Local filmmaker puts a spotlight on the negative impacts of social media use
By Christine Mahoney
Jeff Orlowski’s not asking you to stop using your social media accounts (although he has). He’s simply asking you to think about the business model used by big tech companies, then decide if you want to be a pawn in a model that manipulates your spending habits, your behavior and your very thoughts.
Orlowski, of Boulder’s Exposure Labs (the brains behind award-winning documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral”), is the director of the 2020 docu-drama “The Social Dilemma”—a wake-up call aimed at everyone who uses social media. With the pandemic keeping people at home where they spend more time online, he’s been able to reach a huge audience at a zeitgeist of increased cultural polarization and isolation.
The two-and-a-half-year-long project lays bare the criticism put forth by tech giants such as Tristan Harris, formerly of Google. Orlowski knew Harris from Stanford, and ironically first saw Harris’ critique of social media on Facebook. Orlowski became alarmed as more and more tech friends posted, saying they wouldn’t allow their own kids to use the platform (or any other social media sites or apps).
The film stresses that if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product. It outlines how social platforms use techniques like push notifications and endless scroll to ensure users stay engaged. Advertising on social channels offers anyone the opportunity to put their messaging in front of huge numbers of users—allowing these advertisers to generate unrest and political and social divisions. The movie also indicates that platform algorithms promote content that “sparks outrage and hate and amplifies biases,” based on the data gathered from users.
Orlowski says the overwhelming reaction to the film has confirmed the original thesis he set out to share. “This business model is a consistent background to all of these different problems that we’re seeing in society,” he says. Orlowski attributes an invisible shift happening in our society and culture to social media overuse. Social media users can be at risk of losing the ability to deal with reality through reflection, activities and relationships. Instead, they turn to social media for distraction from emotions.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Orlowski takes the issue as seriously as he does climate change. “Ultimately, this business model that drives our social media search engines is as unethical as burning fossil fuels. If left unregulated, it will only continue to grow and cause greater harm to society.”
What can we do to protect ourselves? Orlowski says ditch social media, or at least be more intentional about your usage. He now goes directly to media sources for news, and tries harder to diversify his sources. He keeps in touch with loved ones through text, email or old-fashioned phone calls. Aside from these personal choices, he sees future regulation of the industry as a solution.
Want to explore your own social media habits? There are resources at thesocialdilemma.com to help you continue on your journey of educating yourself, and possibly weaning yourself off of social media altogether.