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Review: The Social Dilemma – social media, addiction and capitalism

Like millions of other people over the last few weeks, I watched Netflix’s heavily-trending docudrama The Social Dilemma. Like millions of other people, I found it at first to be a searing and chilling critique of social media and its destabilising role in our society. Like millions of other people, I checked my phone for notifications at least every few minutes while watching it.

The fact that my attention was so constantly turned towards these virtual “dopamine hits” even while listening to an explanation of this exact process could be seen as proof of one of the documentary’s central assertions—that social media is hugely addictive. It would be difficult to argue with this, as with the claim that these apps’ addictive nature is a deliberate design by Big Tech.

The Social Dilemma describes how social media exploits the primal psychological urge of social acceptance and links it to a visual representation, where “likes” equal a form of currency to be chased. Social capital is a concept understood by sociologists, marketers, and politicians alike, and predates social media’s advent by many decades. The documentary alleges that social media exploits this to create addiction, and ultimately, profit. Again, this is a reasonable conclusion.

Addiction

The Social Dilemma compares social media addiction to drug addiction but falls into the same trap that drug prohibition does—blaming the substances (or in this case, smartphone apps) solely for the issue while ignoring the social, psychological, and emotional problems that the substance or software is used in an attempt to solve. 

Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in various addictions, from alcohol to social media. Have these things themselves somehow become inherently more addictive in the last few months or is it more likely that in fact, we are simply turning more and more to short-term relief because the world is burning, the economy has crashed, and we’re all socially isolated?

Documentaries and similar op-eds like this encourage us to stop using social media to pacify our anxieties and nullify our lives and instead step outside into the real, “beautiful” world. “Look, it’s great out there!” says computer scientist Jaron Lanier at the end of the film. Not necessarily for everyone, Jaron! 

The idea that social and political factors might themselves be causing people to turn to social media, or any other addictive behaviour, is barely touched on in this documentary and a lot of discourse around technology and addiction. Every generation has its moral panics – television, video games, rap music, etc. While it would indeed be dangerous to ignore some of the genuine drawbacks of social media use, what is more important is to go straight to the source and decipher the direct causes of people’s addictions. 

For example, while The Social Dilemma mentions “unrealistic beauty standards” being pushed by social media to the detriment of young people’s mental health, it neglects to explore where these standards originated. Social media companies certainly use these standards to their advantage, but they did not invent them! 

Root causes

It seems obvious that the root cause of many of these problems is the society of which social media is merely one aspect. In the case of beauty standards, consumer capitalism, with deeply embedded sexism at its heart, heavily promoted these standards (particularly in, but not limited to, the 20th Century) to benefit industries from cosmetics and fashion to exercise and leisure. “Drop a dress size” programs had no problem circulating widely in the exercise DVD and Cosmopolitan eras, well before the advent of Instagram or TikTok.

Social media companies use our fears and insecurities to foster addiction for their profit, as The Social Dilemma accurately points out. What it doesn’t explore is just how capitalism was already using these same tactics for centuries before. While the documentary mentions “surveillance capitalism”, it merely uses this as a buzzword, without sufficiently exploring the role of the capitalist system. 

Not only does capitalism’s drive for profit push the creation and design of these apps to be addictive, but it also contributes immeasurably to the increased rates of suicide and mental health problems that social media is often blamed solely for. While social media companies should be held responsible for the circulation of harmful content and harassment (TikTok’s various scandals have shown both the complexity and seriousness of these issues), external solutions are also needed. 

Social media clearly plays a significant role in public health. However, the claim that a rise in rates of issues such as anxiety and depression—particularly among young people—in recent years is solely due to social media use, and has nothing to do with climate change, austerity, rising poverty and wealth inequality, tuition fees, debt, rising rents and stagnant wages, is frankly pretty insulting.

A modernised curriculum could teach young people about social media’s mental health impacts and how to minimise these risks. Properly-funded youth services could offer young people a greater variety of leisure activities and opportunities to make social bonds offline. 

Austerity and alienation have handed control of a huge part of young people’s social and emotional development to an amoral private sector that exploits existing adolescent insecurities for profit.

Politics and Polarisation

The Social Dilemma’s description of how social media affects our political situations is another position with both a level of truth and some glaring omissions. Its central thesis is that social media has increased “polarisation”—particularly political. While this is most likely true and has a variety of harmful results, there is also no doubt that social media also enables non-mainstream views, including left and socialist ideas, to gain exposure. 

While plenty of non-mainstream views are harmful, many beliefs that were once seen as radical have now been proven correct by history. For every Pizzagate, QAnon, or Holocaust denial, there is a #MeToo, a Greta Thunberg, a Galileo. The argument that polarisation is always bad often stems from an intrinsically centrist, unthinkingly pro-status-quo position. In reality, polarisation stems from ordinary people searching for an alternative to the way things are under capitalism. 

