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The Social Diatribe

Professor Mary Aiken watches a Netflix offering on the impact of social networking.

23 September 2020

The Social Dilemma is currently one of the most popular offerings on Netflix. Directed by a filmmaker best known for environmental threat films, Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski investigates another type of crisis that claims to threaten our very existence – social media. 

Netflix describes it as a documentary-drama hybrid which 'explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations'. However, for those of us who have worked in this area for some time, the vaunted urgency of 'sounding an alarm' is a probably a decade or so too late. The iPhone child is now 12, and Twitter, Facebook et al., almost 15 years old. In fact, my book The Cyber Effect covered much of the ground revisited in The Social Dilemma. When published some five years ago, a review in The Times stated 'Aiken rings a social alarm bell'. Clearly alarm bells are not working.

Talking-head interviews with Silicon Valley technologists now converted on some Internet superhighway to Damascus are arguably less than convincing, particularly since many of them probably cashed in their share options before developing a conscience. Maria Farrell, a writer and keynote speaker on technology, captures the tech whistle-blower zeitgeist with a pithy observation, describing the 'prodigal tech bros' who suddenly see the social tech industry as toxic, and are questionably duly rewarded 'with invitations to write op-eds for major newspapers...think tank funding, book deals and TED talks'. Farrell goes on to question why have they been given a second chance, along with the 'mantle of moral and expert authority.' 

Therein lies the problem. The protagonists Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson and Joe Toscano all appear to have one thing in common – an undergraduate degree, undoubtedly a good start in academic life, but by no means an exemplification of scientific expertise. Maybe the main problem with The Social Dilemma is that many of the features driving the social media platforms under scrutiny were developed by well-meaning 'script kiddies' and are now somewhat paradoxically being critiqued by that very same cohort, albeit in a well-meaning sort of way. 

It's hard to sit through a streamed lecture on the morality of persuasive design, by the very people who have profited from tapping into our collective psychological Achilles heel. The dramatised segments of the documentary – featuring a trio of white coated scientists as proxies for some form of social network algorithmic system – borders on cartoonish, more resonant of Pixar's animation Inside Out than the invisible existential threat which I would argue that social technologies present to humankind. The family struggling 'mockumentary style' to get their (somewhat mature) kids to give up their smartphones, the predictable dinner table arguments, the rather strange 'manchild' increasingly isolated in his bedroom, and the wannabe Tik-Tok egirl are one dimensional film tropes, and therefore largely ineffective clichés. 

In fact, the relentlessly anti-tech monologue – different voices, same message – was so prolifically one-sided it made anti-vaxxer propaganda seem almost reasonable. Balance is arguably the most important commodity in any documentary. Lose balance and you lose the audience. Hence this docu-drama is more of a lengthy social diatribe than dilemma.

So here's the real dilemma. Why did the filmmakers fail to include technologists that have designed applications that have worked for the greater good? For example, crowdsourced fundraising for disaster relief? Or PhotoDNA, a Microsoft tool now used by over 200 organisations around the world to tackle the sexual exploitation of children? Why do the contributors seem unaware – potentially wilfully so – of a growing body of evidence that could have been included to thoroughly debate the topic? 

As academics we don't always agree on how to interpret and apply the evidence base, but we certainly don't ignore its existence. There may not be a consensus in the behavioural sciences, but there's important work going on here. Why were scientists from a range of relevant disciplines not interviewed? I think I know the answer… theoretical, complex academic arguments do not make for good television. I have first-hand experience. I spent a number of years working as a subject matter expert for CBS in Hollywood. Whenever I was asked a complicated question at a press conference or launch, the barked instruction in my ear mike was always the same: 'Soundbite, Mary'. 

So the real dilemma for the Network was probably that they felt they had a choice between two alternatives – cool tech bros and gals who look good, speak in five word sentences and utter unsupported opinions that make great clickbait headlines; or cranky, long-winded, argumentative Profs. Part of the solution is media training for academics, and for psychologists in particular… a topic previously covered by this magazine.

