Where’s the dilemma? Social Media is good for society

Fernando Polo

24 November 2020

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I admit, I watched Netflix’s ‘The social dilemma’ (TSD) as a tactic to write an informed rant against it. My apologies, but for those of us who have been working in digital and social long enough, are well versed in the case against social networks. Though biased and partial, the documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski is a “necessary warning”. Yes, technology is evolving exponentially and tech giants are becoming scarily powerful. A movie like ‘TSD’ is useful to surface the debate, warn our kids and of course, to rethink and fine tune digital tools. Yet, at its core underlies a biased and gloomy perspective, where benefits are buried and devil’s advocates aren’t far from invited to defend the cause.

My brother and I wrote a pamphlet back in 2012. It took the form of a book (that sold thousands of copies) about social media marketing. We too were biased, yet optimistic. We used the data we had at hand to promote two basic ideas: social media was a good development for our society and organisations had to use it if they wanted to better understand their customers and connect with their communities. We were strongly convinced that social media allowed people to access knowledge while connecting to kindred spirits.

Much has happened since #Socialholic saw the light: Brexit, Trump, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg depicted as a ‘Dr. No’,  disrupting the happiness and social flow of the world. Now I am no Mr. Zuckerberg, but I did however co-found in 2001 a software company that analysed what people were saying online. I’ve devoted most of my professional life to the idea of a web 2.0, believing that this second version – focused on connecting people and building communities, not just corporate webpages or eCommerce sites- was one of the greatest inventions of our times.

And I still believe it. 

I know it may seem a mammoth task for web 2.0 pioneers to continuously defend the current state of affairs; many have even turned their backs to the original notion. But they’re wrong. Those ideals have now become true and as usual, reality is not as perfect those first visions happily fantasised about on our blogs. But the benefits are there, much less visible in part because we adore drama and love to raise flags instead of keeping on celebrating amazing inventions like Wikipedia or instant messenger apps, that everybody now takes for granted.

At Good Rebels, myself and a bunch of great professionals and colleagues that I admire, keep on working tirelessly in this realm to do good, do good by convincing and helping our clients to make things right. Thus, watching a document like The Social Dilemma is disheartening. All those partisan documentaries on Netflix leave the hopeless taste that things are going terribly wrong in the world. Yes, things can always be improved but the positives of social media far outweigh the negatives. Let’s see why.

Are Artificial Intelligence and advertising really controlling our minds?

The main narrative of ‘TSD’ is that platforms like YouTube and Facebook use artificial intelligence algorithms to feed us content we compulsively click on based on previous behaviour. The only way to increase their revenues is to keep us connected to our screens. The advertising model creates an incentive to engineer “social addiction”. 

Curiously, Netflix, the streaming service behind the Social Dilemma uses AI to recommend us content and promote binge watching even if they don’t have (for now…) an advertising model. 

If we look at the history of TV and other advertising based media we might find a similar pattern without any trace of AI: producing “addictive” content (audience is king) to make us stick to our TV sets and serve up as many ads as possible. 

It feels like the economy of attention puts pressure on all kinds of media in spite of their business models (note: with or without AI).

But what if we stuck to our screens without hurting anyone? Is there anything wrong with that? The idea that AI combined with advertising is harmful to society, may be linked to the fact that algorithms continue to propose content surrounding conspiracy theories; after just paying them even the slightest bit of attention. This generates echo chambers, media spaces in which one’s beliefs are reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal, and that generate confirmation bias.

But again, WhatsApp is the number one tool to pass along fake news in echo chambers with the peculiarity that there’s no evil AI master feeding us content. We do it all by our lovely selves. It’s us who decide the groups we join and the content we pass along.

So, are Facebook or YouTube responsible for all this polarisation we live and breathe?

Half truths are polarising

Are social networks dividing the world? How do we measure polarisation? Brexit: Remain vs Leave; Republicans vs Democrats; climate change: real or bogus? A mix of fake news, political propaganda and echo chambers could be widening our political divides. But here’s the question, is social media a medium to express these polarised views, or is it the actual cause? Is it Trump or Twitter? And if Martin Luther used the printing press to create a huge religious fracture throughout Europe with his 95 theses, is the printing press to be blamed?

Research published in June 2020 shows that affective polarisation – the extent to which citizens feel more negatively toward other political parties than toward their own- has increased in the last 40 years in countries like the USA and Canada, but has remained stable or even decreased in others like Australia or Germany. The authors point to some of the reasons why polarisation might rise in some countries, finding it difficult to blame the Internet if its penetration has progressed more or less at the same pace in all countries.

captura de pantalla 2020 11 24 a las 17 59 04Is the Internet making us dumber?

