The Social Dilemma renews scrutiny on big tech; renews calls for action

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Instagram’s parent company Facebook is one of the main targets of the documentary highlighting the dangers social media can have on mental health and the spread of fake news.

$70,697,000,000: the amount of revenue Facebook generated in 2019 according to their annual fiscal report. The Social Dilemma, a new Netflix documentary, targets social media companies such as Facebook and other tech giants such as Google over bold claims that these companies are responsible for prioritizing profit over the well-being and safety of their users and are responsible for the massive spread of misinformation on social media.

The documentary digs deeper into the business models of tech companies and makes the case for the regulation of social media. One of their main arguments suggests that the business models of big tech companies are reliant on a product made to hook people into it for hours on end, comparable to a social media addiction, for the sole purpose of bringing in ad revenue for the parent company.

Concerns over an addictive business model translates to a worry over the way people are influenced by social media, and the impact it has on people’s self-esteem and mental health. One specific example from the documentary highlights a news report covering a growing concern of what some plastic surgeons deemed as “Snapchat dysmorphia,” where patients were seeking surgery to appear closer to what they look like in some of Snapchat’s filtered selfies.

Discussions over the impact social media has on mental health are far from new.
Psychology Today published an article earlier this year highlighting some of the concerns of social media use on mental health. “Research indicates that some social media users may wrongfully conclude that others are leading much more fulfilling, exciting and happier lives,” Dr Rob Whitley said.

The worries don’t end there. The documentary claims that big tech’s business model is also responsible for the direct spread of fake news across social media, fueling political crises and aggravating hatred and division. On one part, social media companies are heavily reliant on advertiser revenue. The way to maximize advertiser revenue is by keeping users engaged as long as possible. One of the ways they achieve this is to personalize content to each individual user based on where someone lives and based on those individual’s interests.

When you go to Google and type in ‘climate change is,’ you’re going to see different results depending on where you live, and the particular things that Google knows about your interests. That’s not by accident, that’s a design technique,”

— Justin Rosenstein

An example of this in action is featured in the documentary’s trailer. “When you go to Google and type in ‘climate change is,’ you’re going to see different results depending on where you live, and the particular things that Google knows about your interests. That’s not by accident, that’s a design technique,” according to Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana.

So what’s the solution? The documentary suggests government oversight on tech companies. Several proposals were made, from financial incentives to adjust their business models and tax data collection, to laws on digital privacy and ensuring these companies don’t hold a monopoly on the industry. In fact, the US government has already been eyeing anti-trust probes on Facebook and Google, as well as Amazon and Apple, over alleged anticompetitive practices that stifled and eliminated competition.

On Oct. 20, the Justice Department filed an anti-trust case against Google, saying that “Google has used anti competitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising,” according to their complaint per the New York Times.

As big tech companies already see scrutiny ahead, it seems like it is a question of when, rather than if, big tech will see the reform it so desperately needs.