Farhat Mahmood & Sarmad Naveed
Open your phone; go into settings and check your screen time. How many hours have you spent on your phone, scrolling and engaging with every notification that has tinged, vibrated, or just appeared on your home screen?
Is that number shocking? Are you surprised?
In this day and age, you will be hard pressed to find someone without a smart phone. Most people know they are being pulled into a ‘rabbit hole’ of screen time on various social media platforms but can’t seem to pull away. The allure of instant gratification and constant self-soothing they receive from people’s posts, videos, and content on various social media platforms seems to have a sizeable population of the world glued to their screens.
But does the average social media user have a real understanding of what social media is? What it can do? What it can potentially become?
Not according to Netflix’s new documentary, The Social Dilemma.
The documentary introduces us to Silicon Valley’s top developers, marketers, and executives who helped introduce and integrate social media into the world. These same people have now opened up about their realization of the colossal detriment that their creations are causing to society.
It presents social media as an entity which has almost taken on a life of its own, collecting data and growing as users continue to feed platforms with their likes, follows, views, and preferences. Based on all this information, algorithms show viewers exactly the content they want to see, keeping them hooked, for longer and longer.
The primary goal? Monetization.
The experts in this documentary uncover it all, from explaining that those who use social media are ‘users’ not consumers, the ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ method of social media, psychological hacking, mental, social, and safety concerns and so much more.
This documentary exposes a side of social media many may have never realized before.
It is truly jarring to see these founders seemingly repent and try to change the course of something they were once the driving force behind, by advocating for platforms to be more ethical and, as astonishing as it may seem, more humane. What’s more, their sense of urgency is palpable, as they urge that immediate change and reform are absolutely necessary in order to avoid any further cataclysmic consequences.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE DOCUMENTARY
After carefully watching and analyzing The Social Dilemma, here are some of they key aspects of the documentary which stood out to us tha most:
You’re Not the Consumer, You’re the Product
‘If you are not paying for the product, you are the product’ – The Social Dilemma
The documentary explains, that there is a reason for the term social media ‘users’ being more apt than social media ‘consumers.’ It’s because the monetization model of social media is based upon advertisement, and people who use social media aren’t paying to use these services. This means that the users are the products, and the real consumers are advertising companies.
Essentially, social media platforms sift through, analyse and even curate the product (social media users) in order to present a personalized product for the consumers (advertising companies).
This is done by data mining every single move of every single user. Every like, dislike, preference, down to which pictures we look at longer than others are all stored as data about us. By doing so, a model of users is created, which in turn allows social media platforms to imperceptibly alter behaviours and even interests to cater directly to the advertisers. These systems are so intricate that they know when we’re happy, sad, depressed, etc. Not only do they gather information, but they are able to either predict what we will do next or manipulate us into our next action on social media. It’s a game of ‘the best prediction wins.’
In essence, the documentary explains that social media is run based on ‘surveillance capitalism’ in a marketplace which trades in human futures, just like oil futures.
Playing with Our Minds
Social media uses psychological hacking to keep us hooked.
One social media creator in the documentary highlights the three primary goals of social media:
- Engagement: Keeping us glued to social media.
- Growth: Constantly bringing us back to social media, along with new users.
- Advertisement: Using users and their information to cater to advertisers and make profit.
Social Media Can’t be Considered a ‘Tool’
We’ll often hear people saying that social media is an excellent tool. But simply put, the documentary explains that a tool is something which sits and there and waits to be used. But if something has demands and criterion to be met, as does social media, then it cannot be considered a tool.
The documentary highlights the deep-rooted psychological implications of social media. It is likened to a slot machine; we put our phones down, only to pick them back up a few seconds later hoping to see something new.
‘There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software.’ – Edward Tuffe, The Social Dilemma.
It is less a tool, and more so a drug. As humans, we have an innate need to connect with others. Social media has exponentially increased this innate need to such a degree that it has resulted in a higher possibility of addiction.
Do Humans Have the Mental Capacity to Deal with Social Media?
The documentary provides a truly unique and thought-provoking perspective on the subject. As humans, we’ve been created and become accustomed to knowing and caring for what our ‘tribe’ may think of us. However, humans are not equipped or created to deal with the opinions that 10,000 people may have about them.
