"The Social Dilemma" is opening eyes and changing digital lives for Netflix bingers across the globe. The filmmakers explore social media and its effects on society, raising some crucial points about impacts on mental health, politics and the myriad ways firms leverage user data. It interweaves interviews from industry executives and developers who discuss how social sites can manipulate human psychology to drive deeper engagement and time spent within the platforms.
Despite the glaring issues present with social media platforms, people still crave digital attention, especially during a pandemic, where in-person connections are strained if not impossible.
So, how can the industry change for the better? Here are three ways social media should adapt to create happier and healthier interpersonal connections and news consumption.
On most platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, the company determines some of the information presented to users. This opens the platform to manipulation by bad actors and raises questions about who exactly is dictating what information is seen and what is not. What are the motivations behind those decisions? And some of the platforms dispute their role in this process, with Mark Zuckerberg saying in 2019, "I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn't be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”
Censorship can be absolved with a restructured type of social platform. For example, consider a platform that does not rely on advertiser dollars. If a social platform is free for basic users but monetized by a subscription model, there is no need to use an information-gathering algorithm to determine which news and content are served to users.
This type of platform is not a ripe target for manipulation because users only see information from people they know and trust, not advertisers or random third parties. Manipulation on major social channels happens frequently when people create zombie accounts to flood content with fake “likes” and “views” to affect the viewed content. It’s commonly exposed as a tactic for election meddling, where agents use social media to promote false statements. This type of action is a fundamental flaw of social algorithms that use AI to make decisions about when and what to censor as well as what it should promote.
Don't treat users like products
The issues raised by "The Social Dilemma" should reinforce the need for social platforms to self-regulate their content and user dynamics and operate ethically. They should review their most manipulative technologies that cause isolation, depression and other issues and instead find ways to promote community, progressive action and other positive attributes.
A major change required to bring this about is to eliminate or reduce in-platform advertising. An ad-free model means the platform does not need to aggressively push unsolicited content from unsolicited sources. When ads are the main driver for a platform, then the social company has a vested interest in using every psychological and algorithm-based trick to keep the user on the platform. It’s a numbers game that puts profit over users.
More people multiplied by more time on the site equals ad exposure and ad engagement and that means revenue. An ad-free model frees a platform from trying to elicit emotional responses based on a user’s past actions, all to keep them trapped on the site, perhaps to an addictive degree.
Encourage connections without clickbait
A common form of clickbait is found on the typical social search page. A user clicks on an image or preview video that suggests a certain type of content, but upon clicking they are brought to unrelated content. It’s a technique that can be used to spread misinformation, which is especially dangerous for viewers who rely on social platforms for their news consumption, instead of traditional outlets. According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of adults get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” This causes a significant problem when clickbait articles make it easier to offer distorted “fake news” stories.
Unfortunately, when users engage with clickbait content, they are effectively “voting” for that information. That seemingly innocuous action creates a financial reason for others to create and disseminate further clickbait. Social media platforms should aggressively ban or limit clickbait. Management at Facebook and other firms often counter with a “free speech” argument when it comes to stopping clickbait. However, they should consider the intent is not to act as censors that are stopping controversial topics but protecting users from false content. It’s about cultivating trust and information sharing, which is much easier to accomplish when post content is backed by facts.
"The Social Dilemma" is rightfully an important film that encourages a vital dialogue about the role social media and social platforms play in everyday life. The industry needs to change to create more engaged and genuine spaces for people to connect without preying on human psychology.
A tall order, but one that should benefit both users and platforms in the long term. Social media still creates important digital connections and functions as a catalyst for positive change and discussion. It’s time for platforms to take note and take responsibility for these needed changes, and opportunities will arise for smaller, emerging platforms taking a different, less-manipulative approach.