Individual behavior predicted by computer algorithms, social discord, and the demise of modern democracy are how The Social Dilemma, a documentary produced by Netflix, presents the ways in which our lives have become dominated by social media. The documentary paints a particularly dismal picture in which we are living in “the age of disinformation” while our behaviors and interests are predicted by out-of-control social media algorithms. The world is depicted as deeply politically polarized as society grapples with the problems of disinformation and echo chambers. The Social Dilemma depicts legitimate consequences of social media but falls short in presenting an accurate and nuanced understanding of these issues. The big question is, to what extent does social media play into these outcomes?
Dr. Michael Hameleers, an assistant professor of Political Communication and Journalism at the University of Amsterdam and an expert in disinformation, offers a more nuanced understanding of social media and its consequences.
Reality or exaggerated reality?
The titular ‘dilemma’ suggested by the documentary, according to Dr. Hameleers, is, “not really a dilemma” in the traditional sense, “but more of a one-sided [argument] that the world is going to end because of platforms and social media”. In fact, the world has seen disinformation and propaganda campaigns since the past, but “because of some of the affordances of social media, some of these challenges have become… more visible.” While the prevalence of social media has brought along negative consequences, Dr. Hameleers points out that social media and more broadly, the internet, have been beneficial in promoting investigative journalism platforms and discussions among citizens.
Ultimately, social media users are not as uncritically passive to information they encounter.
The Social Dilemma paints a shallow view of the relationship between social media users and platforms. The documentary depicts a relationship in which social media platforms provide information that users blindly consume. They simulate that users just consume the information that is presented to them and are non-critical and lack agency. However, Dr. Hameleers explains that in the documentary, “they don’t really pay attention to the receiver’s side… [people] are also critical.” Ultimately, social media users are not as uncritically passive to information they encounter; even though, “some people may be less critical than others and may be more likely to believe what confirms their gut feeling,” they do not only “reassure their own reality on social media.”
Rashida Richardson of the NYU School of Law/AI Now Institute expresses during the documentary that: “We are all operating on a different set of facts. When that happens at scale you’re no longer able to reckon with or even consume information that contradicts with that world view you’ve created.” The phenomenon that she refers to is an echo chamber, which according to Dr. Hameleers has been studied in communication science literature for about the past 100 years. While he acknowledges that social media may amplify bias in selecting information that constructs a specific reality, he argues that people do not live in separate realities based on different truths; “It [social media] may stimulate this process that people can select their own reality, but people are still critical to some extent.”
Real-life consequences of disinformation
Though social media users tend to consume a more diverse media diet with different perspectives—even if it’s slightly skewed to one side—Dr. Hameleers expresses concern over the current state of disinformation: “I think disinformation has real life consequences. Even if we take into account 90% of people may never hold these beliefs, the 10% that holds them and maybe 1% of them that actually acts upon them is quite dangerous as you do see it can have offline consequences.” While disinformation is not far-reaching, it still creates the potential to sow societal discord on a larger scale.
Even though most people will not only exclusively see fake news online, research suggests that people are generally unable to differentiate between quality journalism and disinformation. Dr. Hameleers has found this in his own research: “If you simply get a real news article in an experiment and put it alongside a disinformation article, the credibility scores do not differ that much between those categories… You especially see that when false content realigns or aligns with people’s prior views or political ideologies you indeed see it’s more convincing.”
Social media alone […] does not cause polarization.
The documentary cites research from the Pew Center that political polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is at a 20-year high and implies that social media use has contributed to this observed polarization. Dr. Hameleers clarifies that this relationship between political polarization and social media use cannot be classified as causal: “I think that we cannot really only attribute it to the cause of social media because people, their perceptions, have also become more extreme and I don’t know if it’s entirely because of social media, but also maybe due to shifts in the political landscape, economy, there are many different factors that may also play a role in that.” Social media, among many other different societal forces, has contributed to this increase in polarization, but social media alone, according to communication science experts, does not cause polarization.
Optimism for the future
While the presence, even if it is small, of disinformation and echo chambers on social media poses a legitimate threat to the well-being of democracy, Dr. Hameleers holds a rather optimistic viewpoint that interventions such as fact-checking and media literacy training can mitigate the negative consequences of social media. Research has suggested that fact-checking is an effective way to stop the spread of disinformation but it “sometimes comes after the harm is done so it already might have cultivated misperceptions” because not everyone who is exposed to disinformation is also exposed to corrections. In addition to fact-checking, more structural interventions such as media-literacy training are necessary so that people can learn how to identify disinformation.
Interventions must be expanded and tailored to the needs of different demographics.
While Dr. Hameleers is optimistic in current empirically-supported interventions against disinformation, he points out that interventions must be expanded and tailored to the needs of different demographics because research assumes that, “everyone would accept fact-checkers and would accept these media literacy trainings,” even though these may not be appropriate for those that are most vulnerable to disinformation.
More long-term solutions such as promoting quality journalism and teaching media literacy in schools may be most effective in preventing the spread of disinformation.
While the legitimate threats of social media are still very much present, the public is attuned to these threats.
Although The Social Dilemma depicts social media as a sphere of disinformation, many users in real life seem to trust social media less than legacy media such as television news. Research from 2018 by the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that only 24% of people surveyed in the UK trusted social media to get news while 61% trusted legacy media for getting news. These sentiments have been echoed throughout the coronavirus pandemic, according to Dr. Hameleers, with a substantial number of people that “trust TV news… as their most trusted source.” So while the legitimate threats of social media are still very much present, the public is attuned to these threats.
Overall, when asked about combating the threat of disinformation on social media, Dr. Hameleers says that, “it’s not just that social media operates in a vacuum and it’s all threatening us and there’s no other supply of information anymore because there is, and people still trust that. So I’m optimistic.”
Cover: Camilo Jimenez