Thus, in trying to deal with this unnatural phenomenon, people find themselves chasing after something that isn’t even there.
‘We curate our lives for short-term signals.’ – The Social Dilemma
People have begun chasing after approval in the form of likes, hearts, and thumbs up. But the value of these things last only for a mere moment; they are empty and without real value and truth. But the momentary approval is so appeasing, that it leaves people wanting more of what the documentary describes as, ‘fake, brittle popularity.’
The results of this, however, can be truly catastrophic. The correlation found between the initiation of social media platforms and a huge increase in self harm and suicide among teenage girls is truly staggering. According to figures presented in the documentary, over this period of time, self-harm went up 189% in pre-teen girls.
This points glaringly to the fact that social media can be deemed nothing more than a digital ‘pacifier’ which does nothing to help people deal with the depression and anxiety that it can play a part in causing.
What’s Your Rabbit Hole?
Many turn to social media for information and news. Imagine however, if one was to search for a definition on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia gave a unique definition to each person, based on their interests. The documentary explains that this is exactly what Facebook does.
‘We are all operating on a different set of ‘facts.’’ – The Social Dilemma
People may think that they’re getting unbiased news and facts, whereas social media gives them exactly what they want to see, based on the information they’ve gathered about their users’ patterns and interests. It gives them ‘a few rabbit holes closest to their personality.’
For example, if social media platforms have discerned, based on a certain user’s habits, that they are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, then that’s what they’ll be shown more of, as opposed to unbiased and unfiltered information. They would be shown more posts about things such as, ‘the earth is flat.’ The more they see it, the more they’ll consider it to be a fact.
Similarly, the documentary explains how ads work on Facebook. There can be a hundred people who join any given group, who will be shown an advertisement. Facebook will gather data as to how they react to this advertisement, and thus create data on the average user. Then, Facebook will send the same advertisement out to a thousand other people, who resemble the initial hundred who were shown the ad.
‘False information spreads 6 times faster than the truth.’ – The Social Dilemma
Government Control Using Social Media
‘Facebook is a tool of persuasion. It might be greatest ever created.’ – The Social Dilemma
The system of social media is based on false, or misrepresentative news, for the simple reason that this method makes more money. People see more curated content which suits them, so they come back more often, not knowing that they may not getting the real facts.
The documentary elucidates that if any government or organization wanted to manipulate people, the best tool would be Facebook. Just image; something like Facebook being controlled by a dictator who wishes to push a certain agenda, if someone wanted to manipulate an election, if someone wanted to propagate a conspiracy theory – all of this could be done without social media users ever realizing that it was happening. They would simply perceive it to be fact.
The Existential Threat?
‘It’s a simultaneous utopia and dystopia.’ – The Social Dilemma
Towards the end of the documentary, the minds behind social media admit that it is a confusing realm, which has both its benefits and its downfalls. But they are categorical and unanimous in asserting that there must be a fine line, a balance, and even regulation, in order to ensure that the ill-effects of social media are controlled.
In fact, when one expert was asked about his greatest fear regarding the implications of social media, his response was simply, ‘civil war.’
‘The technology is not the threat, but the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society is the threat.’ – The Social Dilemma
Reform or Deactivate…or Both…?
In light of all these realities pertaining to social media, the solution presented in the documentary is complete reform in the way social media is approached and used, with many calling for more regulation. In fact, the solution which some of these creators present is to deactivate social media altogether.
There is no doubt however, that a world painted by the brush of social media is indeed a daunting place. As one person put it, we live in a world where trees have more value dead, than alive. We live in a world where we’d rather be glued to our screens and living our lives according to the algorithms put in place by a few people, who may not even have the ability to control these algorithms any longer.
Perhaps the greatest eye-opener, comes right at the end of the documentary, when these creators admit that they do not allow their own children to use the very social media platforms they created.
Maybe we really ought to re-consider the way we approach, use, and implement social media. Judging by the documentary, it almost seems as if these creators built a machine which took a life of its own and they do not have the capacity to contain it – in fact that’s exactly what happened. However it cannot be denied that social media does present multi-faceted benefits as well. So, one wonders that with all the harms and flaws which have been highlighted by this documentary, how should one approach social media, if at all?
