiction is or how it works. It’s not brainwashing.

Anyway, there were many more things wrong with it — and even if people can agree that there are some significant problems with the internet of today, I have a hard time believing that the way you fix manipulation and misinformation is by creating a documentary that is full of misinformation and designed to manipulate emotionally people into believing things that just aren’t true.

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Companies: facebook, google, netflix, twitter, youtube

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Comments on “The Social Dilemma Manipulates You With Misinformation As It Tries To Warn You Of Manipulation By Misinformation”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Companies shouldn't do what we're about to do ourselves!'

Given their involvement with a propaganda film designed to influence people with misleading information I can’t help but think that the problem Harris and definitely Kendall had with their former employers wasn’t what was being done but that they personally weren’t profiting directly from it.

Making a highly misleading and dishonest ‘documentary’ doesn’t make much sense if your concern is companies lying and manipulating people, but it makes perfect sense if your concern is that you think the wrong people are doing the manipulation, and/or if your concern is getting ‘your cut’ from the process.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Is there an industry for promoting self-awareness in companies?

Considering how hypocrisy has gone from being a thing we watch out for to a think we resign that everyone is going to do because they can there seems to be a potential market for it.

I suspect officers of self-aware companies have to drink less in order to sleep soundly.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Eric says:

What about addiction to techdirt...

Haven’t seen the movie…but i assume they did not cover techdirt and its impact on mental health! techdirt is clearly designed to be addicting due to the content they produce. I need to start my day by seeing if any new articles were posted overnight, I need to check at lunch, often time at the end of the work day I’ll check again…don’t even get me started on the lack of articles on the weekend – what am I supposed to do on Sunday morning, be with my family?! Its about time a documentary gets created about techdirt and it’s impact on the emotional well being of it’s die hard fans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Netflix, despite it being the leader in recommendation algorithms

Yeah i do remember the contest for algorithm design, but… really, Netflix is the leader in recommendation algorithms? Good heavens, one may as well throw out all of them then. (And, you know, just make it easier for me to find what i am looking for instead of having such godawful UIs.) Dumpsterfire, thy name is Recommendation Algorithm, yet somehow you maaaaaagically control people’s minds.

I still… really, Netflix’s is the best? Wow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Leader as in "the original," not leader as in "gold medal."

Also, I should note that nowhere do they mention that Netflix, the company which funded the documentary, is also arguably the first big internet company to spend time, money, and resources on trying to perfect the "recommendation algorithm" that is at the heart of the film’s argument that these internet companies are evil.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Good heavens, one may as well throw out all of them then. (And, you know, just make it easier for me to find what i am looking for instead of having such godawful UIs.)"

Glad to see I’m not the only one. Honestly, for a company so visionary to lead the way towards convenient entertainment-on-demand Netflix must have hired a sadistic BOFH to program their recommendation algorithm and worse, their "search" engine.

"I still… really, Netflix’s is the best? Wow."

I recall having better luck by far using the search index on torrent pages than I have trying to locate anything on Netflix. I’ve come to the conclusion Netflix search functions are deliberately bollixed to ensure their customers give up in despair and just settle to watch whatever Netflix thinks they should be watching…

Anonymous Coward says:

I haven't watched a single episode of Black Mirror yet I hate it

This may sound off-topic but it is related to the mentality. The fanbase doomsaying being so ubiquitous and seeing a dystopia behind any "tech" feature no matter how innocuous. It is so utterly wrongheaded like seeing the telescreen from 1984 and concluding that we need to start executing anyone who knows how a camera works to save us from tyranny while ignoring the goddamned tyrants are the reason behind it! The fans’ attitude ruined it for me from the start.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I haven't watched a single episode of Black Mirror yet I hat

You should watch it, at least the first season. Fantastic show. People are probably freaking out about a hypothetical future dystopia because the one they currently live in seems to be getting worse.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: I haven't watched a single episode of Black Mirror yet I

The first 2 seasons were made for Channel 4 in the UK and were completely the brainchild of the brilliant Charlie Brooker. While the standard is still high overall and Brooker is still writing most of the episodes, I feel it did lose something slightly in its switch to the US / Netflix, but it’s still doing some great things compared to similar shows.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I haven't watched a single episode of Black Mirror yet I hat

So.. you don’t hate the show itself since you never watched it, but you have been manipulated into hating it by something outside of the show’s control, that feeds you a particular way of thinking while blocking out alternative opinions and viewpoints?

You’ve nearly got the problem people are talking about here…

Anonymous Coward says:

As with any other technology… time will tell. Not every technology that has been invented and massively adopted has been proven free of consequences, from teflon to cigarettes, there is a long list of technologies and inventions that caused huge collateral effects and were later banned or regulated. No way to know this before it happens. Unfortunately the exaggeration in the movie comes out as crying "wolf" too loud, and that hampers its credibility. Personally, I liked a lot the great hack. Much more factual, and with real court interviews in it. And of course, I would happily watch a movie about Schrems… but I doubt this one will ever see the light of the day ))

ECA (profile) says:

For the best democracy int he world.

We seem to Not be so democratic.
Many leaders in the past have described how a democracy works, but even the small bits we have/use seem to have been taken away.
From Newspapers that were taken over by mega corps, and restrict their comments to those of the owners, NOT just telling us the news. To even the Advertising agencies, grouping together to form their own Corp owned opinions.

Finding a location to read/learn/discuss/get answers to clear your confusion, are few and far between.
Many people want to look up to someone to tell them the truth, but its all Opinion rather then anything else. And fighting/finding the facts, tends to get buried, behind opinions.

Insted of understanding and explaining the problem, Many seem to Love to POINT at something and say ‘He/They/IT did it’. Why fix something or Express the truth, when you can blame something else.

Insted of teaching us and advancing the nation, we grow stagnant and fingers pointing to everything except the fault(s). Over many years the civil/social groups have slowly gone done to little or nothing. I love to show that both the democrats and republicans tend to both be corrupted, and they wont tell you what they want or what they are doing. Those states that are democrat, tend to have raised taxes over the years, as well as wages in the upper epsilons, due to the amount of (?) wages they think the corps and workers have gained over many years. Which hurts those NOT in the top wages, afte the property values go up and up and up. YES there needs to be balance someplace. But the cities and states have forgotten HOW some of this works. The Roads dont get any better if the City and state use it for upper wages. As to the republicans, they have problems also. Pro corp ideals, that think the PEOPLE should be paying for everything insted of those with all of OUR money. And the roads still dont get fixed.

But neither will let the little person ASK the hard questions. Who is paying for all of this. No one will answer. But with the people, the 40% the 60% the 90% that are not making Millions per year. And the rich getting all the tax cuts and HOLD most of the money. Who gets taxed? Who pays for everything, even tho they have the least amounts of money.

If people can gather and discuss, nad SHOW the facts to each other. Maybe we will figure out that those running the Country are OUR EMPLOYEES. And as with any company, we have the right to tell them WHAT needs to be done. We can cut their wages, we can take their Medical away, we can do allot of things. And if we dont get this idea, and Those that are OUR representatives dont get the HINT that we NEED them to FIX this nation. FIRE THEM ALL AND START OVER.

Who got the chance to PICK who is running for office. NOT us. What was the prerequisite for those 2 groups to SELECT who we would vote for? I still want a box in the election for ‘NONE OF THE ABOVE’. The Balance in the system is lost. and WE are the ones that let it happen over 50 years. They havnt listened to us in along time, and the schooling we got, Long ago, is GONE on how the gov is supposed to work, and US adults have not passed on the knowledge.

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