The Hypocrisy of The Social Dilemma: Life in Today’s Media Matrix – A Commentary by Hans-Georg Moeller

The real dilemma at the heart of The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s docudrama about the social and psychological harm caused by the new media, was almost immediately noticed by many. Audience reviews on Google are replete with comments like this one from Janntui Maoa: “Netflix recommended me this movie! The whole movie was mostly about how AI misleads us through recommendations! Hahaha!”

The movie’s narrative, however, suggests that its title is supposed to refer to a different dilemma—an ethical one: The makers of the new media had only the best intentions; they wanted to connect people, promote democracy, educate the world. Unfortunately, something went wrong and we ended up with an evil monster that deceives us by spreading fake news, cheats us by stealing our personal data, and ruins our lives by turning us into addicts. Undoubtably, this moralistic tale of the badly disappointed hopes of human betterment through new technologies touches on very real issues. In doing so, however, it covers up an inbuilt irony: The tale is made, told, spread, and sold by the very same industry, with the very same means of communication, and for the very same economic purposes that it so forcefully chastises.

At the end of the movie a caption appears: “Follow us on Social Media!” only to be countered by: “Just kidding.” Whom are the makers of the movie kidding here? The humorous captions point to the paradoxical nature of the film: It is a commercial production vying for mass attention with the message that precisely such attention-grabbing by the media is bad for people. In fact, the filmmakers are lying: They are not kidding. The website of the movie comes with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram handles and sharing options, an email subscription offer —and a “code of ethics” absolving its creators and distributors from all sin regarding how they employ social media.

Contrary to what The Social Dilemma suggests, the real dilemma of the new media is not the simple moral mishap of good intentions ending up in bad results—a supposed fault the movie now sets out to correct. The real dilemma is instead performatively demonstrated by the movie: The new media have become a social reality that has no outside. Whatever you say against them has to be said through them, otherwise it cannot be heard. In effect, The Social Dilemma covers up this basic dilemma of today’s media rather than examining it. It only serves to solidify the commodified media matrix we all inhabit by dressing it up morally and selling it back in a cleansed version to its viewers: Make sure, the Netflix product implies, to follow our media ethics, and you can become a purified, responsible media user. One of the media self-improvement options advertised on the movie’s website is a “10-week digital wellness certificate program for health providers, educators, developers, and changemakers.” The online course is a mere $1499.00 and if you register today, the website says, you’ll even get 25% off!

The Social Dilemma addresses three major areas of concern about digital information technologies: fake news, mass surveillance, and user addiction. It resonates with widespread—and well justified—fears and apprehensions about, for instance, the mining of personal data, the influence of algorithms on what people do, and mental and social health problems triggered by the social media. These problems have enjoyed much attention in recent years, and the movie helps spreading awareness of them even further. This is useful, even if done in the manner of a mass-market production that condenses complex matters to alarming messages and paternalistic advice. The movie will make more people reflect on and check their media habits. Nevertheless, its self-contradictory nature so neatly summarized by Janntui Maoa, thoroughly undermines The Social Dillemma from beginning to end.

One theme is especially highlighted both in words and in images: manipulation. The movie includes a fictional story of a teenage boy being remotely controlled through his cell phone by a group of humans who embody a tech company. Both the film and its website show animations suggesting that the social media steer people like puppets. This imagery reflects a central tenet of the modern Western individualist ethos: Individuals are to be in full control of themselves, they are to be independent. The mass and social media, so we were once told, are to enhance our independence—they are tools to empower human agency. But, alas, they have been re-appropriated by evil forces for the opposite purpose! The Social Dilemma says to its viewers: Get rid of media manipulation—as if it wasn’t at the same time trying to attract as many of them as possible for commercial purposes and to sell them a message.

By interviewing some former programmers and managers turned conscientious objectors, The Social Dilemma perpetuates a naïve myth widely propagated since the early times of the new media: Social media, if only handled properly, can reveal the “truth” by democratizing the production of information. We hear former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris say: “If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there is such a thing as truth, we are toast … then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.” As a matter of fact, however, this statement is blatantly untrue. There has never been unanimous consensus on what is true, not even in science, and yet society is constantly dealing with problems in one way or another. The media, in particular, cannot bring about such consensus, especially not if it allows a lot of people to share their views.

All communicated information is necessarily selected and incomplete. Information is shared for a purpose and in contexts. Yes, some news is clearly fake, but that doesn’t make all other news simply and wholly true. Truth as it appears in the media is always partial—in the double sense of incomplete and perspectival. Media literacy does not consist in sorting out that which everyone agrees to be true—there is no such thing—but in being able to critically question various truth claims and to understand why they say what they say and to whom. The Social Dilemma does little to promote such media literacy by implying that the media can be freed from manipulation. The reality of the media, including the reality of Netflix, is that they all “manipulate,” in the sense of being produced by someone for an audience and with certain means and aims. The point is being able to reflect on the partial nature of all media communication rather than falsely portraying manipulation as an unethical practice that morally good media companies and their morally good media consumers will be able to avoid.