The key words that comes to mind are caution and moderation.
Islam teaches that the middle path should be adopted in all aspects of life. An imbalanced approach to anything certainly bears negative effects. The same should be the case with social media – taking the good, and leaving the bad, and not becoming dependent or fully immersed. In essence, social media should be used on a need to use basis.
As one person in the documentary alluded to near the end, one thing lacking in the world of social media is guidance. It is the great honour of Ahmadi Muslims around the world, to be united under one leader who not only guides in matters of spirituality, but also everyday life – including the use of social media. This of course, is none other than the Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba).
He’s been cautioning against the ill-effects of social media, long before The Social Dilemma. On one occasion in 2011 he stated:
‘I have said that there are more harms of [using] Facebook and fewer benefits. Hence our youth, especially the girls and those who do not have a complete understanding of it should not expose themselves on Facebook to such an extent that they themselves become trapped…Those who use Facebook should have a complete understanding and use it only to a certain extent…The creator of Facebook himself has said that there are no limits and one can expose themselves to everyone. A decent, religious, and educated person cannot tolerate such things.’ 
Then, on another occasion in 2015 whilst speaking about the ill-effects of Facebook, His Holiness (aba) stated:
‘…It shatters all boundaries and privacy amongst people, exposes people’s personal matters and encourages indecency. The person who created this website has said himself, that he created this website because he feels that the reality of people be out in the open and exposed to others. In his view, being out in the open means that if a person wishes to post a nude picture of themselves, then they are free to do so; and he even encourages others to comment on them, he deems this to be permissible. Innalillah [‘Surely we belong to Allah’]. Similarly, anyone can post about anything they see. If this is not extreme moral regression and degradation, then what is? In this state of moral regression and degradation, an Ahmadi has to teach the high standard of morality and virtue…’ 
Ahmadi, Muslims are exposed to social media just as much as anyone else, the only difference is that Ahmadis are guided by His Holiness (aba) in such matters so as to safeguard against detriment.
Of course, when used moderately, for the right reasons and for the greater good, social media can prove to be extremely beneficial. If one were to put out a plea, for example, to help someone who needs an organ donor to save their life, or needs help paying for treatment to help cure what could be a fatal condition, then putting out ads which will reach a specific audience who are more likely to respond to such things would prove to be extremely beneficial and help save lives. This would fall under the category of positive use of social media.
Similarly, the Ahmadiyya Muslims Community utilizes social media as an aid in spreading the true message of Islam, removing misconceptions, and educating the masses on the reality and beauty of Islamic teachings which promote and foster, peace, love, and harmony.
Thus, when used for such purposes, in a controlled and cautious manner, social media can be deemed as excellent vessel for spreading good.
His Holiness (aba) also recognizes, that though social media poses grave dangers, it’s correct use can prove to be truly beneficial. For example, he once stated:
‘These days, as presented through earlier examples, many things lead to the displeasure of God. Correct use of these things is not bad; however, their incorrect use leads to spread of foulness, evil and sin. However, the same thing can also be a means of spreading goodness.’ 
And so, the message is clear; the unbridled use, lack of regulation, depravity, and sparse guidance in matters of social media have set humanity on a trajectory which can only lead to its destruction. The only way it can prove to be beneficial is through regulation of the creators, users, and consumers. This is only possible by adopting the middle path.
About the Authors
Farhat Mahmood holds a bachelors in Economics with Honors from the University of Maryland. She has worked in the Finance sector and IT web development field for 20 years. She currently serves in The Review of Religions as Assistant Manager, responsible for website development and online content.
Sarmad Naveed is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who graduated from the Ahmadiyya Institute for Languages and Theology in Canada. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions and coordinates the newly launched Facts from Fiction section. He has also appeared as a panelist and host of programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya (MTA) such as ‘Ahmadiyyat: Roots to Branches.’
- Gulshan-e-Waqfe Nau, 18 December 2011.
- Concluding Address, Jalsa Salana Germany, 26 June 2011.
- Friday Sermon, 18 October 2013.