- a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.
This weekend, my family and I watched The Social Dilemma, the docudrama directed by Jeff Orlowski and released on Netflix last month. I found the movie both compelling and flawed. It has forced a fresh, much-needed conversation on the potential perils of social media and technology. The movie explores the oft-repeated claim that the users of social media platforms like Facebook are the product, and the advertisers that pay for users’ attention are the real customers. Social media platforms capture and utilize data to shift user behavior. The unintended consequences of this behavioral manipulation, the movie claims, have been catastrophic, including a massive increase in mental health issues, particularly among teenage girls, and an increasingly toxic polarization that is ripping apart the social fabric of this country.
There is certainly some truth to these claims, and we must address the potential negative ramifications of social media. However, the movie suffers from several deep flaws. First, it fails to offer any opposing viewpoints or to highlight the work that technology companies are currently doing to address these issues. Second, it exaggerates certain claims. For example, the documentary asserts that the extreme polarization we are currently experiencing in this country is a direct result of algorithms that deliver only the news and information that we are likely to click on. Thus, people will be bombarded by a steady stream of news that conforms to their particular political and ideological preferences, exacerbating an already divided population. On its surface, this is a seductive thought. But it is belied by the evidence. The degree and growth rate of polarization in the U.S. are significantly higher than in other developed countries, notwithstanding similar cross-country social media and internet usage. In a January 2020 Stanford study, researchers found that political polarization in the U.S. has doubled over the past four decades, a rate of growth faster than in Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Political polarization actually decreased over the same period in Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Germany. In fact, a separate 2017 study showed that polarization increased the most in the U.S. among demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.
Perhaps the most fatal flaw, however, is the tendency we all share to attribute unwanted outcomes to things that are outside of our control. It is easy and tempting to attribute the rise in mental health and political polarization solely or largely to the increase in social media usage or the addictive nature of technology. Let me be clear, it is important that we recognize and take action to address the dangers of technology. But when we allow our environment to become the primary source of our attention and frustration, we give up our power. When we externalize the source of our misfortune, we subconsciously absolve ourselves of the responsibility to shape our own lives. We face a responsibility dilemma every bit as dangerous and toxic as a social dilemma.
A dilemma isn’t just a difficult choice. It is a choice between two undesirable alternatives. This is true of any paradox. And it is certainly the case here. The solution to our current circumstances is not to be found in a choice between blaming technology or taking responsibility for our own actions. It is in recognizing that the answer lies in both. We must simultaneously hold accountable those in power to safeguard against the misuse of the technologies we use and take responsibility for how we ourselves use and consume social media and other technology platforms. To put it more strongly, we must first take responsibility ourselves before we demand the same of others.
This isn’t to say that taking responsibility is easy. I myself struggle to use technology responsibly. I find it incredibly challenging to parent effectively in an age where our children, my children, confront the realities of an environment almost unrecognizable to those who grew up in a different era. For me, the gift of The Social Dilemma is the reminder that I can and must do more to take responsibility for how I use technology. To take responsibility for everything in my life.