The Social Dilemma: what stories to tell when the tide turns against you
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Imagine for a moment you’re CEO of a global social media company. You’ve experienced a decade of rapid, exciting growth and the joy of creating a service loved by millions of people.
Then, slowly, steadily, the drumbeat of naysayers starts to get louder. They’re asking tough questions that threaten your very existence.
Is the internet really a force for good? Is social media really making the world a better, more connected place? And why are we seeing such global unrest fuelled by online communities?
How would you respond to such valid, existentially significant questions from a position of leadership?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has famously appeared before numerous government inquiries, promising more self-regulation, internal monitoring and improvements to the social platform’s algorithms.
Is it enough? Many believe not. For business leaders watching the real-world drama surrounding Facebook and other social giants, it’s worth paying even closer attention.
What happens when the tide of public sentiment shifts in substantial ways? If those feelings threaten the existence of your organisation, what are your options? This week we’ll take a look at the importance of analysing the macro-narratives that shape your industry or marketplace.
Before we get to these lessons, let’s look at a very real problem affecting us all.
A new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, is lighting up the internet. Produced by filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, known for climate change documentaries, it’s a deliberately evocative and disturbing take on the evils of the internet.
The Social Dilemma Official Trailer, Netflix, 2020
What sets this film apart from others investigating the social impact of the internet is talent. A succession of former leaders, programmers and executives from Facebook, Google, YouTube and Pinterest, among others, talk about the unintended consequences of their work.
At the heart of this story is artificial intelligence (AI). AI engines lie at the heart of internet companies, ironically Netflix among them, shaping our viewing and browsing habits. AI powers everything from recommended videos, search results, sponsored results, likes, comments and targeted information served in news feeds.
It’s software that’s supposed to make our lives better and our online experiences more positive. Our engineering talent talks about the hopeful, optimistic attitudes they once brought to their work.
Years later, it turns out the grand experiment in AI development isn’t going so well.
The Great Hack documentary launched in 2019 famously seared this idea into our consciousness. Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook’s algorithms to swing the US elections.
Today, The Social Dilemma picks up where The Great Hack left off. More of Silicon Valley’s insiders are waking up to the unintended consequences of their work. What was once meant for good appears to be spiralling out of control.
Even the uber-geeks who are supposed to know how these AI engines work apparently don’t fully grasp what’s going on.
The film details how we’re all being watched, tracked and manipulated down deep rabbit holes of untrustworthy information, fuelled by recommendation engines geared to present us with more of the same types of content. Balance achieved by filtering competing points of view is increasingly hard if we stay in these rabbit holes.
The Social Dilemma doesn’t pull any punches. It argues social media is primarily to blame for riots, protests, teenage depression and suicide, and instability in democracies all over the world.
Global populations are being manipulated as fake news spreads six times faster than “true news,” the film asserts.
“We built these things and we have a responsibility to change them,” urges Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google. “This is checkmate on humanity.”
As I write in Beliefonomics, a documentary like this acts as a Belief Moment. That is, a moment in time when we move from one state of belief to another of the six phases (shown below).
The Belief Journey, Beliefonomics, Mark Jones, 2020
The belief in question here is whether social media, or the internet-at-large, is now an overwhelmingly destructive force?
Let’s say you self-identified in what I call the Seek category (shown above) and so felt open to seeing The Social Dilemma. After watching the film there’s a good chance you moved to Truth or Belief that the internet is a destructive force.
If you’re the CEO of our fictional social media company, it’s critical you understand just how many people share this belief. How are they responding? And how might you go about shifting their beliefs?
Storytelling affects change
Moving from insight to action is of course easier said than done. Even the experts in this film struggle to articulate a coherent answer. Change the business model, add more government regulation, modify the AI engines to recommend content with a balanced point of view.
Here’s how we typically respond. In corporate communications, best practice dictates a simplified approach like this:
A company’s key spokesperson openly and honestly addresses the issues, and apologises if necessary.
The company makes appropriate reparations or real internal changes.
Marketing and PR efforts are wound up to ensure everyone understands that positive decisions have been made providing specific evidence of change.
Sounds good, but does this approach always work? Well, the issue isn’t so much the model you apply but the stories you tell.
Plenty of controversial industries such as oil and gas, mining, tobacco, alcohol and manufacturing have attempted to allay community concerns and we still don’t believe them.
Follow the money, as we say in journalism.
Super Size Me: The McDonald’s case study
An instructive case study for us in this context is Super Size Me. Featuring self-directed Morgan Spurlock (pictured below) it burst onto our screens back in 2004 documenting the personal impact of eating McDonald’s food every meal for an entire month.
‘Super Size Me’ Star Morgan Spurlock image courtesy of CNBC Photo by Jeff Kravitz | FilmMagic Inc. | Getty Images
It was a sensation, earning an Academy Award nomination and plenty of other awards.
Naturally enough, it made us question the quality of food from McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants.
So, what did McDonald’s do in response to Supersize Me?
At the time, it went on the offensive with a PR campaign. McDonald’s VP of corporate communications Walk Riker was quoted by PR Week calling it, “a gross misrepresentation of what McDonald’s is all about”.
Negative attacks are not often the smartest way forward if you’re trying to win the hearts and minds of customers. Ten years later, the corporation wised up to a better storytelling approach.
A 2014 campaign called Our Food, Your Questions, turned the cameras on itself. Instead of talking about the issues, it took people behind the scenes to provide evidence that challenged the dominant narrative.
The late Grant Imahara of MythBusters fame was cleverly chosen to visit McDonald's beef and chicken production plants to get the real story. After the tour, he reassured viewers the products were, despite public concerns, made from real animal products: “There’s no mystery, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
In Australia, McDonald's embraced the campaign with staff-hosted videos tackling myths about its food quality. Fast-forward to 2020 and McDonald's Australia is still selling the fresh food story on its website.
The lesson for CEOs and leaders facing an uncomfortable public narrative couldn’t be more challenging.
Transparent, honest and believable storytelling is the only way forward if you want to change the narrative, and it must be based on what people actually believe, right now. Respect that real people make decisions with both hearts and minds.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest et al now have an opportunity to make real, tangible changes, then tell their side of the story. Let’s hear CEOs acknowledging issues with genuine empathy. Let’s hear them answer the tough questions with genuine openness and willingness to change.
Will it happen? Well, that’s a true dilemma.
Mark Jones is an author, speaker and brand strategist with experience over more than 20 years on both sides of media, first as a senior journalist at the likes of the Australian Financial Review and lately as CEO and Chief Storyteller for a multi-million dollar PR and content marketing agency. He is a Certified Virtual Presenter for keynote talks, workshops and webinars. Buy a copy of his debut book, 'Beliefononomics: Realise the true value of your brand story' here.