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‘With great power comes great responsibility’

By Anthony Hughes
05 November 2020

By Anthony Hughes

Netflix’s provocative new blockbuster documentary on the topic of social media, The Social Dilemma, seems to have sparked heated discussions around the world in recent weeks. I imagine that those discussions will have been especially fraught in households with children or teenagers that use social media regularly and parents who don’t. As part of the generation who started playing video games in earnest and had old fashioned parents who were not keen on me watching lots of TV for fear that it would ‘rot my brain’, it is an all too familiar argument. But I, like the Social Dilemma, would argue that there something potentially more troubling at work here beyond the usual generational tensions around technology.

My first foray into the world of social media was with MySpace and then early Facebook, in my late teens and early 20’s, but by the same token I also remember when the pager was the height of communications technology, so I am part of the generation (is it X?) that spans both not having social media at all, and having it in all its all-consuming glory. Whether this gives me a useful perspective I don’t know, but I definitely hark back to the days when the discussion around social media was a more innocent one.

The Social Dilemma then, is a series of interviews with former or ‘early days’ senior social media execs (who have all now presumably made their millions) telling us not to use the platforms they helped to create because of what they have now become. If you can get past that little irony, the Social Dilemma makes for some interesting but alarming viewing.

Much of the documentary is focused on just how powerful these platforms have become. When using a social media (or a search) platform these days, you are interacting with, and being manipulated by, an incredibly powerful AI super computer that knows more about you (in the human behavioural sense), than you do about yourself. And that these computers or algorithms are so sophisticated that most people are unable to resist. It is not a huge leap to see that there is at least a grain of truth in this.

The business model, they claim, is simple, keep you hooked on the platform so you can be advertised to, and influenced by, the people that pay them (advertisers, political campaigns etc). The platforms have a wicked array for tricks for keeping you hooked, from the little sounds that trigger a dopamine hit in your brain when you get a ‘like’, to showing you content that it has learned you respond to – all minutely designed and tested in real-time by behavioural specialists to ensure you spend as much time on the platform as possible.

Here to illustrate the point the documentary makers show a quote by the Parler CEO, John Matze: 'The only two people that call their customers ‘users’ are drug dealers and social media.'

The evidence of the harm social media can do is compelling – the documentary plots the rise of many detrimental societal phenomena against the mass uptake or use of social media. It highlights some Pew research which shows that Americans have never been so divergent in their political views, which may go some way to explaining the uneasy political landscape that many democracies find themselves in at the moment, particularly the USA itself.

Similarly, suicide and self-harm rates among younger age groups have suddenly starting growing at a terrifying rate in the last 7-10 years. Perhaps the most damning indictment is the people who have designed these platforms freely admitting that they don’t let their own children use social media at all because it is so dangerous.   

And herein lies the rub, for me at least. The social media platforms themselves are not inherently good or evil, and for the most part I don’t believe they were designed to harm people. Their algorithms cannot make proper value judgements about whether the content they feed you is ‘good’ or not, the problem is that they don’t care, they just want you to stay on their platform. What started out as fantastic, innovative technologies for facilitating communication, inspiring people and sharing wonderful things is now geared towards making money. Whilst social media companies are not entirely to blame, after all they don’t make any of the harmful or extremist content that pollutes our lives, they do facilitate its spread directly into our pockets and work hard to keep us hooked on it.

So in today’s era where many corporates (and people) have woken up to the fact that they need to behave responsibly when it comes to their supply chains, resources and ecosystems if they are to be a viable long-term business, I would argue the same goes for social media companies. Especially given that in this case we, humans, are the resource. Many investors and business use ESG metrics to evaluate and change their operations so that they are more sustainable (in the long term) - I wonder where social media companies would score on the social element of the ESG measure and whether the current business model is in fact sustainable.

I think that conceptually at least, the answer to this dilemma is actually fairly simple. Watching the documentary reminded me of the ancient Greek concept of ‘Eudaimonia’ which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. If we could somehow encourage these companies to change their business models, rewrite their mission statements and harness the power of this incredible technology to enhance real human flourishing rather than just keeping us hooked on content, I believe they would also flourish and be a force for immeasurable good in the world.