Around 2017, he says, he started becoming alarmed about “manipulative design techniques” employed by social media companies, and with his documentary collaborators he set out to illustrate the ways social media platforms have harmed society. “We just knew there was something really important here,” Orlowski explained during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event.
The Social Dilemma zeroes in on the algorithms created by Facebook, Google, Twitter and other such companies, which push content at users to keep them glued to their platforms. One effective way to engage people, these companies discovered, is to feed users a diet of conspiracy theories, misinformation and other material that stokes outrage. It’s good for the platforms, because the more people they reach and retain, the more ads they can sell, but the effects have been demonstrably bad for democracy, social relations and even mental health of users.
“They figured out how to reverse engineer each and every one of us,” Orlowski said. “They did that really, really well and it’s been extremely profitable for them. … It turns out that those things, those rabbit holes that we end up falling into, can often be polarizing.”
No two people are being fed the same stories and content. The algorithms customize an individual’s feed based on previous searches, “likes,” content engagement, etc. Social media users can become mired in a feedback loop of material that reinforces their preconceived ideas or exposes them to more radical content.
“Our information ecosystem is not only polluted in some way, shape or form but is also distinct and different for every single person,” said producer Larissa Rhodes. She cited the example of entering the search term “climate change,” which produces different results for different people, and also varies depending on where the search is being executed.
“Performing that search you see in Denmark it’s ‘A wicked problem,’ in China ‘It’s real,’ in Texas ‘It’s a hoax,’” Rhodes said. “I think that really helps us understand and empathize with where our society is at, recognizing that everybody is seeing a different set of information.”
False claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election spread across social media platforms, and arguably contributed to radicalizing the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, threatening the very foundation of American democracy. Facebook and Twitter have taken some steps to remove misinformation on their platforms, but for the most part they have clung to the stance that they are not responsible for content they disseminate.
Orlowski was asked what he would say to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if he could interview him. He pondered for a while, then answered, “I guess, in its simplest form, if he still thinks it’s all worth it…Is he still convinced himself that this Frankenstein’s monster is still something that he loves and admires?”
Check out the panel video above.