The Social Dilemma

Note: TCT editor-in-chief Robert Royal will appear on EWTN’s “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo Thursday evening at 8 PM ET (also available on YouTube) to discuss his new book “Columbus and the Crisis of the West.” Signed copies of the book can be ordered by writing to [email protected].

“No, I don’t think they’re stupid,” she wrote, “but I wish they would just inform themselves.”

I had asked my students to write a reflection on whether they considered those with whom they disagreed either fools or scoundrels.  The conviction that those with whom we disagree are not merely mistaken, but actually ignorant and/or malevolent is an increasing problem in our society. So I asked my students to do some self-reflection to see whether they might discern this tendency in themselves.

The issue my student was concerned with was immigration. I don’t remember which side of the debate she was on, but my reply would have been the same either way. “Perhaps they have informed themselves, but they informed themselves from completely different sources than you have.”

The common response to this appeal goes something like this: “Oh, you mean because they’re listening to that fake news over at. . .”  You can fill in the blank yourself depending upon which side of the debate you think my student was on and/or depending upon which side of these debates you are on: “the fake news over at Fox” or “the fake news over at CNN and NPR.”

The problem, if you have friends on either side of such debates, as I do, is you regularly hear them dismissing the favored news source of the other side.  What seems impossible to convince either group of is that their news source is just as biased as the other side’s and that the people who go to the other news source are often doing so with the same desire to get “the truth.”

When the pandemic overtook our lives last March, I got myself into a bad habit – but it was instructive. In the morning, when I got up, I wanted to know two things: first, what the weather was likely to be that day (that wasn’t the bad thing), and second, how bad the pandemic was getting.  My desire to keep track of the pandemic caused me to start pressing the “News Feed” button on my cell phone for the first time.  This was a bit like surfing for porn every morning, only sleazier.

Be that as it may, what you learn if you do this (and I don’t recommend it) is two things, neither of which is very helpful if you want to know “the news.”  The first is that there are obviously a host of writers whose job is to write little “click-bait” articles for CNN, Fox, Politico, The Hill, Huffpost, and a host of others – not “news” stories, mind you, just “click-bait” meant to inflame reader’s passions.  The second is that the audiences of CNN and Fox News are being presented with completely different worlds.

If a person is fair-minded and eager to get to the actual truth of things, before long he or she will come to the uncomfortable conclusion that “getting the true story” is almost impossible the way contemporary “news” is done.  What we have instead are battling propaganda platforms.  You might be more comfortable with one than the other, but either way, we are rarely given enough information to make well-informed, prudent decisions on matters of crucial importance to our public life.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s article.  Allow me to recommend a documentary on Netflix entitled “The Social Dilemma.”  It will likely be the most important documentary you watch this year.


By that, I don’t mean it is the best-made documentary.  There are parts played by actors that are sophomoric.  But what this documentary reveals in its interviews with major players from Silicon Valley is how internet sites like Facebook and Google make their billions.

Did you ever wonder how two companies that charge nothing for their services have become two of the richest companies in the world?  They’re not charging for the product, because the product is you.

They are delivering you to advertisers.  And to do that, they must maximize your “screen time,” and then they must trace every search you have made, everything you “liked” or were interested in, and everything you bought.

Then not only do they “sell you” to advertisers, knowing the kind of things you might be encouraged to want or feel you “need,” they engage in a host of psychological tricks to keep you clicking and stay chained to your phone or computer.

If you think you’re not susceptible, and this is something only young people do, watch “The Social Dilemma.”

Are you angry at something?  Want to march in the streets and demonstrate?  After you watch this documentary, you might ask yourself whether these are your natural reactions, or whether someone has been “pushing your buttons.”

All that media “click-bait,” I spoke about above: I began to notice how much it would annoy me.  But that is how it works.  It pushes your buttons so you will press their buttons.  They leverage your fear and anger to make money.  The system works like a drug, and once you realize the extent of it, you may well do what most of the leaders of Silicon Valley have done: they prohibit their children to use social media.

If Catholics were really concerned about social justice (and they should be), I suggest two things.  First, speak out about social media the way you do pornography.  And second, we desperately need someone to start a real news channel with a perspective broad and deep enough to get at the truths we need to make prudent, well-informed decisions.

“But that news wouldn’t make any money,” people tell me.  Perhaps.  But how much money would they need to make to do something invaluable for the country?  When did we start assuming that news was about “making money” for billionaires and making celebrities out of news people? Like any addict, our situation will only grow worse if we don’t get off the hallucinogenic drugs that are killing us.


*Image: Eve (Don’t Listen to the Liar) by Paul Gauguin, 1889 [McNay Art Museum. San Antonio, TX]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.