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Value Added Ep.21/22 — The Social Dilemma


9 Oct 2020


In a special two-part edition of the Value Added Podcast, grizzled surveillance capitalism veterans Jonathan Kiekbusch and Jarod Spiewak weigh in on The Social Dilemma — the popular Netflix documentary that explores the evils of Facebook and social media in general.

As technology’s Big 4 of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple comes under increasing scrutiny from both government and citizens, The Social Dilemma is a timely warning bell. 

The doc makes a valiant attempt to lay bare the manipulation techniques that Facebook and other tech giants employ, powered by the almost incomprehensible amount of data they collect from users.

For the vast majority of people who have no idea how surveillance capitalism works, The Social Dilemma may well be a revelation…

But will it alter the perception or opinion of two seasoned digital marketing professionals who regularly employ Facebook and Google for advertising and promotion?

To make things interesting, Jonathan and Jarod only watched the trailer before recording the first episode.

For episode two, they both watched The Social Dilemma in full.

Did they learn anything they didn’t already know?

Were any of their preconceived notions and expectations shattered?

Find out by listening to both episodes — and get the tl;dr by checking out the Show Notes below.

VAP Ep.21 – The Social Dilemma Pt.1: Before…


  • The narrative that “social media was intended to be good and has ended up being bad” isn’t new. Other documentaries, such as The Great Hack — which tackled Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal tread similar ground.

“People who believe that brands using data against us is something new are just in absolute denial.
Every single corporate or personal credit card or rewards membership that gives you benefits is used to collect data on you.” Jonathan Kiekbusch

  • Jonathan argues that despite the collection of personal data being portrayed in a negative light in the trailer, there can also be a positive impact.

    For example, when your location and behavioral data is used to serve you more relevant search results, you’re likely to have a better user experience.
  • Jarod points out that the trailer uses horror and action movie tropes to grab the audience. Given that the doc is on Netflix, he points out the irony of criticizing recommendation engines like Youtube’s, when The Social Dilemma is likely to benefit from Netflix’s similar technology — and engagement techniques.
  • Do businesses “have an obligation to be good?”

    Jarod and Jonathan both try to run their businesses as ethically as possible. But they agree that in a capitalist society, the only absolute imperative a private enterprise has is to make money.
  • As businesses have no inherent moral obligation, it’s typically the government and the courts that bear responsibility for regulating industry.

“These platforms give you a lot of freedom. It’s very easy to end up in a YouTube rabbit hole where you end up consuming bad information.

I think there’s a lack of education on how to use these platforms and detect fake news.” Jonathan Kiekbusch

  • In an increasingly polarized society, being served only information that reinforces your viewpoint leads to further hardening of your position.

“The algorithms aren’t written in a way that says, ‘Let me push fake news on people because that gets more engagement.’

They’re written in a way that says, ‘Oh, if people engage with this, then this must be something that people are interested in. Maybe this will be interesting to more people.’

So, it’s a safe bet for the platform that if it increases the visibility of the post — which is gaining traction —that the traction will maintain for long enough to get more engagement, more ad views, and make more money” Jarod Spiewak

  • Facebook and other platforms face an uphill battle with manual content moderation due to the sheer volume of posts.

“I could have all the information on an individual and everything they do on the web — and that means absolutely nothing to me.

What matters to me is having anonymous information on hundreds of thousands of people that I can use.

And I’m willing to bet that, if we stopped using that data, people would be a lot less interested in the internet.

They would realize much of their user experience is based on that data — and how much their Google search results, and their Facebook feed, would suck without it.” Jarod Spiewak

“Businesses are going to work within the confines of the rule book that they get given. Sometimes they’re going to push those boundaries to see how far they can get. 

If you don’t regulate or legislate restrictions on businesses, they’re unlikely to change.” Jonathan Kiekbusch

VAP Ep.22 – The Social Dilemma Pt.2: After


  • Both Jonathan and Jarod point out that many of the “insiders” interviewed for The Social Dilemma probably made vast sums of money from the platforms that they’re now criticizing or condemning.

    This leaves them wide open to allegations of hypocrisy.

“It’s the equivalent of Pablo Escobar sitting on your TV screen going, you know, drugs are pretty bad. You probably shouldn’t do them…

There’s still an incredible amount of naivete around how the internet works and how platforms make money.

People need to understand that the internet has a business model and that business model is making money by leveraging the data they collect from users.” Jonathan Kiekbusch

“Any technology advanced enough is indistinguishable from magic. There are a lot of people who use platforms like Google and Facebook — or even more basic platforms like GPS in their cars — without ever thinking about how it all works.” Jarod Spiewak

“If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product.”
Tristan Harris (Ex-Facebook, Centre for Humane Technology)

  • For Jonathan, the adage above is too simplistic. He prefers the more nuanced take offered by Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality:

“The gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your behavior and perception — that’s the product.”
Jaron Lanier

  • Both Jonathan and Jarod take issue with how often the word “manipulation” is bandied about in The Social Dilemma.

    While there are certainly bad actors who use Facebook and other platforms for nefarious ends, as marketers who use the tools Facebook makes available — such as retargeting and lookalike audiences — they both choose to see the way they use Facebook as persuasion rather than manipulation.
  • Jonathan makes the point that using persuasion is nothing new. It’s long been the foundation of everything from advertising to user experience design. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with persuasion, but technology has weaponized it, which is something we haven’t dealt with previously.

“Only two industries call their customers ‘users’ — drug dealers and software” The Social Dilemma

  • In the same way there’s education in schools about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and smoking, Jarod advocates teaching children and young adults about the detrimental effects of the internet and social media.
  • Jonathan and Jarod agreed that while The Social Dilemma does a good job of alerting people to the dangers of social media, it didn’t offer up any potential solutions.
  • One of the few actionable proposals on reforming how Big Tech collects and monetizes our data was to tax Facebook and other platforms based on the data they collect.

“At what point does a business become a utility?

You get your water, you get your electricity, you get your whatever.

Private companies often run those businesses, but the government regulates them. 

And there’s a lot of legislation that those companies have to abide by. 

What an irony that Facebook has 2 billion users, and it’s not classed as a utility, and it’s not regulated — that’s not right.” Jonathan Kiekbusch

  • Though it’s hard to remember life without it, the internet and social media are a relatively new phenomenon. Jonathan and Jarod feel that as the understanding of how platforms like Facebook and Google make money and influence people grows, more regulation is inevitable — and necessary.
  • Jonathan again raised the question of whether businesses have an inherent to do good — as in Google’s now abandoned exhortation, “Don’t be evil.”

“If murder were legal, someone would create a business that killed people. If it’s within the bounds of legality, someone will do it.” Jarod Spiewak

“The Social Dilemma is extremely valuable for those who don’t have the faintest idea of how the internet works. It’s far from a complete education, but I think it’s a good spark to raise interest in how these platforms that have become such an integral part of our lives actually function.” JK


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