The ‘elite’ have manipulated people since the beginning of time, using all the means at their reach. We are the most educated generation of our entire history and we know that education is the best way to increase our critical thinking skills. Literacy is at an all time high. Do we seriously believe there are more stupid citizens populating the world today than there were 50 years ago?

Technological advancements to create and distribute human thinking like the printing press freed the people from the intellectual control of the elites. The Age of Enlightenment is the palpable demonstration. Why should it be different this time? Yet, there are some neo-luddites convinced that we are becoming digital cretins (dumbasses, in French). The fact that academia doesn’t give much credit to Desmurget’s thesis but nonetheless gathers lots of media coverage illustrates once again the incentive that media outlets have to use alarm (and clickbaiting) to increase traffic, without the need of AI.

The Flynn Effect or the fact that IQ measurements increased over the past century has been explained using environmental, non-genetic reasons like nutrition, improved education and health issues (like the quality of the air). The fact that IQ measurements have shown slight decreases as of late in some countries could be explained because our youth read fewer books and their screen time skyrockets. But the decreases are so small that if our intelligence is finally weaker than in recent decades it will take time to understand the real causes. Many would suggest that IQ is an outdated metric for the XXI st century and that people become more intelligent playing video games. Others will say, who cares if in the end human intelligence will blend with artificial intelligence, shifting to a new paradigm. 

In any case, I’m convinced that not reading books, watching junk TV instead and following celebrities on Instagram could make us dumber. But I am a humanist and a natural optimist. Whan I listened to those who gave some credit about the first episode in the third series of Black Mirror, I thought: do they really believe humans are so stupid as to let a popularity algorithm rule their lives? Really? I cannot help but think that believing something like this is more discouraging than a potential AI holocaust itself.

Macro data trends show that the Human Kind is performing better as the years go by: less war, less crime, less child mortality… and so on.. I am convinced that our critical thinking, surely, cannot be worsened by tools that are aimed at increasing access to information. And I also believe that no coalition of ‘Dr. Nos’ are capable of spoiling the Internet. If properly used, these tools help us increase our critical thinking capability.

mark zuckerberg sam feature 1523477562Yin and Yang: the good and the bad 

I’m not a huge fan of advertising. Bad adverts and intrusive online ads are irritating. Being an engineer, I was educated in the belief that all marketers are liars 🙂 But I’m a huge fan of the Internet and the nice inventions that many clever people (including some of the stars of The Social Dilemma) have created “for free”. For free? I’m delighted to use Google Maps or YouTube even though I know that I am the product. It’s not that I wouldn’t pay for many of them. What I’m saying is that without the advertising business model, many of these great digital services we use today, without thought, wouldn’t have come to happen. Without advertising revenues, the Google search engine would not have survived. You need a critical mass of users to develop and refine (have you heard of the lean startup?). If you start by charging a fee, you would end up without users, data and the momentum you need to stick out. Freemium is the natural business model for many apps to exist.

So, yes… advertising might stink (not always) but it has also been the lifeline for many services like Gmail and Twitter. Kudos to that.

At Good Rebels, we firmly believe that the Internet and social media provide people with weapons of mass construction. Yes, it’s now easier than ever to create and circulate fake news, and conspiracy theories are increasingly at hand. But the success of a crusade like Greta Thungberg’s owes much credit to social media. Awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis was raised in the Facebook era, as did running and the practice of other sports once people realised the awesome health benefits of exercising.

Do we need a shared reality?

In an interview with Sam Harris, Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and the star of ‘TSD’, blames AI and the big tech for feeding us conspiracy theories, bringing to the table the idea of recovering a “shared reality”. I was truly shocked. To me, the invention of the social Internet: online forums, IRC, blogs… embeds the miracle of connecting with diverse people around the globe to form our own alliances and pursue our niche interests, instead of being forced to watch the same ridiculous quiz shows on TV over and over again.

And who’s going to decide what our shared reality is? Our politicians? Supreme editors in chief serving some other elite? Will Sam Harris podcast be part of that shared reality?

The filter bubble (recommendation engines as a cause for narrower points of view) has been in fact contested by academic research. And Pew Internet Research published recently that 23% of Americans have changed their opinion about some political issue when exposed to a different point of view on social media. I am not saying that research clearly shows that the use of social networks widens our political horizons. What I’m getting at is that everybody takes ideas like the echo chambers and the filter bubble for granted, but not enough data has been gathered to clearly sustain one or the other statement. I know I cannot judge from my personal experience, but I’ll keep on listening to Sam Harris and Joe Rogan podcasts (amongst others) to keep on building an enriched point of view of reality.

socialdilemmaHow do we fix all this?

