Netflix’s /The Social Dilemma, an exposé on social media, is informative and important. [It does not, however, absolve Netflix of its public disservice entitled “Cuties” (which I have not watched).] It describes the magnitude of a serious dilemma: Social media bestows unfathomable benefits on humanity/society, but humans are gravely harmed by it, and societies cannot survive social media its current incarnation.
About a year ago, I wrote a six-part blog series on “Free Speech and Big Tech.” The third installment discussed “Free Speech and Big Tech – The Conundrum.” The gist was that we couldn’t live with or without social media. /The Social Dilemma’s riff on the subject adds observations, explanations, and insights by mostly former executives and key developers of the big social media platforms, many of whom were very impressive.
The flick convincingly explained just how addictive and effective social media has become at manipulating users. With fascinating details, they also explain how and why social platforms (1) became so dominant and influential, (2) are addictive, and (3) are harmful, especially for kids under 16.
While quite a bit of time was devoted to pointing out that users are not Big Tech’s customers, the information users give to Big Tech is the product. (The adage, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” comes to mind.) While true, dwelling on this relatively insignificant point added little to the thesis. Perhaps it was necessary to stir emotions.
The cast absolved the social media company founders of intentions to build a human-consuming monster, i.e., none believed that Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, etc. intended or expected the problems their platforms have created. (I do not doubt that.)
However well-intended the founders were, they built a human-consuming, tyrannical monster that is growing more powerful by the nanosecond. If anyone doubts that action is required to mitigate the harm and retain the benefits of social media, that there is no doubt should be evident to everyone, except possibly those who have not learned history’s lessons about tyranny.
The movie’s riff on Big Tech’s “fact-checking” being a farse (Big Tech cannot know or find out what is and is true) is a public service. However, it would have been better had they beefed this segment up a bit. For example, they could have added that the expertise of social media companies’ experts concerns social media platform development and operation. Those people cannot also be the top experts in art, science, law, medicine, philosophy, history, current events… So, they cannot have the expertise to determine the validity of a fact they want “fact-checked.” Facts needing a check typically concern matters about which there is controversy. That the platform needs to outsource the fact-checking means the platform lacks the expertise to declare a winner in debates between qualified scientists, economists, political philosophers, etc.
But the situation is worse than that. Everyone is biased, especially people involved in “fact-checking.” The impact of bias starts with the decision to check a fact. To check or not to check depends on whether the reviewing employee suspects a claim to be sufficiently false and harmful to warrant an intervention. Unavoidably, the decision to “fact-check” depends on the employee’s values, political persuasions, the interests of the company, and the employee’s self-interest. A highly biased or politically motivated employee is less likely to suspect a false claim that confirms her biases and more likely to doubt a valid claim contrary to her prejudices. Bias also affects which biased “fact-checker” will “fact-check.” That process has no chance of consistently finding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. See also, “The Truth Is Hard For The New York Times.”
Back to the review: Social media’s power to manipulate the user’s actions and beliefs is tremendous, and As noted above, A.I. is increasing that power every nanosecond. A social media platform’s profit is a function of how much it can cause users to believe and do what the platform’s customers (advertisers and tyrants) want them to believe or do. The more time a user spends on a social media platform, the more power the platform has to manipulate the user. So, Big Tech developers make their platforms as addictive as possible. With the help of A.I., they have gotten very good at it (as their trillions in revenue attest). The data presented about the manipulative power of platforms and the resulting negative consequences on humans, especially those under 16, are shocking.
I take exception to a few of the pictures’ points, but only one was egregious enough to discuss. Sadly, the egregious point was its conclusion.
The conclusion argued that the solution to the dilemma (heaving the bathwater without the baby might be impossible) is to cede the power to regulate social media to the government. All that preceded the conclusion lays bare the danger of the proposed solution.
Before the conclusion, the flick advanced the sound proposition that social media is too powerful. Although not in the movie, a good case can be made that the handful of executives at the top of the top social media companies have greater power to influence politicians and bureaucrats than the country’s many million voters.
In general, those with power have the means to arrogate more power. The Constitution mitigated those means with a system of limited powers and “checks and balances.” While the Constitution was more respected and defended than it has been for the last 120 years, it was reasonably able to impede the aggregation of power by checking the power of the powerful. Sadly, politicians who whittle on the Constitution’s checks and balances have been repeatedly elected and reelected. The resulting undermining of the Constitution is a large contributor to the mess we are in today.
The current arrangement between politicians/the Deep State and Big Tech (You don’t tread on me, and I’ll not tread on you) enables each side to check the other to some degree. Unfortunately, they are checking each other to advance their interests at the expense of the public. While the corrupt and destructive arrangement is deplorable, having some checks it better than having no checks. Therein lies the flaw of the film’s conclusory policy prescription.
If the power to regulate Big Tech were ceded to politicians, politicians could dictate to Big Tech what it must be banned and what the public will to see. As is being demonstrated in China, a government with that much power will use its political and technological monopolies for its benefit, with little regard for human rights or the public interest. To its credit, Google shut down its cites in China to protest China’s tyrannical censorship of its people,[i] but that was after it had greatly expanded China’s ability to manipulate, control, and oppress its citizens. It has used that power to harass and influence its neighbors as well. Not all Big Tech companies similarly put ethics ahead of profits. For example, “Microsoft-owned properties such as Xbox, Bing, Outlook, and LinkedIn have generally been allowed to operate in China…”[ii]
For more on how bad ceding that much power to the government would be, see “Free Speech and Big Tech – The Problem,” “Free Speech and Big Tech – The Most Negative Consequence,” “Free Speech and Big Tech – How To Make Things Worse,” and “Free Speech and Big Tech – The Legislative Betrayal.”
Allowing the government to regulate Big Tech would (1) remove checks on U.S. politicians, and (2) grant politicians far more power than was imaginable by the founders. Checks on government power need to be re-established and fortified. Some checks on Big Tech are needed as well. Combining the powers of both in the hands of politicians would be a disaster. Regulation is not the only way to check power. For example, the content of news outlets is barely regulated. However, it is mightily checked by court-enforced violations of other people’s rights. Such is not the case with Big Tech.
As discussed in more detail in Free Speech and Big Tech – What To Do, 47 U.S. Code § 230 granted to “interactive computer services,” e.g., social media platforms, an exemption from being sued liable, slander, and other torts for which newspapers, magazines, and other publishers are liable.[iii] The exemption was predicated on the following finding:
(3) The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.
The rationale for exemption was that the forums (“platforms”) should not be treated as publishers because the platforms would be places where users posted “truly diverse” political discourse.
Now that interactive computer services are curating content and stifling true diversity and selectively “fact-checking.” They are selectively taking down any opinions adverse to platform’s preferred memes. Consequently, the justification for the exemption has no longer exists.
I described what should be done about Big Tech’s abuse of power in Free Speech and Big Tech – What To Do. In light of the cases made by /The Social Dilemma, I am now more open to the possibility that imposing some limited and carefully crafted limitations on what interactive computer services can do with personal data collected from users could do more good than harm.
[iii] Nick Sandmann’s lawyer targets 5 media giants in new round of lawsuits, Nicholas Sandmann announces settlement with Washington Post in defamation lawsuit, and CNN settlement with Covington student Nick Sandmann a win for the ‘little guy,’ expert says