Belgium 17.12.2020

The Social Dilemma through the eyes of the consumer

Finally, I managed to watch The Social Dilemma: A highly hyped Netflix documentary talking about the ugly side of social media. I kind of postponed submerging myself in it for a little while because, on one hand, I felt like I already had a pretty good handle on the pitfalls and dangers of social media. On the other hand and in complete honesty, I didn’t want to think too deeply about my social media behavior because I suspected it would force me to effectively change some of my behaviors and I do still like to use social media! The documentary itself didn’t necessarily uncover any giant surprises, but there were quite a few instances where my mouth just dropped.

As a consequential quirk of the trade, which is being a market researcher in heart and soul, it did make me wonder: What does the average Belgian consumer think about the dangers that are highlighted in The Social Dilemma?*

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you ARE the product.”

Well, actually the product in social media that is highlighted in The Social Dilemma is ‘the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception’, which means as much as 'We’re being manipulated through our social media'. This all starts from the given fact that social media are free to use, while some people and companies are making money through it, mainly via advertisements. Now, we know that social media is all around: 61% of Belgians used at least one social media app on their smartphone in the past month.

Do they realize the large-scale presence of ongoing manipulation, not only via advertisements but in nearly everything you see on your social media?

It turns out that Belgians to some degree indeed are preoccupied with some of the dangers that are a consequence of using social media. Privacy worries remain a hot topic among Belgians, with 62% of them being concerned that technology, in general, jeopardizes privacy. The strong emphasis in the media on protecting your personal information and GDPR legislation has also paid off: More than half of the Belgian citizens are worried about the fraudulent usage of personal information. This mostly refers to big companies selling off personal data. However, it does not necessarily imply that they also realize the presence of implicit manipulation of their own thoughts and behaviors through the specific topics and paid advertisements they get to see on their social media accounts. If you consider that for engaged ‘ad clickers’ 1 in 4 posts on Instagram are ads, there is a lot of room for manipulation.

However, Belgians are a bit ambiguous in that perspective, hinting potentially at two different types of consumers: Some who fear the spreading of fake news online (44%) whereas others want technology that knows them and can recommend accordingly (35%), which leaves the door wide open for manipulation or at least nods in a certain direction. For instance, social media are programmed to focus mainly on what you already find interesting or appealing and to avoid conflicting ideas as much as possible. This is quite interesting when it comes to the lighter issues in life like discovering new brands based on other brands you like, and not being presented with brands that are not your cup of tea. However, it becomes a much bigger issue when it revolves for instance around political topics. It can in fact cause you to get stuck in an echo chamber: A metaphorical room where you are only confronted with information and beliefs that reinforce your existing views, without ever being confronted with opposing information. Without taking it too far for this discussion, The Social Dilemma explains the consequences very well: Democracy becomes completely for sale to the highest bidder.

 “Technology overcoming human weaknesses is much worse than when it overcomes human strengths.”

When thinking about the role artificial intelligence (AI) plays in algorithms, that decide what content you view on your social media, many consumers might worry that it will overwhelm our human strengths. Think about a world where robots take over; Indeed, we see that half of the Belgian consumers are worried about technology replacing workers and jobs. However, many experts have theorized that this is by far not the immediate threat AI poses. At a much earlier point in time, Artificial Intelligence as used in social media, will overwhelm our natural human weaknesses. Our susceptibility to addiction (to social media in general, to attention), the presence of a confirmation bias in humans that leads to polarization, wanting to be popular and well-liked, … However, one-quarter of Belgians still believe that the potential benefits of AI outweighs its harm, which illustrates that they are not necessarily thinking about the short-term negative consequences of AI for human downgrading.

“When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was ‘can we spread positivity and love in the world’?”

The inventor of the like button on Facebook explained that they themselves, but probably most people working in big tech companies, started from something good, from wanting to make the world better. Never in a million years did they realize that they, as a small group of people, would be controlling the thoughts and behaviors of billions of people all around the world. Take for instance the perceived effect on teen depression that is fed by social media: Not getting enough of those likes, designed to spread love, has an impact on how teens feel. Even stronger, there are clear links between teen self-harm and the rise of social media. Around one-third of Belgians believe that social media do more good than harm. Strikingly, this is much lower in Gen Z (people born in 1998 or later): Only 22% agree with this statement. This shows that those who grew up with social media sees the negative effects much more clearly, although there is no evidence to date that they stop using it altogether.

The Social Dilemma for your average Belgian Joe (or Jan met de pet)

To conclude, based on the numbers mentioned in this article that were obtained via GfK’s universal Consumer Life survey early in 2020, we have to say that the average ‘Jan met de pet’ in Belgium does not fully grasp the dangers of social media that The Social Dilemma outlines. They do however fear the threats that tech poses with respect to the privacy and worry about their personal data being misused. This is obviously not stopping them from using their social media, or at least not up until now. But who knows what The Social Dilemma or the recently emerging questions on the monopoly in the power of big tech companies can bring about in the future. And as for me? In fact, at the end of watching The Social Dilemma, I immediately installed an app to keep track of my smartphone screen time to avoid losing myself in all the social media channels too much. If a core market researcher and avid social media user think twice before clicking on yet another suggested ‘kids crying for absurd ridiculous reasons’ video on Facebook, you know at least something has changed. I see you, Zuckerberg, I see you.

*Source for all data: GfK Consumer Life Belgium 2020 data

About GfK Consumer Life

GfK’s Consumer Life is a global, syndicated trend service providing visibility to cultural changes and disruptive forces so you can harness them for business advantage. It is the largest, longest-standing, and most robust study of its kind in the world. Our Consumer Life reports are available on-demand and give you knowledge about all aspects of people's lives, including their aspirations, personal values, future world outlook and concerns, lifestyle behaviors, hobbies, consumption behaviors, and usage in health, finance, mobility, technology, media, and much, much more.

For more information about GfK Consumer Life, click here

Article by Karolien Smets.