The Social Dilemma: The Insidious Power of Social Media

It’s not news that technology changes us. Most people are aware that the use of electronics has a significant influence on children and teenagers. It can also change adults’ habits and thought processes. This information has led many to try to limit internet and video game time for their kids and to pick up their own phones a little less often. Nevertheless, most people do not see the unending streams of entertainment and social media feeds as dangerous. The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma challenges this assumption, making an unsettling case: social media and the people behind it have far more control over our actions and beliefs than we ever imagined.

The Social Dilemma

Designed to be Addicting
The Social Dilemma draws on interviews from dozens of technology experts who have been involved in the creation of social media, focusing its story on Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google. As an insider in the tech world, Harris saw how Facebook and Google were working on people below the level of their consciousness, shaping their actions and beliefs without their knowledge. Harris grew concerned about the way Google’s algorithms (and the algorithms behind popular social media platforms) were manipulating their users.

Harris compares social media use to a gambling addiction, stating that the algorithms work “just like the slot machines in Vegas.” Every time we pick up our phones and are impelled to keep scrolling for just a few more minutes, we are gambling away something arguably even more valuable than our money: our time. At least a slot machine user knows that gambling addiction has serious consequences. Despite many people knowing that it is addictive, social media is widely considered a fun and harmless way to connect with others. Yet, it manipulates its users without them ever knowing. The problem of social media design is, as Jaron Lanier puts it, that “we’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the center of everything we do.”

You are the Product
Harris explains that, contrary to popular belief, social media is not an inert tool that we can use as we please. If something is a tool, it does not demand anything from you. Social media, however, demands something from its users—their time and attention, in ever-increasing amounts. Harris says, “we’ve moved away from a tool-based environment to an addiction and manipulation environment.” Social media is free, convenient, and enjoyable because, in the minds of the designers of social media, you (the user), are the product. Your time is the commodity and they’re trying to get as much of it as they can, however they can.

At first, this prospect does not seem too concerning. Losing a minute or two here and there to Facebook, Instagram, or Tiktok doesn’t seem too bad. The disconcerting news is that it seems to be the case that compulsive use of social media (motivated by algorithms designed to keep us immersed in social media as long as possible) is making us as a society more anxious, more depressed, and more polarized. The very structure of social media is at odds with its users’ well-being; as Harris puts it, there are “entire teams of engineers whose job it is to use your psychology against you.” According to Harris, the psychological influence of social media reaches even farther than our habits and attitudes. His conclusion should be unsettling, especially for Christians: we have “less control over who we are and what we really believe.”

A Polarized World: Everyone has Their Own Truth?
It is natural to assume that we have chosen to believe the things we believe. But, according to The Social Dilemma, the designs of social media algorithms limit our ability to think for ourselves and form our own beliefs. A wide variety of information is shared on social media that is presented as fact—that is, information that has been proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet many of the so-called “facts” disseminated through social media either have not been proven true or contradict one another. One way that social media algorithms handle this is by showing users the headlines and topics they are most likely to be interested in, which usually means the ones they are most likely to agree with already. By “personalizing” our access to “facts” and feeding us information that confirms our pre-existing biases, setting us in echo chambers filled with people who believe the same things that we do, social media confirms what we already believe to be true. As Harris explains, what comes up when you Google “global warming” depends on your location: “that’s a function not of what the truth is, but of where you are Googling from.”

As Rashida Richardson explains, the design of social media means that “we simply are all working on a different set of facts.” Within the online world of social media, every person is living in their own reality, with their own facts, manipulated by the algorithms that are designed to optimize the profits of companies like Facebook and Twitter. Harris calls it “a disinformation business model.” The unfortunate reality is that disinformation, spreading whatever “facts” support what people want to believe, is more profitable than truth.

The result of every person on social media having their own “facts” is polarization. Justin Rosenstein describes it this way in The Social Dilemma: “And then you start looking at the other side. And you think, how could they be so stupid?” This is an accurate characterization of much of our social and political discourse, not just online but in real life as well. Everyone, convinced of the facts, opinions, and assumptions they hold that have been reinforced time and time again through their expertly manipulated social media feeds, cannot begin to conceive how anyone could believe differently. The most obvious conclusion is that anyone who disagrees is either dumb or evil. The Social Dilemma suggests that this polarization that begins online manifests in real life in violent conflict because people cannot agree on basic aspects of what is true. As Harris puts it, “if we don’t agree on what is true or that there is such a thing as truth, then we’re toast.”

Its presentation can be overdramatic, but the core message of The Social Dilemma comes through loud and clear: the very design behind social media is hurting us as individuals and as a society. Social media is addictive and manipulative, and it has more control over our actions and beliefs than we realize. The very mechanism that makes using social media feel rewarding is obscuring what is true and what is false. What do these revelations mean for Christians?

First, truth matters. When people have no consensus about what is true and what is real, polarization is inevitable. Polarization without reconciliation inevitably breeds hatred, which in turn leads to conflict and violence. It is not as if social media is creating these things—humans are capable of creating chaos on their own. However, by obscuring what is true and eroding the foundation of truth, social media has continued (and likely will continue) to accelerate the violent outcomes of polarization. As Christians, our response to the obscuring of truth should be to cling closely to, and proclaim loudly, the truth found in Christ that fights against all falsehood (John 14:6).

Second, we must recognize that social media is not neutral and has an insidious power over what we believe. Social media is not inherently worthy of our trust—as David Foster Wallace says in the movie The End of the Tour, we “sit alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.” Social media is designed to extract time and money from us, and the unanticipated cost might also be our beliefs. That is not to suggest that social media causes people to lose their faith, but it is to suggest that social media can have a significant influence on how people live out their faith. As Christians, we want to engage in activities that form in us Christ-like beliefs and habits: gathering with other believers, reading the Bible, praying, and serving others. Perhaps getting off social media should be added to that list.

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Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.