This weekend I watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which explores how dangerous and manipulative social media truly is. If you’re thinking, “I already know,” I promise you don’t. I’m not talking about issues like “Instagram makes my teen (or me) feel lonely and insecure," which is indeed happening, but rather that social media is actually destabilizing countries like ours in the name of corporate greed. I assumed I knew how Machiavellian social media is because I led a nonprofit focused on how apps like Instagram and Snapchat prey on our insecurities and keep us addicted.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Hats off to the top tech experts who speak up in this alarming doc, yanking open the curtain to reveal how social media truly works. (Yes, I realize for some it’s probably about wiping away bad karma points they racked up from engineering these systems in the first place.) The most shocking thing I learned is that when you Google search for something like “What is climate change,” you get entirely different answers depending on where you live in our country. In more liberal states, you get an explanation of climate change that includes scientific research and the dire problems we’re facing. If you live in a conservative state, you'll see articles on why climate change is a “hoax.”
It’s not LIKE we’re living in different realities in this country. We ARE.
Tristan Harris, who spent three years as a Google Design Ethicist, states towards the end of the documentary that there is simply no longer one truth. How do we create any kind of united states—which we so desperately need—if we don’t accept that there is even a foundation of truth? At no other time in history could large groups of people share totally different realities. The implications are terrifying; I don’t have to list them because they are happening.
How do we break through this? After all, people like living in their own “bubbles” with a neatly spelled-out "truth" that our tribe shares. Why engage with critical thinking and challenging questioning when we can wrap ourselves in a self-righteous security blanket? It is clear that we need to wake up and trash these security blankets or life is only going to get worse.
So how do we do this? We stop feeding the beast.
The tech experts featured in this doc do not allow their kids to use social media. They make a point of saying that none of the Silicon Valley execs do because they KNOW how evil it is. At the very least, we could stall the age in which kids get social media. I have told parents for years that middle-school is the single worst time to give kids access. My own 16-year-old shared with me that she and her friends have lamented the existence of Smartphones since they got them. They can feel the brutal effects but can’t seem to break the habit. Of course they can't. The most brilliant minds in the country created manipulative breadcrumbs to keep kids sharing personal data to make sure they stay addicted. We, parents, could collectively do our kids a solid and set hardcore limits. At the very least, we could stop handing over Smartphones to our kids until they're in high school. They only want it because their friends have it.
We ourselves must get control of our lives back. For some, it will mean quitting social media altogether. I'm starting to see more friends doing this. For others, like me, it means making some drastic changes. This weekend, I deleted all the news notifications and alerts on my phone that were installed automatically. I thought about which social media apps I enjoy and permanently deleted the rest. I aim to check the apps l like once or twice a day, and shut off all notifications for them to remove feelings of urgency to check more.
It is also important to point out what was missing from the documentary: the positive aspects of social media. Social media can bring out the best in us: waking us up to racism in new ways; mobilizing us to march and protest; impacting our attitudes on sexual harassment because of the #metoo movement; giving young people a powerful voice to become leaders for change. Social media is a tool, and it can be empowering, positive, and inspiring. We can opt out of using it to divide us and use if for social good. It will take intention to stop allowing the tool to use us. I like what Harris is aspiring to: "The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that's on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely."
AI is only going to get faster at learning our habits and better at manipulating us to turn on each other. The doc suggests that we need legislators to come up with regulations to make social media safer. I agree. But I refuse to wait for that. Let's wake up and take matters into our own hands right now.
What will YOU do?
Michelle Cove is a journalist, filmmaker, author, and founder of the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS. She uses storytelling and media to encourage, challenge, empower and inspire others and is seeking a job that allows her to put these skills to use; check out her resume if you may know the right fit. Michelle's favorite stories involve resilience, a blend of soft humility and sharp humor, and a belief that the universe is conspiring to help us all grow. Find her at LinkedIn.
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