The Social Dilemma does touch on the fact that polarisation was not invented or unearthed by social media, with former Google and Facebook employee Justin Rosenstein stating that problems of polarisation “exist in spades on cable television. The media has this exact same problem… the Internet is just a new, even more efficient way to do that.” 

It is somewhat ironic that the film then goes straight to using footage from US cable news media’s own reports on the dangers of polarisation. A news anchor describes how “Europe’s traditional, centrist coalition lost its majority while far-right and far-left populist parties made gains”. The film blames rising populism squarely on social media, with no mention of other factors such as climate change or economic recession, brushing over the fact that centrism consistently declines in popularity in times of financial hardship.

The film then uses footage of the 2017 murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia to back up its point that “polarisation is bad”, seemingly implying that white supremacy and protesting against white supremacy are two “extremes” and both sides of the same coin. The direct message that “tribalism is ruining us” is then preached by none other than Republican senators Jeff Flake and Marcio Rubio. The less said about this, the better.

Diagnosis and Solution?

The end of the film comes tantalisingly close to diagnosing capitalism as the root of social media’s evils but ultimately fails to commit to a defined stance. 

Twitter engineer Alex Roetter admits that tech companies and shareholders will not voluntarily reduce the way these apps work because “at the end of the day, you’ve gotta grow revenue and usage, quarter over quarter”. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris says that “economic incentive and shareholder pressure” make it “impossible to do anything else”.  

A variety of other interviewees agree that the financial incentive for endless growth is to blame, and Justin Rosenstein even goes so far as to attack the “religion of profit at all costs”. Tristan Harris says that “we can demand to not be treated as an extractable resource”, but how this translates into action is not mentioned. Perhaps if the film hadn’t already dismissed left-wing movements as the toxic flipside of their right-wing counterparts, the solutions to this issue could be adequately explored.

Rosenstein even states that “our attention can be mined” as it is more financially valuable to the capitalist class than we are as living beings—that we are like felled trees, worth more dead than alive. This is all true, of course, but replace the word “attention” with the word “labour” and you’ll see that this goes back centuries before the advent of social media! Social media’s data harvesting is merely the latest mutation of the capitalist extraction of profit.

The only solutions anyone in The Social Dilemma can muster onscreen are regulation, taxation, digital identity protection laws, and consumers’ self-restraint (turning off your phone an hour before you go to sleep is presented as a possible solution to this huge-scale systematic exploitation!). It is acknowledged that the companies need “a fiscal reason to not acquire every piece of data on the planet”. 

Jaron Lanier says, “I don’t wanna do any harm to Google or Facebook. I just want to reform them so they don’t destroy the world.” But we can’t ‘reform’ what we don’t own. Private companies will always make decisions based on their profits ahead of the needs of humanity. 

Social Media: a Tool of Oppression or Liberation?

The issues that lead to societal alienation and anxiety, and subsequently, addiction, are by no means new. Social media is merely the latest remedy sold to us by the capitalist class to “cure” the ills that it itself has caused, while furthering its own ends. 

Parallels can be drawn between social media and any other technological advance, from automation to AI. The issue is not the technology—it is who the technology is owned by and who it is designed and used to serve. Being “replaced by robots” leads to poverty under capitalism (your labour no longer being required is only a problem when you depend on your labour to survive!), but could be used in a socialist society to benefit the masses. Social media is the same—were it designed and used to serve the interests of humanity as a whole rather than a small class of profit-seekers, many of its drawbacks would most likely disappear. However, this would only be possible with democratic workers’ control and management of the infrastructure of the big social media platforms and their algorithms. 

Social media does have numerous dangers, but to ignore its benefits would also be disingenuous. Many isolated people have managed to find groups of like-minded people who they would most likely have never met otherwise through social media. Geographical limitations can be hugely reduced by social media – a point which is particularly important while many vulnerable people are self-isolating due to the pandemic, with no opportunities for face-to-face interaction. 

While social media was created – or at least hijacked – by the capitalist class, there is no reason that this is the only way for social media to operate. While there are certain limitations, the potential for social media to be used to spread anti-capitalist ideas is vast. The resurgence in recent years of left-wing views amongst young people has often been amplified by using various forms of social media.

Karl Marx famously stated that capitalism “produces its own grave-diggers”. The use of social media for anti-capitalist organisation, the fight for socialism and solidarity between members of a divided, atomised working class (for example, Covid-19 support and mutual aid groups in the first weeks of lockdown) is a prime example of utilising the machines of our oppressors. Bringing social media giants like Facebook and Twitter into democratic public ownership also has the potential to allow us to keep these social connections while dispensing with the more manipulative aspects of the technology.

The abolition of capitalism, and the introduction of a socialist system, will truly democratise all forms of society, including social media, for the benefit of all, not just the profit-hungry few. 

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