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Laramie Movie Scope: The Social Dilemma

Dire warnings about the dangers of social networks

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 21, 2020 – I knew social networks were bad, which is why I don't use them, but this new docudrama argues they are even worse than I thought they were, and you have now idea how bad that is.

I decided long ago to avoid social networks because their business model is to gather all of your personal information and sell it to the highest bidder, and I like my privacy, what little I have left over after Google and YouTube take their share. I also don't like the fact that Facebook is not an open source, open network, but a closed, anti-internet kind of system. In addition, Russians and other foreign and domestic bad actors spread divisive rumors on these networks.

But lately, I've noticed other ominous signs from friends and relatives who use Facebook. Liberals have repeated Russian political talking points to me and conservatives believe baseless conspiracy theories. The latest one is the rumor (masquerading as “news”) that Antifa set wildfires in Oregon. Even Fox News debunked that rumor! I had a hard time tracking down the source of this rumor, since it is not supported by legitimate news sources, but I did find it at the RT news site (RT is a Russian news agency).

As a journalist, my experience has been that debunking rumors like this is about the least rewarding thing you can do. It takes a lot of work and the true believers won't believe you anyway. It feels like a complete waste of time. These days, thanks to social media and hopelessly slanted news sources like RT, Epoch News, the Washington Times and others, fact-checking sites like Snopes, Truth or Fiction, Factcheck.org, Polygraph, Politifact and Fact Checker are overwhelmed. They are too few, trying to hold back the tide against billions of messages containing political misinformation.

The reason that fact-checkers are so ineffective against conspiracy theories like QAnon, the anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, anti-GMOers, 911 Truthers etc. is due in part to the divisive, insular, coercive nature of social media, according to the movie “The Social Dilemma.”

According to the movie, which is a combination of interviews with Tech insiders and dramatizations, social media uses psychology and artificial intelligence in algorithms (a sequence computer instructions designed achieve a defined goal) to seduce its users into becoming products for social media's clients. Using these algorithms, social media companies not only target users with advertising, but they can manipulate the beliefs and behavior of the users, turning them into products.

According to the movie these social media enhancing algorithms have gotten out of control. Even the people who created these algorithms don't really understand them, and they certainly cannot control them.

People are being used and manipulated by software and friends in this way, but are unaware of it. In my experience with social media users I find that they think their beliefs, their choices and their grasp of reality is their own, unaffected by their use of social media. They think they are in control of these things. The seductive power of social media is such that some people become addicted to it. Like religious proselytizers, they seek to recruit others to social media.

The movie follows a fictional family with two teenagers who seem to be addicted to social media. The young girl becomes depressed when someone makes a critical remark about her appearance. The young boy becomes seduced by a political movement and winds up being arrested during a violent demonstration.

According to the movie, social media has caused dramatic changes in the behavior of pre-teens and teenagers who are exposed to it at an early age. Among the psychological changes seen in these users are low self esteem, depression and a big increase in suicides. Several of the experts in the movie who designed these same social networks said they either limit or ban exposure of their own children to these networks. Several of them also said even they know how these networks are dangerous and addictive, it is still hard for them to limit their use of them, or to stay away completely.

The movie then discusses how social networks play a big role, along with slanted news sources, in dividing the country into tribal-like groups. Social media drives up fear and anger, leading to hatred and violence. When asked where this is headed, one of the experts in the movie said, “civil war.” There are certainly signs of it this year during and after a divisive presidential election campaign.

Social media is largely unregulated, but the experts in the movie said it definitely needs to be regulated. Privacy needs to be protected, and the harvesting of private data also needs to be taxed and restricted. The problem is that social media companies like Facebook have become so powerful that they can muster public opinion against attempts by politicians to reign in their power.

For me, the movie never really answered the question of why anyone would want to join Facebook in the first place, or why they would want to spend much time on it. To understand this, I would have to use social media myself, but I know I don't have enough willpower to survive that kind of temptation. One of the reasons I don't join Facebook is the same reason I never started smoking cigarettes -- fear of addiction.

This is a movie that everyone ought to see, but few probably will. The movie explains that false rumors spread far faster on social media and are far more popular than facts, because facts are boring and often downright uncomfortable to face. Tristan Harris of the Center For Human Technology said this is because affirmation is a more powerful narcotic than neutral information. The tragedy is that in today's cyber world, you never have to face facts because you can find false “alternative facts” that satisfy your world view.

There is a nurse, I think from North Dakota, who recently tweeted a story about some of her dying Covid-19 patients who still steadfastly believe that Covid is a “hoax” even as it kills them. That tweet turned into a televised news story. That is where I saw the video interview with her. It is a true story, I think. Anyway, it illustrates the extent to which people can be fooled by some fancy social media algorithms.

This movie has some dire warnings, but it also offers some hope for the future. I found the warning a lot more persuasive than the hope part of it. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2020 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]