The Documentary That Made Me Delete Instagram

As a Communications major, I have taken multiple classes discussing media, news, technology, and social media. As a kid who has had social media since I was 13, I'm aware of some of the negative effects of social media on body image and mental health. But, most of us don't know how deeply social media has implanted into our brains. Software engineers and employees at social media companies have designed algorithms to track and predict our every move. The new documentary The Social Dilemma, which is on Netflix, digs deeper into creating these social media algorithms and shows why social media software engineers live in fear of their own creations.

Laptop and Phone Photo by Austin Distel from Unsplash

The Social Dilemma website (https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/) explains the problem with social media. "Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives." This dilemma is then broken up into 3 sub-dilemmas. First, the mental health dilemma states that "a 5,000 person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction". Next, the democracy dilemma states that "the # of countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media doubled in the past 2 years". Lastly, the discrimination dilemma states that "64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithm steered them there".

The documentary begins by introducing several influential figures in social media, from the ex-president of Pinterest, an ex-software engineer at Facebook, and most importantly, an ex- design ethicist at Google, who founded the Center for Humane Technology after worries of social media and technology impacting and invading the minds of unassuming people. The ex-design ethicist, Tristan Harris, realized that platforms like Google, Apple, and Facebook had a responsibility to prevent users from spending their entire lives on their phones. Instead, these platforms have chosen to exploit their users for profit, which can have catastrophic impacts. Tristan explained that social media platforms function like the slot machines in Vegas. Whenever you 'refresh' your feed, you are met with new pictures, videos, and more information, which creates a positive reinforcement in your brain. This tricks us into thinking that every time you refresh your feed, you win in some way or receive something good, which leads us to run back to our social media multiple times a day, in search of that positive reinforcement.

Our Feeds

The idea of our feeds directly influencing us isn't new. Our feeds are micromanaged by algorithms so that we, as users, provide the highest profit to platforms. Each time we see an ad, it's because that ad has been custom-picked for us because, with us, it has the highest chance of engagement. The way that our feeds are structured also makes us prone to manipulation. Over time, our feed becomes more and more tailored to us, so that we see pictures of people just like us, videos that we will always watch, ads of products that we like, and news that reinforces our existing ideas and beliefs. According to Tristan, our feeds make us think that everyone thinks and acts like us, which lures us into a false sense of security. When our brains enter this state, it makes us more vulnerable to manipulation, which is a perfect time for the algorithm to slip in a possibly fake news article to persuade us, or an ad for a product so that we will buy it. Especially over quarantine, I assumed that a ton of people thought like me, had the same political beliefs as me, and dressed like me, because that was the content being shown to me. You become so sure that everyone on the internet is like you, so it can be shocking when you re-enter the real world. 

Technology as a Tool

The documentary does an excellent job of making you think and re-evaluate everything that you do. As a society, we like to think of technology as a tool, but the documentary explains why that is the furthest thing from the truth. "If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it's demanding things from you; it's seducing you, it's manipulating you. It wants things from you". Our notifications are purposeful. When the algorithm senses that it's losing our attention, it will send us a notification to pull us right back in. Platforms make money off of manipulating us. "We are more profitable to a corporation if we're spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we're spending our time richly living our life." The reality that our attention and information are being sold was enough for me to consider throwing my phone into a river.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Especially now, social media's ability to manipulate us is more prevalent than ever. According to the documentary, fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news, and because our guards are down, we believe it blindly. The threat of foreign powers interfering with our elections is so relevant because they can spread misinformation through social platforms, pushing individuals into extreme opinions. This isn't technically illegal because countries like Russia are just using Facebook's tools to push their own agenda. 

Is This Going to Change?

But of course, companies have no incentive to change because they make more money by manipulating us than they would ever make by being honest. Social media has a hold on almost all of us, and because we associate so many positive things to our phones, it will be almost impossible to create a change. Now, I can't begin to do this documentary justice. There is so much thought-provoking information that you need to watch it for yourself. Within an hour of watching it, I deleted Instagram and Facebook, and am making steps to decrease the rest of my screen time. When you take a step back and realize how deep it has gotten, it's horrifying. An algorithm is tracking every move I make, and every time I watch a video, or like a post, or click an ad, I am falling deeper and deeper into the trap that these platforms have created. It's a very eye-opening documentary. I am ready to start reclaiming my life by spending more time with my friends and family, taking care of my physical and mental health, and actually living life instead of spending all my time on or worried about my social media.