Notwithstanding the failings of this documentary, the impact of technology on all users of social media is a critical area of study and debate. I had hoped that Orlowski's background could have helped him to conceptualise Cyberspace, the figurative space that exists within the scope of the Internet, as an environment – and to portray it as a powerful psychological space. Recently a graphic video of a man dying by suicide on Facebook Live spread to TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, likely viewed by millions of unsuspecting users, including children. Just as oil companies have been made accountable by the media, government, and environmental activists to clean up damages, spills, and pollution created directly or indirectly by its products, the social media industry needs to be accountable for spills and effects in terms of humanity. 

The precautionary principle has been used to some effect in the environmental debate. It works as follows; if an action or policy presents a risk to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking that action. The real question this docu-drama could have addressed is this: what does the precautionary principle look like for content distributed by social media companies in the environment of cyberspace? Monetising harm by designing intelligent algorithms to promote extreme content, and harvest dollars from a child in the 'attention economy', is not about celebrating access; it is about exploitation. In the bricks and mortar world, we have recognised for centuries that defending freedom for adults to speak and express opinions does not mean giving adults, or in this case technologists, a licence to exploit and harm children. When harm is admitted on the record, then we need to investigate duty of care, if not of the tech employee, then certainly their employers.

If we want to tackle these issues via mass media then we need filmmakers who can provide insight into how our cognitive, behavioural, physiological, social, developmental, affective, and motivational capabilities have been exploited or compromised or changed by technology and we need an evidence base that supports same. Early research started out with cyber utopian optimism. Dana Boyd (2007) wrote of youth infatuation with social network sites from MySpace to Friendster. Sonia Livingstone (2016) noted that 'Preschool aged children have taken to tablets like ducks to water'. Our own research (DeMarco et al., 2017) sampled across three EU countries, started to add weight to the 'growing literature which suggests that while the majority of young people are able to safely navigate digital media, a minority are more vulnerable online than others' (p.111). 

Now, to my eyes, a more dystopian reality is emerging. A recent rapid evidence review for the Home Office (Davidson et al., 2019) found that 'the open sharing of personal data in public forums has resulted in online harassment in its many forms becoming increasingly problematic – the number of people having negative online experiences is increasing' (p.1). Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of more than 130 scientific publications, argues that digital media use is linked to lower psychological well-being and less happiness (2018, 2019), a view supported by the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists (2020). Whilst readily acknowledging many of the positives of new technologies, researchers also noted that 'these devices can pose potential challenges to the health and well-being of children and young people' (p.10), highlighting exposure to violent, graphic, sexual imagery, hate speech, cyberbullying and the vulnerability of children and young people with mental health needs such as depression, anxiety and or developmental conditions such as ADHD. Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski at Oxford have also evaluated the relationship between digital technology use and adolescent well-being by means of three very large-scale social datasets. They argued that the association between digital technology use and adolescent wellbeing was negative but small, and therefore did not warrant policy change, whilst at the same time acknowledging that their analyses could not provide a definite answer as to whether digital technology actually impacts adolescent well-being.

Perhaps the lack of academic consensus was confusing, or even off-putting, for the filmmakers? Policy makers are, however, less confused, categorically stating 'Online harms are widespread and can have serious consequences' (p.3). They recognise the need to investigate the full spectrum of Online Harms as outlined in the recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and Home Office White Paper. Importantly, we need balanced, scientific and evidence-based debate, especially with regard to online harm deniers. Some academics who try to tackle and mitigate online harm have been described as 'moral entrepreneurs'. This phrase has usually been used in a pejorative context, but let's think about that. Becker (1963) first introduced the construct and it has since been noted that such reformers 'are often driven by humanitarian motives and can potentially achieve a great deal of good.' Fishman (2014) described multiple examples of productive moral entrepreneurship, for example the establishment of moral norms against smoking, drunk driving, underage drinking, and copyright infringement. The Social Dilemma missed an opportunity to explore and showcase moral entrepreneurship change agents whereby collaborative ethical leadership could help to inform stakeholders regarding online harms, and therefore help to create new ethical – and, with due consultation and consideration, enforceable – norms.

