• Beth Bradford

What You Can Do About 'The Social Dilemma'

I restarted my Netflix subscription so I could watch The Social Dilemma. After researching the effects of social media myself, I was really curious to hear the perspective of people who worked within the industry. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one shocked but not surprised.

As the credits roll, the contributors offer ways for us to get unhooked, such as disabling the notifications on your phone.

Renee DiResta offers a suggestion that can help us be more discerning about what we post and share — “do your research.” This requires looking deeper into how and what we post.

Anyone with a digital device and Internet connection can publish content. Our intention to communicate with the public could have an honest or inspiring purpose. Our posts could shed light on something that has hidden in darkness. Some posts might promote our business interests. Still others might be to simply encourage others or build community. What sometimes happens is that those who have a gross distortion of reality find community and validation on social media.

Unfounded claims and debunked conspiracies didn’t start with social media, but their flawed arguments find kindling in these communities. However, we can address these unsubstantiated claims with a quality argument of our own. In my 20-year career as an educator, I’ve tried to address my students’ flawed logic and common assumptions. I will come across a line that reads something like this:

Many people don’t use Facebook anymore, so I don’t see how it can be such a problem.

Let’s use this as an example of how we can become more responsible with what we choose to post and share.

Question your own argument

When I presented research on problematic internet use, some of my students were curious. Others, of course, were engaged on their cellphones and weren’t paying attention. A few disagreed, citing how they used to use Facebook but now found it “stupid.”

However, one observation doesn’t explain the whole. This is an example of exemplification or hasty generalization, where we use extreme instances as “typical” to support our argument.

The more research someone puts into an argument, the more evidence you’ll need to put into the counterargument.

When we disagree with someone, we might choose to point out the flaws in someone else’s argument. However, can we point out the logical fallacies of our own argument? University writing centers have great web pages explaining logical fallacies and how to avoid them. Here’s one from Purdue University and here’s another from UNC Chapel Hill.

Pointing out fallacies is not enough. Our argument must also include some logical reasoning. The more research someone puts into an argument, the more evidence you’ll need to put into the counterargument. This research means going beyond personal observation.

While looking through reactions to The Social Dilemma, I saw different perspectives. I won’t offer links to those, but you can Google those yourself. What I found was little research in the counterargument. For instance, I found one biting blog post that tried to discredit “Snapchat dysmorphia” as just a string of anecdotes among cosmetic surgeons, but here is a systematic review of the peer-reviewed research that correlates the relationship between social media and self-esteem. Here’s one study finding evidence for “appearance-related social media consciousness.”

It’s important to use qualifiers and reservations in our argument to admit the possibility that our assertion might not be true in all cases. Therefore, if we return to my student’s statement, we can rewrite it as the following:

Many people don’t use Facebook anymore, but it’s possible it can be problematic to some.

Be impeccable with your word

Don Miguel Ruiz tells us to “Be impeccable with your word,” which means thinking, speaking, writing and acting with integrity. Words matter, so we have to be equally as discerning about how we write as what we write. In the first part of the student sentence above, there are already three things problematic. The first is the lack of specificity. How many is “many?” Three? How many people were involved in this “many?”

The second is the lack of precision. Who are the “people?” Are they people in the U.S.? Are they people of a specific age?

The third is the lack of perspective. By adding the word “anymore,” we don’t have any idea how much use has declined.

Therefore, the student sentence could be improved by writing the following:

As of 2019, Facebook use has declined by about 14 million users in two years among the U.S. population over the age of 12.

By offering some specificity, precision and perspective, we can provide more responsible insight for others. We also can learn that even now, “many people” still indeed use Facebook, even if people in our social circles might not. Of course, the “some” could also use some specificity, which will require additional research.

Investigate your sources

To find the information above, I did a quick Google search for “Facebook use decline.” From there I noticed several marketing websites appearing first. If you click on a few of these sites, you’ll see several of them cite similar research. If I wasn’t a discerning media user, I would use one of these sites as my source and then move on with my argument.

But you are a discerning media user, so the responsible thing is to investigate the source that these sites use. Thankfully, the first two websites on my Google search pointed to the same research study from Edison Research. But we don’t stop there.

We also must look at the “About Us” page of Edison Research. Here’s where transparency is key. The website should show who works there and something about their credentials. The people should have an email or LinkedIn page where you can contact them. For Edison Research, the president of the company has more than 500 connections on LinkedIn and his work history is transparent. The company itself has been in operation since 1994, which shows that it has an established history in survey research.

I could go further, such as do a Google Reverse Image search on the people’s profiles to see if the photos aren’t stock photos. I could also investigate the methodology of their studies, such as how many participants they surveyed or what questions they used. However, because the research presented on this website isn’t controversial, I can deem the research on this site to be reliable and credible. I would also be sure to cite the website.

Therefore, I can rewrite my student sentence this way:

According to a 2019 study conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital, 61 percent of the U.S. population used Facebook in 2019, down from a peak of 67 percent in 2017. This is a decline of 14 million users over the age of 12.

I should also note that if a website ends with .gov, .org, or .edu, it tends to carry a little more credibility because the research is less likely to have a conflict of interest. If the research was funded by another organization or business, websites ending with those suffixes will often disclose their funding sources to maintain credibility.

Personally, any time I report facts, I use research databases available through my academic institution. Research databases have a healthy amount of reputable research that has been heavily reviewed by geeks like me.

Whether or not you buy into the argument in The Social Dilemma, you can participate in more healthy, productive discourse by putting a little more effort into what you choose to post and share on social media. We might not be able to control the various conspiracy theories and malicious content that emerge from other people’s hearts, but we don’t have to propagate them. Integrity starts with you.

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