‘The Social Dilemma’ tells an alarming tale of surveillance capitalism

‘The Social Dilemma’ details how media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google influence our reality.

A 2020 Netflix documentary reveals tech companies are responsible for apps exploiting users for financial benefit and warping public perception of reality. After watching “The Social Dilemma,” I was ready to delete social media and throw my phone away.

Ironically, I learned about “The Social Dilemma” from social media. Directed by Jeff Orlowski and produced by Exposure Labs, “The Social Dilemma” focuses on how companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google influence our perspective through targeted ads based on user data.

We’ve seen this in the news with Google using tracker cookies and in 2016 when Facebook faced public scrutiny for misleading voters. But “The Social Dilemma” argues people are not informed about how serious their tactics are.

The documentary interviews former tech executives and engineers, who left their high-ranking positions in Silicon Valley because of ethical concerns. They discuss a concept in the tech industry known as “surveillance capitalism,” where companies mine user data to create algorithms. Algorithms use artificial intelligence and machine learning to collect everything about us from what we like and dislike based on our search history and internet cookies. Then these algorithms assign ads tailored to individual users.

The more ads tech companies sell, the more money they make. The process is somewhat complicated, but I've noticed it plenty of times. For example, I recently browsed the internet for winter coats and, as a result, my whole feed on Instagram was flooded with coat ads.

A quote in the film was attributed to computer scientist Edward Tufte: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” Addiction is a consequence of social media and it’s something we should all consider.

During the film, tech experts say teenagers are addicted to their phones and are therefore less likely to put away their phone and engage with each other in real life. In an era where technology constantly progresses, the ability to connect with people from anywhere in the world is why young people are so fond of it.

But after watching “The Social Dilemma,” I worry about what people learn from social media. I fear that it encourages teenagers to have unrealistic standards of beauty and they feel inclined to use filters to hide imperfections.

As someone from Generation Z, by high school I had an iPhone and laptop. I never contemplated what my life would be like without a phone — would we spend time outdoors, sleep earlier, exercise or read more often?

“The Social Dilemma” is a frightening reminder that we should unplug from social media and electronics sometimes, if not on a regular basis.

In fact, after putting down our phones, we may even learn more about each other.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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