The good news from a UK perspective is that the policy makers are already ahead of the curve. DCMS has just published a new report on Online Safety Technologies – Professor Julia Davidson and I acted as academic advisors. Interestingly, our findings and recommendations actively seek to address many of the issues raised in The Social Dilemma. A new sector has just been created by DCMS and is now designated as 'SafetyTech'. Industry is interested and investment is forthcoming. To date there has been asymmetric investment in the online world. Industry needs have dominated, and cybersecurity has focused mainly on the protection of data and information. However, cyber safety focuses on protecting people online – the 'Internet of Humans'. Your data does not suffer from low self-esteem, self-harm or suicidal ideation; your data does not become depressed or seek revenge. This is where online safety technology solutions can excel. The unique opportunity is that cyber safety or 'SafetyTech' is where the behavioural sciences can engage and really add value.

The Social Dilemma is worth watching, even just to hone your critical thinking skills. I am passionate about the impact of tech on humankind. I was eagerly awaiting the release, and sadly was somewhat disappointed. That said, I did enjoy watching it, mostly taking copious notes on how I would like to try and make a better documentary. For some of us this is just the beginning of a critical cyber societal conversation, arguably summed up in this quote from Edward Tufte in the documentary; 'There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software'. 

The Internet was designed on the premise that all 'users' are equal. This is not the case, some are more vulnerable than others, and children are particularly vulnerable online. Our challenge as a society is to help shape social technologies that are open and vibrant, but which also protect users from harm. The challenge for filmmakers is to avoid a myopic approach, understand the problem space, engage with academic experts and resist sensationalism, yet to be persuasive in order to actively inspire and effect change. 

Essentially, I am arguing that technology in itself is not good or bad – it is either designed, and then used, well, or poorly. If we really want to tackle online harms, addiction by design, autonomous surveillance, dark AI, behavioural manipulation online, mis and disinformation along with ever evolving 'weapons of mass distraction', then we are going to have to raise our game. That will involve looking a little further than 'the bros' that helped to build these technologies in the first place.

Mary Aiken PhD Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology 

Department of Law & Criminology

University of East London

- Find The Social Dilemma on Netflix.


Boyd, D. (2007). "Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life." MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning - Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.119-142. [pdf]

DeMarco, J.,  Cheevers, C.,  Davidson, J., Bogaerts, S.,  Pace, U.,  Aiken, M.P., Caretti, V.,  Schimmenti, A., & Bifulco, A. (2017). Digital dangers and cyber-victimisation: a study of European adolescent online risky behaviour for sexual exploitation. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 14 (1). pp. 104-112. ISSN 1724-4935 

Fishman, J.P. (2014). Copyright infringement and the separated powers of moral entrepreneurship. American Criminal Law Review, 51, 359–401.

Greenhalgh, T., Ozbilgin, M. F., Prainsack, B., & Shaw, S. (2019). Moral entrepreneurship, the power-knowledge nexus, and the Cochrane "crisis". Journal of evaluation in clinical practice, 25(5), 717–725. 

Livingstone (2016). What are preschoolers doing with tablets?

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2020). Technology use and the mental health of children and young people.            

Orben, A., Przybylski, A.K. The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology useNature Human Behaviour 3, 173–182 (2019). 

Online Harms White Paper  

Twenge, J.M. & Campbell, W.K. (2019). Digital media use is linked to lower psychological well-being: Evidence from three datasets. Psychiatric Quarterly, 90, 311-331.

Twenge, J.M. & Campbell, W.K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventative Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283.