The potential dangers of social media are one of the issues tackled in science-fiction stories. For example, the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’ is set in a world where someone’s social media status determines their worth. Following any interaction, others rank a person on a scale of one to five using what amounts to essentially a smartphone app.
Why Does a High Ranking Matter?
In Black Mirror, a person’s average overall ranking determines what kind of job they can have, where they can live, their seat on a plane, what kind of car they can rent, everything. The story follows Lacie, a sweet young girl obsessed with her social ranking, which is 4.2. She can’t afford to move into the Pelican Cove living community unless she gets the discount reserved for 4.5’s.
She gets an invitation to be the maid of honor for her childhood and high-ranking friend, Naomi. Lacie agrees, figuring she can get high ratings from Naomi’s high-ranking friends by giving a good speech. But on her trip to the wedding, her flight is canceled, and a series of other mishaps ruin her rating.
Naomi tells Lacie that because her ranking is now below 2.6, she is no longer welcome at the wedding. Lacie sneaks in anyway and delivers a drunken speech. The guests downrate her to 0. The authorities arrest her, remove her ranking technology, and put her in jail. The episode ends with Naomi gleefully exchanging insults with the prisoner across from her.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Objectifying Other People
The episode is a commentary on the unfairness of unofficial class rankings in society that unfairly keep many from accessing jobs, houses, and even other people. It also criticizes a vacuous obsession with popularity and frivolous concerns.
Of course, Lacie and Naomi objectify each other. Lacie is trying to use Naomi to boost her rating, and Naomi is trying to do the same to Lacie. She thinks having a lowly 4.2 give a speech at her wedding would play great to the ‘high 4’s’ on her guest list.
But this is what everyone is doing to everyone all the time. Not only is everyone constantly rating and being rated, but everyone is reduced to their ranking.
At the start, Lacie is not a loving, hard-working, fun young woman—she’s just a 4.2. When she arrives at the wedding, she is not Naomi’s childhood friend with whom she made ‘Mr. Raggs’—she’s just a 1.1. And something similar is true for everyone in her world. Their life is a constant struggle to be liked; they never stop caring about what others think.
An Example of the Dangers of Social Media
Another example of this in science fiction is in an episode of Seth MacFarlane’s space adventure The Orville called ‘Majority Rule’. The crew of the spaceship Orville explores the galaxy. In ‘Majority Rule’, the series gives an explicit critique of how society uses social media.
In ‘Majority Rule’, the crew of the Orville visits Sargas 4, a planet nearly identical to 21st century Earth. But the crew quickly learns of one major difference when helmsman John LaMarr commits a social faux pas, and a video of him is quickly uploaded to ‘The Master Feed’—their version of Facebook—and LaMarr is soon arrested.
Sargas, it turns out, is a pure democracy—no government, no courts—everything is decided by majority opinion, even what medications are safe. At age 18, everyone receives a badge, through which they can receive ‘up-votes’ and ‘down-votes’.
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The Difference Between Opinion and Knowledge
The episode offers many criticisms. For example, it directly decries cultural relativism, the philosophical suggestion that truth is determined by majority opinion. This idea is embraced by Lysella, a Sargas native whose dad always said, “The Majority are the truth.”
But Isaac, the Orville’s Artificial Life-form, sets her straight: “You are confusing opinion with knowledge.”
It also offers up social commentary. For example, to save LaMarr, the Orville crew essentially ‘hacks the election’. They upload a bunch of ‘fake news’ to the master feed—about LaMarr taking care of his elderly grandmother and being a war veteran—to garner support for him.
When Dr. Finn asks, “What if people try to corroborate this information?”
Lysella simply responds, “Don’t worry. They won’t.”
Indeed! People’s propensity to share things on social media without first making sure they are true is one of the biggest threats to democracy on the planet—because democracy requires a correctly informed electorate. But ‘Majority Rule’ also raises concerns about democracy itself because it demonstrates the dangers of a mob mentality and just how wrong the majority can be.
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Avoiding Another Witch Trial
Contrary to the suggestion of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when left to its own devices, the majority doesn’t always make decisions that align with the common good. People don’t vote based on careful reasoning and good arguments.
They use emotion, intuition, opinion. This, in fact, is why the US founding fathers created a representative democracy. Experts are supposed to be elected who use reason and weigh the evidence.
This is why there is a court system, with ideally unbiased judges and juries and a presumption of innocence—to guard against the folly of mob rule. But, in many ways, social media has bypassed these safeguards. For example, people are often found guilty in the court of public opinion before they ever get a fair trial, just like on Sargas 4.
Common Questions about the Potential Dangers of Social Media in Science Fiction
In the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’, Lacie wants a 4.5 rating because she can’t afford to move into the Pelican Cove living community unless she gets the discount reserved for 4.5’s.
The episode is a commentary on the dangers of social media in a futuristic setting. Where people constantly care about how others see them and what they think of them. And this leads to unofficial class rankings, which are unfair.
The episode ‘Majority Rule’ directly decries cultural relativism, the philosophical suggestion that truth is determined by majority opinion, and raises concerns about democracy itself because it demonstrates the dangers of a mob mentality and just how wrong the majority can be.