Cybersecurity and “The Social Dilemma”

social media

Since October is the so-called “spooky season,” we thought we’d address one of the spookiest things around: social media in the year 2020. The team at Asylas have all watched and been riveted by the new documentary-drama “The Social Dilemma” (streaming on Netflix). And, while it’s maybe a little unusual, we’re getting into the movie review business (this month only). 

For us, the scariest thing about social media is the way it discourages awareness and invites influencers (good, bad, weird) to take up space in our brains. Let’s dissect the film and consider why everyone concerned with cybersecurity should take the time to watch it. 

The Film

“The Social Dilemma” explores the dangerous human impacts of social networking. The filmmaker asserts that over the past ten years, a small group of Silicon Valley engineers and designers have had a tremendous impact on billions of lives around the world. And many of these individuals are not only ready to confess (for the camera) but also to begin the process of atonement (sort of). 

We see Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the Facebook “like button,” acting contrite. (He says “likes” were invented to bring people together but has since sworn off social media himself.) Then there’s Tim Kendall, a former executive at both Facebook and Pinterest, admitting that he became addicted to the very products he helped engineer. (His own children are not allowed any screen time.) And Roger McNammee, an early Facebook investor, asserts that Russia didn’t hack Facebook (in 2016); it simply maximized the platform’s existing design. 

The interviews are broken up with a dramatized account of a modern family dealing with the soul-sucking interruptions of their phones and computers. A middle school-aged daughter is besieged with self-image issues and obsessed with capturing the perfect selfie. An older teen boy attempts to “break up with his phone” but is sucked back in by the all-powerful algorithms (portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser in triplicate). 

There’s even a wretched family dinner where mom declares “no technology allowed.” It goes about as well as you might expect. The acting in these vignettes is fine, but the story is maybe a little too predictable? And not nearly as satisfying as watching all those tech guys say how sorry they are.  

Why “The Social Dilemma” Matters to Security Experts

Cybersecurity experts are concerned with any phenomenon that dims our awareness of risk. The methods employed by social media platforms are so “good” that they fly under the radar of even savvy users. We are often powerless to resist them. The precision of manipulation is built into the products for the benefit of the paying users (largely advertisers, increasingly governments and idealogues).  

In one of Rosenstein’s longer speeches in the film, he explains, “Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we’re spending that time living our life in a rich way. And so, we’re seeing the results of that. We’re seeing corporations using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention toward the things they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.”

This ability to burrow into our brains quietly but deeply primes us to be susceptible to many distortions. It started with getting us to buy things. But now we are being fed distorted views of reality that get us to believe things and make moral decisions that affect the way we act. 

We talk about social engineering in cybersecurity all the time. Typically we mean the kind of tactics that hackers employ. Deceptions that get individuals to divulge personal information for the purposes of fraud. Social media can be used as a tool in that type of financial or data theft scheme. But the same platforms can be used to create social change across a country or to change human behavior at scale. Perhaps swaying individuals to vote a certain way or behave a certain way during a public health crisis. 

“The Social Dilemma” is important because it unmasks how easily we are all duped. How the platforms we willingly engage with have changed us as individuals and as cultures, largely for the worse. If you’ve seen the film, you probably had a moment of guilt or realization that you (yes, even you, a smart person) have been manipulated.  

Any Takeaways?

The film offers no unified set of solutions. It spends the better part of 90 minutes emphasizing all the problems its cast has created for our world. 

The bright spots are Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, the co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology. Both are Silicon Valley veterans who have defected from the mainstream “engagement at any cost” philosophy of their peers. 

With CHT, Harris and Raskin are leading the conversation about the next steps in technology’s evolution. They don’t deny that we depend on the internet to successfully participate in daily life in the 21st century. But they also don’t think it has to be the manipulation machine it is today. 

CHT offers a free online course for technologists. And has written an ever-evolving “Ledger of Harms” for business people and tech workers to consider and engage with. 

Harris also hosts a great podcast called “Your Undivided Attention” for the auditory learners among us. 

Next Steps

Roger Ebert’s film review says that “The Social Dilemma” is “…bringing a slingshot to a nuclear war.” Here are some other thought-provoking films to help you improve your arsenal. 

  1. The Great Hack explores data mining and targeted manipulation with a focus on Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 Presidential election.
  2. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected Worlds is Werner Herzog’s exploration of the Internet and the connected world.
  3. Screened Out looks at the ways technology has changed how we communicate and how we can be more mindful in using tech.

Finally, as always, Asylas encourages you to engage with a trusted partner in cybersecurity: us! If your organization needs help developing a thoughtful, modern approach to security in our connected world please reach out to Asylas at 615-622-4591 or Or complete our contact form.

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