Ok. Let’s admit that the social ecosystem needs some fixing. The first three points I suggest below are not even mentioned in ‘TSD’. And this is the course of action to improve the current state of affairs:

  • Let’s promote shared ownership of data. We should own a big portion of the data we generate. And we could let companies or governments use it as we decide. Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project addresses this issue but they’re tackling a truly wicked problem and many think it won’t happen. But if the EU has been able to force banks to let users have access and share financial data with other players, why would they not be able to force Amazon to give us control of our purchase history or press Spotify to let us manage our playlists as we want, including bring all this data with us if we decide to change providers.
  • More competition? In 1970, IBM was blamed for their predominant position in the mainframe technology and something similar happened with Microsoft in the nineties. And those problems weren’t solved by breaking up these companies. Backtrack five years, Tik Tok and Shopify weren’t the giants they are now, posing real threats to Facebook or Amazon. In any case, it’s widely accepted that having more competition improves consumer welfare. But breaking up natural monopolies is a tricky thing to do. Even so, political pressure on tech companies is rising. Antitrust laws might be enforced in the coming years. That said, the previous point would help solve the second one. New entrants have nearly impossible access to users and data to develop AI algorithms that can compete with tech titans’. Or get a grip of complicated data to build like social graphs.  
  • The future of content moderation is here (and we’ll see more of it). The pressure of citizens, politicians, marketers and tech activists is pushing tech companies to invest and introduce controversial features like content labeling. Should private social platforms be the ultimate moderators of free speech: Trump allegations of fraud, homeopathy, anti-vax groups, flat earthers, …? I don’t think so. But they are the starting point. The right combination of AI, human moderators and the action of justice (updated for a faster response) should be enough to reduce the visibility of unscientific points of view, suppress lies and of course, criminal behaviours (that can vary from country to country).
  • Increase control over kids access to social media. Though I joke about the nonesense of Black Mirror popularity algorithm, I may agree with Jonathan Haidt as he tries to gather evidence that teen and pre-teen suicide might be linked to the use of social media. A child brain is a work in progress. And we must get serious about it. Society at large -legislators, schools, tech companies, parents- is responsible for this. They’ve told us many times that prominent tech figures don’t let their children own smartphones -a nice headline but a grossly inaccurate statement- but this cannot be the path. My wife and I let our daughters have phones and use social media (from 14 years on) but we impose restrictions and introduce some common sense to guide them and make them understand the risks. Life goes on without them!

Marketers, watch out!

However creepy it might feel, I am happy to be served targeted ads that fit me better than boring and misled commercial spots that cut everybody’s movie in a hugely inefficient advertising break.

Rebel Thinking is a place to reflect on how companies face the digital era. Human-centred organisations cannot bury their heads in the sand about important social issues like this one. The moment advertisers froze Facebook ad spending because of their inability to tackle hate speech, they were playing a political game. And this is how it should be. Marketers and consumers should exert their power to shape and improve digital tools. My rant against a pamphlet like The Social Dilemma doesn’t mean I support an open bar for tech companies. The professionals working in digital (and who doesn’t nowadays) are in charge of the promise of a better Internet. 

Towards the end of the movie, someone in The Social Dilemma states that, in the hands of a tyrant, Facebook is the best ever tool to control the people. I was born in Spain under a state TV ruled by Franco. Without any doubt TV was the best media weapon in the hands of a dictator. Nobody could broadcast to the masses apart from the Government. 

In fact, the opposite rings true: like rolls written on papyrus, like the printing press, … technologies that allow the mass distribution of knowledge will always be blamed and our elites will always try to burn the books that don’t fit. It happened with the Romans, with the Nazis or with many religious groups over the years. We’ll always be tempted to ban Mein Kampf or unscientific ads about homeopathy, forgetting that the positives of freedom of expression outweigh the negatives. That yin and yang come together. 

The printing press was a good invention for society. And so is social media, even if the ‘Dr. Nos’ of the world get rich while we press and vote to regulate them and learn how to make the best use of digital tools.



(Thanks to Jaime Cuesta, Alberto G. Aparicio, Dioni Nespral, Kevin Sigliano, Ananda De Carlos, Fernando Egido, Antonio España, Álvaro Urdiales and Kerstin Laube for allowing me to think with them).