In the new Netflix documentary drama, “The Social Dilemma,” former employees of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and more discuss their ethical problems while working for these tech giants and creating features that, both inherently and indirectly, addicts its users and causes turmoil.
The documentary features a dramatic narrative based on the increased statistics about depression and anxiety among preteens and teenagers with the rise of internet usage. It demonstrates how easy it is to fall into fake news and rabbit holes on social media.
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google, said he remembers feeling the addictive nature of his employer's platform and found it necessary to change it for the better, but it seemed as though no one else noticed.
“I really struggled to try and figure out how, from the inside, we could change it,” Harris said in the documentary.
Harris created a presentation that said Google had a moral responsibility to fix the problem it created with their team of 20 to 35-year-old white males controlling the platform for billions of people. Ultimately, many of his colleagues agreed and were on board with his stance, but nothing seemed to change.
Having published articles about Silicon Valley platforms and written about it for his dissertation, professor Frank Russell Ph.D., at Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Communications, can confirm the culture of Silicon Valley’s companies that Harris references.
“These companies believe that they are in a position to change the world and I think initially, they came to it from the perspective that they thought they could change the world for the better,” Russell said.
With the spread of “misinformation”, Russell’s term for fake news, it has become harder and harder to recognize what is real and what is false. But, there are two sides to the coin.
“I completely see the positives, because I have seen how various social protests around the world are able to organize because of social media. I've seen petitions being signed, people are joining these different causes that they couldn't easily do without social media, they were able to do crowdsourcing, fundraising this and that through social media,” said Tara Suwinyattichaiporn Ph.D., a human communication studies professor.
Though people are able to do more than ever through social media, Suwinyattichaiporn said the dangers, such as social comparison, can lead to anxiety, depression and cyberbullying, especially when there is no accountability through complete anonymity.
Brent Foster Ph.D., of CSUF’s Department of Communications, recognized that platforms such as Facebook should have a responsibility to establish ethical rules and regulations within their companies.
However, if a private company such as Facebook managed to implement ethical responsibility, whoever is in charge may be biased and it could affect the type of content that would be approved and denied.
“Even if we have ethical standards created by these media, social media giants, the question is, who sets the standards?” Foster said.
The First Amendment protects our rights to freedom of speech and of the press, but it’s up to the consumers to be responsible, Russell said.
The younger the consumers are, the harder it is for them to be responsible, said Jonathan Haidt Ph.D., a social psychologist from the documentary. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a significant increase in self harm and suicide among teenage girls since the rise of social media around 2011.
Since 2009, non-fatal self harm in preteen girls is up 189% and suicide in preteen girls is up 151%, which directly correlates with the rise of social media.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, “The Social Dilemma” illustrates how misinformation can spread to exponential levels.
“What we’re seeing with COVID is just an extreme version of what’s happening across our information ecosystem,” Harris said. “Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true, no matter what issue we care about.”
The Department of Human Communications offers a class called Digital Media Literacy which is designed to teach students how to efficiently and ethically consume information online; something that Suwinyattichaiporn encourages everyone to take.
“We can't escape it now,” Suwinyattichaiporn said. “Technology is going to be in our lives more and more and more.”