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Persuasive Technology & Unethical Design: Something Only The Tech Industry Knows...

A perspective on the 2020 Netflix docudrama film 'The Social Dilemma'.


'If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.' – These were the words of Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, who echoed the classic saying in his interview on a recent Netflix documentary. It has become well known that the social media business model is based on advertisements and fueled by engagement. Basically, the more users can be kept engaged with apps, the more money is made by advertising products and services to them.

Throughout 'The Social Dilemma', one particular question is repeatedly asked of participants: 'What is the problem?', to which no one can really give a straight answer. By the end of the film, viewers are left with the conclusion that the problem could be the calculated manipulation of the social media business model.


"The goal is to affect real-world behavior and emotions without ever triggering the user's awareness..." – Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and psychologist

Anyone who uses social media would already know how addictive these 'free' platforms can be – this aspect is not a revelation. But what 'The Social Dilemma' points out is that the perniciousness of social media lies behind the intentional, unethical design and programming of these apps. As Zuboff said: "The goal is to affect real-world behavior and emotions without ever triggering the user's awareness..."


With social media platforms competing for our attention, "Persuasive Technology" is being used to ensure that we stay engaged for the maximum amount of time. In his article "The Invisible, Manipulative Power of Persuasive Technology", Jordan Larson explains that Persuasive Technology marries traditional ways of persuasion – using information, incentives, and sometimes coercion – with the new capabilities of devices to change user behavior. The behavior-oriented design persuades us to stay logged in – with the use of features like Instagram's explore page, or Facebook's infinite scrolling – or to buy more with features like the one-click checkout.

On August 8, 2018, a letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using "hidden manipulation techniques" to hook up kids to social media and game apps. Essentially, the petition brought attention to the danger of these practices and asked the APA to take a stand against them. Although some psychologists believe that persuasive technology can be used for good – i.e. breaking smoking habits, losing weight, or saving money – it is more often than not used to change our behavior for the monetary benefit of tech corporations, especially when they move from simple persuasion to manipulation.


'The Social Dilemma' comes in as an effective sounding alarm to the mining of our data and the use of unethical, manipulative technology that can cause slow but long term behavioral changes. Many of these companies have become the richest and most powerful in human history, building empires based on that very manipulation machine. Tristan Harris (former Google design ethicist) confirmed that there was never a time where 20 designers/programmers could be responsible for making decisions that would impact over 2 billion people. This kind of power should come with responsibility and accountability; but unfortunately, we are yet to see true accountability as witnessed in the recent antitrust hearing, where the tech giants barely took responsibility for their influence on people and mass decisions.


The docudrama film should be requisite viewing for everyone who has a social media account. It could be the most important documentary you see this year, as persuasive technology and unethical design are directly impacting the psychology behind our way of thinking. After seeing this you may look at your device as something that is not necessarily 'human friendly'. Nevertheless, as many former big tech corporation employees are blowing the whistle on the malpractice happening behind the scenes of social media, there is hope that something can be done to slow down, if not stop this type of manipulation. Although easier said than done, users themselves can also take some steps towards reducing their social media engagement. For instance;

  1. Turn off your notifications: You will find it easier to concentrate on your daily routine and not get easily distracted

  2. Have 'detox periods': You should schedule multiday breaks at least once a month

  3. Limit when and where to use social media: For instance, an hour before bedtime, leave your phone outside the bedroom

  4. Use apps to help limit your time on social media: Apps like Forest or Daywise, or features like Screen Time and Do Not Disturb can really be helpful

  5. Resist the urge to share EVERYTHING.

As technology continues to expand into our everyday living, we are reminded by documentaries like 'the Social Dilemma' to be more aware of the subtle influences around us, particularly when it comes to our social media engagement.



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