The Social Dilemma is hypocritical because it manipulates while presenting itself as combatting manipulation, because it sells remedies against the excesses of capitalism for a good price, and because it is promoted as a “must watch” movie that helps people to shed their viewing compulsion. All these hypocrisies are grounded in the self-referential structure of the media: this pervasive communication network that we all inhabit and reproduce with every movie we watch, every picture we post, and every text we read—including this one. The former media professionals and famous media critics featured in The Social Dilemma speak at times as if they were saviors from above, leading us out of the media abyss. The irony is that they all owe their status as authorities, their license to lecture us, entirely to the very media who present them to us as such.

In today’s reality, we know what and who matters, and how and why, through the media. About 2500 years ago, Confucius said: “In my dealings with others, on hearing what they have to say, I then watch what they do.” Today, however, we must deal with so many people who are not right here with us and with so many issues we cannot personally watch. Therefore, Confucius’ motto needs an update: “On hearing what they have to say, I then watch what others have to say about it.” In the modern world, our reality is perceived by means of what the social theorist Niklas Luhmann called “second-order observation.” We know about everything, from global warming to the corona virus, from Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter, by what is being said in the media. In fact, we know a good deal about our closest friends through interacting with them on social media as well. We see them there in the way they observe and then show themselves. In almost all areas of our life experience, from politics to the economy to our personal relationships, we have learnt to understand reality in terms of how it is being observed and presented in public.

Hans-Georg Moeller is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Macau, China. He is concerned with social and existential questions against the background of Daoist philosophy and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society. He is author of You and Your Profile: Identity after Authenticity (forthcoming) and Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi (both with Paul D’Ambrosio), The Radical Luhmann, The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality (all Columbia University Press) and In der Mitte des Kreises: Daoistisches Denken (Suhrkamp/Insel). See also his interview with Kerry Brown on this website: “Here’s Hoping”.

When choosing a restaurant, when buying something on Amazon, or when deciding which movie to watch, we typically operate in the mode of second-order observation—we watch what others have to say about it, for instance on Yelp, in the Amazon review section, or on IMDb. A main effect of the media today is to enable everyone to see the world in terms of how it is seen by others. The Social Dilemma operates in the exact same format: It presents us the world of the media as seen by others.

Importantly, in the mediated world of second-order observation where reality is not merely seen, but always simultaneously seen as being seen, personal reality is shaped in the same way. When we want to see who we are, we need to see how we are being seen. For this, the old-fashioned mirror is no longer sufficient. There we only see how we look to our own eyes. In the social media, however, we can try to see how we look in the eyes of others. We see which posts and pictures they like best, and how they react to our self-presentations. With the help of the media, we shape images of ourselves and, via second-observation, via seeing how these images are being seen, we shape personal identity—or, more precisely, personal identities, because the media offer us possibilities to shape various identities in different social contexts and on different platforms. The media enable us to effectively build and curate profiles. Identity today is formed in profiles, and the media are the public space where profiles flourish.

The Social Dilemma touches only very briefly on the core function of the media today: the formation of identity. Tristan Harris, the ethicist, is heard saying somewhat disapprovingly that social media “takes over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity.” He continues: “We were not evolved having social approval being dosed to us every five minutes. That was not at all what we were built to experience.” The former Google employee’s assumption that humans were somehow built for a certain purpose, such as computers are programmed, is as dubious as the implication that when kids strive for social approval from physically present peers then this is more benign and healthier than striving for approval online. He should read The Lord of the Flies. Getting social approval and achieving identity has always been difficult and challenging, for kids as much as for grown-ups. Having to curate one’s profiles and seeking them to be validated can be very stressful, also for adults. And it is precisely such profile building and social validation seeking that Tristan Harris is involved in, too, knowingly or not, when he appears as a “star” in a high-profile Netflix film.

The new media are called the web for a reason—for the very same reason that social media are called social networks. Everything and everyone in them is connected with other things and other people. There is no “independence” in a web or a network. In these webs and nets, identity emerges in validation feedback loops. We have no choice in today’s world but to join in and display ourselves—just as Tristan Harris does in his Netflix appearance. Old liberation myths about human independence, freedom from “manipulation, or finding the truth everyone agrees on are no longer convincing descriptions of the virtual world of second-order observation that is now ours. Such tales may well help raise the profile of an individual like Tristan Harris or a company like Netflix. They do not contribute much, however, to better understanding the pressures of “profilicity”—the new form of profile-oriented identity that characterizes life in contemporary society.

It is certainly more important than ever to manage one’s exposure to media well and to be aware of the commodification of identity, but this is not likely to be achieved by watching a Netflix movie or by enrolling in a $1499,00 10-week digital wellness certificate program. We need to sharpen our critical sense for the paradoxes and contradictions of the media and the life-world they constitute. Like Janntui Maoa we can become aware of the ironies of the media spectacle in which we are deeply involved. Awareness of such ironies, and how they apply not only to the “truths” presented to us, but also to profiles we curate of ourselves, is a first step to coping productively with the real social dilemma we find ourselves in—the self-referential world of the media reality that has no outside.