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J.S. Mill and The Social Dilemma: is social media treading on liberty?

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Do you often wonder how much time we spend behind our screens? How many miles do we cover by simply scrolling through our social media feeds? Particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic, it is hard to imagine getting through each day without checking our smartphones for what’s new. Thus, we must consider the social dilemma that has emerged. What new threats does our increasingly digital life present to our liberty?

The Social Dilemma: a scathing critique of big tech

The Social Dilemma (2020) is a documentary that serves as an eyeopener to the pervading influence of social media in our lives. The problems described offer the perfect fodder for corporate-skeptics across the globe – surveillance, tracking, and selling of personal data.

The documentary examines the practices of big tech companies that offer ‘free’ social media platforms to the public. It is a wake-up call for netizens who hitherto believed that their choices online were for the most part ‘theirs’.

Furthermore, The Social Dilemma shows how algorithms are used to control and dictate the preferences of social media users. It also highlights how patterns of usage are then recorded and sold to advertising companies.

The documentary argues that this technology has been used by big tech companies to make users dependent on their social media platforms and has also fundamentally reduced their real-life cognitive capabilities.

The continuation of a longstanding series of threats

For centuries, the liberty of individuals was the prime target of rulers- monarchs, dictators and overlords alike. They sought to strip a man of his individuality and fundamental freedom to do as he pleases. They would rather have him follow them mindlessly instead.

Eerily similar to what the big tech companies are seeking, right?

Back in the day, thinkers and philosophers did their part to resist power-hungry rulers and their governments. They penned numerous works of literature that made society aware of the ills brought about by governmental excesses. As such, they praised the virtues of a community that respected life, liberty, and property.

Some of these writings and ideas resonate strongly to this day. But in what ways can they be applied to the problems described by the documentary?

Considering the thoughts of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher who authored the timeless essay “On Liberty” (1859). His writing has served and continues to serve as the psychological bedrock of classical liberals today. The short essay gives an answer to the social dilemma of his time by discussing concepts like the harm principle, individualism, and the limits of governmental authority.

By referring to “On Liberty”, let us find out how J.S. Mill would react to today’s social dilemma brought to light by the eponymous documentary.

Mill begins his essay by stating that it concerns:

Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”

It is tempting to assume that Mill’s introduction was restricted to the limits of the state against the individual. But can’t big corporations, which allegedly harbor similar goals of control over an individual’s life, be brought into consideration as well?

Mill’s harm principle

Some form of answer to this issue can be found in John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle. The harm principle reads as such:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This principle justifies the use of force and power if, and only if, prevention of harm is the goal. As per the documentary, social media appears to be harming a generation of users by slowly stripping them of agency and free will in their daily life.

However, does this harm provide sufficient justification for the practices of big tech to be brought under check?

What it means to be free

The big tech companies can counter by saying that their users are not coerced into using the platform. Unlike what is the case with governments, which can force their agenda upon individuals, social media users sign up to platforms of their own accord, with a view to free expression.

John Stuart Mill argued that, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom.”

This means that one cannot be free by voluntarily surrendering his choice of freedom. The subconscious nefarious effects of social media, as alleged by the documentary, chip away slowly at an individual’s decision-making capacity and agency.

It would almost be as if by hitting the ‘sign-up’ button, an individual voluntarily agrees to part with his freedom of choice. If this is the case, then Mill would likely be critical of these companies.

The documentary also shows that many of the architects of social media prefer to abstain from the platforms they help create. In this case, there clearly seems to be a harm that they are afraid of.

Admiration for entrepreneurship and innovation

However, in their defense, Mill offers some reassurance: “Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.

Social media is indeed the result of the efforts of a group of talented people acting to the best of their abilities. They have created a technology that connects people across the globe. Any social media user would be happy to point out the positives that various platforms bring to their daily lives.

At the same time, social media companies also offer a near-absolute certainty for advertisers wishing to sell personalized ads to their intended audience. This arrangement appears to be a win-win situation – everyone is happy.

Clearly, Mill would be dazzled by how far the world has changed since his time. The limits of human ability and certainty that he knew and perceived back in the day stand redefined today – technology has opened up so many opportunities.

Emphasizing his support for entrepreneurship, Mill added that:

Men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril.”

Practical application of Mill’s philosophy

With these famous lines, Mill moves to the final part of his essay by describing practical situations where his doctrine and philosophy could be used. Applying those findings here, it does not seem as though he would be overly concerned about the big tech companies and the social dilemma they pose.

After all, there is always a choice to leave or stay. Big tech companies offer extremely tempting services to users, albeit with a few trade-offs. Nevertheless, the makers of the documentary have provided a compelling case for these trade-offs being somewhat more significant than many would expect.

All parties concerned are free to express their opinions and concerns. As Mill points out, “[it is preferable] to follow [ones’] intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.” Incidentally, one of the main themes of his essay is to promote the free and open expression of ideas.

With that, we could speculate that John Stuart Mill would be as conflicted on the matter as most of us today. But his words do offer some clarity on what liberty means, and we may deduce in what ways that meaning is consistent with today’s reality.

Interested in alternative and less intrusive social networks? Click on the button below to watch Students For Liberty’s CEO, Dr Wolf von Laer, interview Bill and Jack Ottman, founders of Minds.com.



This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.

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