Watch The Social Dilemma to understand the big picture context for online hate

If you haven’t yet watched The Social Dilemma, do so. It says more about the state of the world we now live in — and what we need to do to fix it — than anything else I’ve read or seen in the past two years. 

One of the most damning aspects of the film is its large cast of smart, articulate and thoughtful senior Silicon Valley executives and engineers who participated in creating the algorithms that are now helping to destroy democracies, polarize populations and undermine mental health. They worked for Facebook and Twitter, Firefox and Mozilla, Google and Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

And their condemnation of the societal destruction being caused by the innovative technologies they worked on is pretty universal. Which is why some of them don’t let their kids anywhere near social media until they’re in their late teens. And even then…

The movie spends more time on what Tristan Harris, co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology describes as the “disinformation for profit business model” than it does on online hate. But given the role that social media companies play in facilitating pernicious and pervasive online abuse and protecting its perpetrators, The Social Dilemma is critical viewing. 

The monetization of our attention, says Harris, means “we’ve moved from a tools-based technology environment to an addiction and manipulation-based environment.”

Dr. Anna Lembke, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University unequivocally states: “Social media is a drug.” She describes human beings’ “basic biological imperative to connect with other people”, and explains that doing so “directly affects the release of dopamine and the reward pathways developed over millions of years of evolution.” 

Social media is programmed to optimize those connections and increase our engagement and dependence. 

To underline the point, the film features a quote from Edward Tufte, Yale Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Statistics, who noted “There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software.”

It’s an especially cruel irony that some of those who have become habituated to seeking social media dopamine hits are assaulted by vitriol, insults and hate speech that has the opposite impact, sending their stress hormone levels into overdrive instead.