Psychologists have been puzzled by certain disturbing trends in our contemporary world. On the surface these trends seem to be unrelated but “The Social Dilemma,” a documentary released earlier this month and streaming on Netflix, ties them together as resulting from the explosion of social media in our lives.
Three important trends are:
• The increase in rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teens and young adults.
• An increasing rate of political polarization.
• A proliferation of conspiracy theories.
The producers of the documentary are insiders in the tech world who understand the business model and the psychological principles by which it operates. They ask, since there is no charge to use Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube, how have these enterprises become worth hundreds of billions of dollars? What are they selling? They are selling attention, and they have become supremely skilled at capturing your attention. They have developed sophisticated algorithms which closely observe exactly where you go on your device, what you click on and for how long, and then use that information to individualize your experience to lure you into staying on your device for as long as possible.
Teenagers and young adults are pulled into a virtual reality which emphasizes comparison, competition and envy in a context of superficial “friendships” and interactions. By keeping users emotionally frustrated and longing for more, these platforms maximize time spent on devices. The result is increased social isolation and feelings of frustration and inadequacy, which can be seriously damaging for vulnerable individuals. These platforms do not set out to harm people but the consequence of their business plan to maximize time spent aboard, can be harmful indeed.
Political polarization is another result of this business model. Again, the goal is to induce motivation to stay on your device and spend time there. The best way to do that is to stir up your most compelling, emotions which unfortunately tend to be fear and outrage.
Let’s say you have two neighbors who last spring had slightly different views regarding the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. One of them was inclined to be sympathetic to the protesters and got on his device and did a search for “police killings of blacks” or “systemic racism” and began reading the articles or watching the videos that came up. Maybe a couple of them were particularly shocking so he spent time reading those and because of that, the platforms offered him increasingly powerful material until soon his social media experience was becoming very intense in support of demonstrators.
Meanwhile the other neighbor who had questions about the movement did a search using terms such as “unfair treatment of our police officers” or “demonstrations descend into rioting and looting.” After reading articles and viewing videos, this neighbor was fed increasingly emotionally gripping defenses of police and condemnation of demonstrators. And again, remember, the goal of the platforms is to keep us on the internet for as long as possible and in this case engendering fear and outrage is the best way to accomplish that. Eventually this neighbor became more and more outraged about how unfairly law enforcement is being treated and how violent protesters are getting away with it.
Prior to the advent of social media these two neighbors might have disagreed on the issues, but they would have been receiving the same information from legitimate news outlets such as newspapers or broadcast media. Now they are living in two different worlds, two different realities, each reality designed not to inform them but to keep each of them coming back for increasingly salacious and provocative material. Now they may not even be able to have a decent conversation with each other and wonder why the other person is so misinformed and wrong. And the material they are reading may not even be truthful and accurate since, unlike legitimate news outlets, no one fact-checks the information on these platforms.
“The Social Dilemma” points out that these platforms are perfectly suited to the proliferation of unfounded conspiracy theories since such theories thrive on fear, distrust and outrage regarding the usual authorities such as the press, science and the government. The producers refer to this as “the race to the bottom of the brainstem” and assert that “lies spread six times faster than the truth.”
While certainly other factors, including the current pandemic, are contributing to our social ills, this documentary contains powerful psychological insights and is worth sharing and discussing.
Dr. Victor Garlock holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is the author of "Your Genius Within: Sleep, Dream Interpretation & Hypnosis." He was a professor of psychology at Cayuga Community College for over 30 years. He currently is offering individual hypnosis sessions as well as personal counseling at The Center, a holistic health center and spa located in Auburn. For more information, call (315) 704-0319 or visit thecenter4wellness.com.
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