Big Brother is Watching: How Tech Companies Manipulate Us All


”There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software.”

--Edward Tufte, The Social Dilemma

Recently, I used some of the free time that did not have to watch The Social Dilemma, a relatively new documentary on Netflix. I was skeptical it would be your cut and dry, “teens are depressed because of social media” with little room for nuance. No, this documentary is incredibly impactful, as it puts pressure on the tech companies instead of consumers to improve social media. A quick synopsis: Tristan Harris, a previous design ethicist for Google, co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to promote the ethical design of websites and software. If you’re anything like me and never heard of ethical design movements for websites, then you can probably tell that this fills an important niche. The point of the documentary is to provide evidence that big social companies (mainly focusing on Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) are purposely contributing to mental health issues and global social unrest by putting profit above the users and using psychological manipulation to keep people using their apps.

While I wasn’t surprised at the dismal stats reflecting how more social media use correlates with poor life satisfaction (and that this correlation gets stronger the younger someone starts using social media), I was surprised to learn how manipulative these algorithms can be. Sure, we all joke about talking about a new product with a friend and then getting bombarded with ads for that very product later. While this is scary in its own right, most of us are aware that it happens.  What’s scarier is the influence that we are unaware of. Before viewing this documentary, I was never aware of the geographical influence. The most frightening, stark example of this presented in the documentary is that depending on where you live when you type “climate change” into your Google search bar, the top results will change. So, if you live in a mostly liberal or urban area, the top result may be “climate change definition” or “climate change news.”  But if you live in a more conservative area, especially with fewer people to inform the algorithm, your top result might be “climate change is a hoax.” It’s disturbing to think that what I previously thought was my own conclusions based on free access to resources, might actually be more of a product of my environment. And that’s not all: the documentary goes into how social media and search engines directly contribute to the radicalization of people based on algorithmic recommendations. Social media, especially Facebook, has been a host for fake news and linked to the destabilization of several regions throughout the world. Even US politics have fallen prey, as we have seen in the investigations of Russia’s influence in the 2016 Presidential election and the ever-present divide between our two-party system that eclipses the actual issues at hand.

Last week, I deleted all my social media off my phone. I’ve done this several times, for varying amounts of time when I’m sick of being bombarded with whatever my timeline decides is important. I want to decide what’s important. Right now, what’s important to me is reading more, managing my time between two jobs, an internship, and classes, and taking care of my mental health. All of those things are improved with less social media in my life. And on some level, I do object to being a cash cow for giant companies that don’t care enough about their users. I would like tech companies to be more straightforward in the data they are collecting from us, and not hiding it in technical jargon within pages of terms of service.

However, I am still your typical 21-year-old, and I don’t want to quit social media cold turkey. I even prefer to use social media to get my news over mainstream news sources, especially during moments like Black Lives Matter protests when social media is used to disseminate information quickly to large masses of people.  As a compromise, I use my web browser on my computer to check my Twitter and Instagram. But this is usually only brief, and mostly I just go on to check my messages, not to endlessly scroll. Before watching The Social Dilemma, I thought I would eventually redownload my apps, but now I’m not so sure. I intend to try to prioritize other methods of engagement as much as possible. Sure, it has its positives, and I don’t see myself straying from my Google products just yet, but we can rely way less on manipulative software and algorithms than we do right now. I would highly recommend you watch The Social Dilemma for yourself, and ask yourself: how much of your freedom of choice actually influences your social media and overall internet use?