Have you watched The Social Dilemma, the documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski? It is a jaw-dropping film presenting social media as an out-of-control invention which has shifted from its original purpose to simply connect people. It sees human attention as the most valuable asset — as a consequence, attention is monetised and users’ mental health is very often what ends up damaged.

We’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us — Bianca Bosker, The Atlantic

One of my social media accounts was hacked not long ago. This stressful event in my life made me experience what I thought I knew: that social media is a wicked invention and we all but have control over it. Now I can better understand the people who “take a break” from social media every now and then.

It is worrisome that “taking a break from social media” is the deviant thing to do, and being present on as many online platforms as possible is perceived as a standard form of existing. Social media has become the ID giving you access to the social club. But being a member takes its toll.

A while ago, my friend disappeared from Instagram and Facebook with no warning. I went through the worst scenarios only to find out they did it for their own well being. They had been feeling unwell lately and social media was making it worse. If this isn’t a red flag for the state of social media and its influence on us, then what could be?

Overwhelmed by social media. Image by author.

Peer pressure, unrealistic body images, lifestyles few people can afford, negativity from the news, cyber bullying, social (un)acceptance, and so on. It all piles up and results in us feeling bad about ourselves. With still unsubstantial evidence, there is a growing concern that the increased depression and suicide rates among kids and teens in America is interconnected with heavy social media use. Academic research also suggests that both are negatively linked.

In the US alone, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. According to CDC data released in September 2020 the suicide rate among people aged 10–24 in the US increased 57.4% for the period 2007–2018. WHO points out that people who are/have experienced violence, abuse, and a sense of isolation are displaying suicidal behaviour. With social media allowing cyberbullying, sexting, blackmailing and invasion of privacy, its rising popularity within the past decade could be connected with the rise in suicide rate.

As explained in The Social Dilemma, social media platforms are designed to keep you and your attention for as long as possible. By exposing you to engaging posts and recommending you content which is very subtly customised for you, its aim is to make you keep scrolling and engaging with ads, while the platform keeps on getting to know you better and collecting data about you and your interests. This data will then be provided to advertisers who will know how to target and capture your attention.

The cycle of dopamine. Image by author.

But there has to be something which makes you open the app, right? It’s the notifications that grab your attention. When somebody messages you or likes your photo, your dopamine levels go up. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter released by your brain when you anticipate something which rewards you with pleasure. In the case of social media, the award is the social recognition of your appearance and views, your sense of belonging and being accepted which are all evoked when people click on the “like” button under your photo or post.

When you receive a notification, your dopamine levels rise which leads to you being in a good mood. Very soon though, the dopamine levels decrease which leaves you in a state of needing more of this feeling. It becomes a vicious circle which ends up controlling your attention. Because you want to be happy. And it can give you [temporary] happiness.

Social acceptance has always been definitive of some [many] people’s confidence and self perception. Social approval deficiency may have the power to alter one’s self image. Unfortunately, such alteration could lead to irreversible consequences among people with more vulnerable mental health such as self harm, as discussed above.

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, attention is

the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others — The Principles of Psychology 1890

In other words, when you focus on one thing, you ignore everything else. Just like I am ignoring every sound and object around me while writing this blog post...or at least I try to. I try because the notifications on my phone literally fight for my attention. The hours and days I spend researching and writing — I could spend them doing a hundred other things.

By the time I wrote this much of the article, I could have watched several YouTube videos or a show on Netflix, I could have spent ages scrolling down my Facebook or Instagram feed and I could have seen tens of online ads. I could have made somebody money by giving them my attention.

Attention, Please! Image by author

In the attention economy, humans’ attention is the most valuable and the scarcest commodity and resource. The abundance in information causes deficiency in attention. One can’t simultaneously scroll on Facebook, read an article, watch a YouTube video and shop online.

The same goes for news outlets: an event might be covered by tens or hundreds of news outlets but because most people don’t have the time to read all of them, they only choose the sources they believe and enjoy reading the most. This eventually leads to a blur between credible news, and twisted and sensationalist titles which are only aimed at capturing your attention.

The attention economy goes hand in hand with advertising. Advertisers fight for your attention, too. It’s all about your digital trace. By liking, sharing, watching, reading things, you help the algorithms gather information about you. Advertising networks collect data from users’ browsers regarding what content they view, and target them with adverts in the same category.

In The Social Dilemma, the algorithms are visualised as people watching your every move — what and who you ‘like’, who you follow, who you message, they even know who your crush is. Based on this information, they show you whatever you would like to see and whatever would keep you ‘online’ for as long as possible. Not creepy at all!

Advertisers on the lookout.

Take display ads as an example. These are the ads you see on article pages or other websites. Have you ever noticed that the products these ads promote are the ones you have already searched for? This is called remarketing and is the process of targeting and connecting with people who have previously engaged with your website or app.

The idea of somebody or something having my personal information and knowing all about my interests— is that fair and legal, you may ask. Well, it’s not banned.

And yet, history shows us that abusing such data could cause big trouble. A very vivid example is the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal. Back in 2018, The Guardian and The New York Times revealed that the British political consulting company CA harvested the data of tens of millions Americans through Facebook. The data was used to persuade voters to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. CA’s VP Steve Bannon was in charge of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook’s handling of its greatest crisis was not exactly promising. Its response was that if people use the platform to share sensitive information, then they have

“no right to complain of a privacy violation.”

Not very comforting, right?

Weeks before the election for the USA’s 46th president, the country remains vulnerable to foreign online interference in the form of

disinformation campaigns targeting voters, to “ “hack and leak” operations that release sensitive information to the public, to cyber attacks on election infrastructure — Timothy Frye, War on the Rocks

Facebook has now banned any political ads, including Trump-sponsored ads claiming that accepting refugees would increase the number of COVID-19 infections, political conspiracy theories, ads which “make premature declarations of victory” and “content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election”. It was about time.

The Social Dilemma really teaches valuable lessons. A thought-provoking film but would you say you did not know all those things before watching it? I think it really points at the concerning truth many of us prefer to ignore. Do you ever ask yourself why you even press the Like button on a meme or video when you can simply not do it?

My feed is indeed nuanced with my own political views. The videos I see every day are all similar to those I watched the day before. I see ads for everything I google. Instagram knows what music I listen to and every ad on Instagram stories is subtly tailored for my personal interests. I know it because I actually like Instagram’s music recommendations — this is how I find new music.

I am living in a bubble. The filter bubble.

As concluding thoughts I will make one last reference to The Social Dilemma. One of the key speakers in the film is Tim Kendall — former Pinterest president and former Facebook executive. He said that social media overuse changes the shape of children’s brain. As a person coming from the centre of events, he doesn’t allow his own children to have smartphones and gadgets. Then why would you or your parents?

A Communication & Media graduate from Bournemouth University and a Marketing specialist.