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Associate professor examines harsh, dangerous realities of social media explored in Netflix's The Social Dilemma

Associate professor examines harsh, dangerous realities of social media explored in Netflix's The Social Dilemma

January 7, 2021 at 2:00pm

When was the last time you checked social media? A few days ago? Last night? Just before clicking on this article?

If you find yourself unable to go more than a few hours without scrolling through Facebook, that's not entirely surprising. According to the Netflix documentary "The Social Dilemma," by Jeff Orlowski, social media's design is meant to foster and nurture an addiction in its users.

richards.jpgAllan Richards, a professional journalist and associate professor from FIU's Department of Journalism + Media sheds light on some of the harsh and dangerous realities explored in "The Social Dilemma" and what they could mean for the future of communication and the media.

One of these harsh realities is that the privacy breaches and addictive designs found on social media platforms are actually features, not bugs, according to the film. But why? What do tech giants like Facebook or Google gain from our addiction to scrolling?

"The name of the game when creating an algorithm is to get you to stay on a site longer because the longer you stay, the more ads you will see and the more likely you are to purchase something, which in turn, increases these companies' revenues," Richards says.

In 2019, Google reported total revenue of $162 billion. More than 75 percent of this total revenue came from advertising alone. Similarly, 98.5 percent of Facebook's $69 billion total revenue in 2019, also came from its advertising revenue.

"The Social Dilemma" also explores the role social media plays in spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation, which Richards attributes to a lack of monitoring and regulation on social media, unlike traditional media outlets.

The debunked PizzaGate conspiracy theory, for example—which first arose during the 2016 presidential election and proposed that Hillary Clinton and democratic elites were running a child sex-trafficking ring outside of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.—resurfaced last summer on TikTok and brought Justin Bieber along with it.

During a live video Bieber hosted on Instagram, one user commented for him to touch his beanie if he had been a victim of PizzaGate. So, when Bieber did end up adjusting his hat during the live stream, millions of viewers took that as a signal and quickly flooded TikTok with videos analyzing Bieber's actions.


The resurfaced conspiracy theory also found its way to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Richards says the problem is people see information like this being widely shared online and take it as fact without verifying it for accuracy.

Often times, social media platforms will flag posts like these but do not remove them from the site and still allow users to view them.

"Flagging is not enough," he adds. "Once something is out there, by the time fact-checkers go to take a look at it and think about whether it violates the site's policies, it has already been seen by millions of people and this false information can be damaging."

Richards also explores how widespread misinformation on social media and the lack of regulation have made jobs for communicators much harder.

Traditionally, a journalist or communicator's role was to filter information to the public via the media. Social media, however, had led to a loss of this gatekeeping.

Since social media essentially gave everyone a voice, how do we know if what we are reading online is factual? And how do we know who to trust?

Richards says it is now up to us to cut through all the noise and answer these questions for ourselves to discern fact from fiction.

"Due to the digital age, we all have to become more media and news literate and find out who we trust," he adds. "I always advise my students to ask themselves if the site they are getting their information from is socially responsible and credible. At the end of the day, the responsibility of where get our information is on us."

In an effort to help "digital natives" (those born during the social media era) understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives, Richards assigned his students to watch the Netflix documentary, which many then described as "scary" and "manipulative."

He also had his students complete a three-part project, where they researched whether "The Social Dilemma" tech giants were regulated and/or followed a code of ethics. The students then developed their own regulations to help social media platforms "get their acts together."

"My goal with this project was to show my students another side to social media aside from the standard use of connecting with others and sharing photos," he says. "It is important for all of us to know this because if we continue down this path where everyone has a voice, there are no gatekeepers… and we don't know what information is really real, that is destructive for our society and potentially for our democracy."