Are We Living in the Matrix?

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on October 17, 2020.

A recent Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” illustrates how social media networks are selling each of us as commodities to advertisers. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, points out that platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram make money by allowing advertisers to target only those who are interested in their messages or products. That means we—people who use “free” social networks—are not consumers. Instead, we are the products being sold.

We allow our brains to be manipulated by sophisticated artificial intelligences (AI) designed to change our behaviors. Each time we “like” something or stay on a page for more than a second, we provide the computer with additional knowledge about who we are and what makes us tick. Each click helps AI become better at manipulating us. In service to the advertisers, AI decides what we see and what we do not. Because the things that fill one person’s newsfeed may never make their way into another’s, social networks shape our reality as they polarize society.

Unfortunately, it turns out that fake news is more profitable to advertisers than real news. Therefore, we have segued from living in the Information Age to subsisting in the Disinformation Age. This is especially frightening when we see how much influence conspiracy theories have in our culture today.

According to the documentary, we have essentially isolated ourselves in a bubble of technology. Loneliness and depression are rampant in our society, and people interact less in the real world than they do online. When others “like” our posts, we get an actual chemical rush—and when it dissipates, we crave another hit. The need for approval and belonging keeps us clicking. As “The Social Dilemma” asks, “How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you are in the matrix?”

People With Pain and Addiction Are in the Matrix, Too

The audience for all messages has become more homogenous than inclusive of people with different views. This limits the reach of any particular message to those who share the same believes or problems. That puts people living with pain who reach out to others through social media at a disadvantage they may not even understand.

The documentary makes the point that the only industry besides social media that uses the term “users” is the illicit drug world. People with pain and addiction are also vulnerable to the dopamine rush that keeps us clicking to receive affirmation by others who share our experiences.

People in pain desperately want to be heard by people who can help them. But, because of AI, only part of the population — those who already tend to be supportive toward people in pain — are likely to see their posts.

The very nature of chronic pain and addiction narrows people’s worlds. So does social media. It has a compounding effect. As a society, we need to understand that our world becomes narrower with each click. Think of those you unfriend or the people who block you on social media. They are the ones you need to hear from, because they are people who have different views from yours. It may feel comfortable to stay within your own den, but that won’t help you if your goal is to be understood in this world and help change it for the better.

Steps Towards Bursting Your Information Bubble

There are general principles we can use to sort out the truth from the lies.

If you have a strong emotional response to a message, you may have become the successful target of manipulation. Take in a deep breath, and tell yourself the manipulators were successful in triggering your dopamine release. Remember that the message may be only partially true—or not true at all.

Before you share a post or believe it yourself, verify the source. Check out the veracity of the story on Snopes. Seek out sources other than those that appear in your timeline or on your feed. Instead of trusting your search engine, proactively log onto news sites with opposing viewpoints. If the stories you find feature quotes, go to the original source and see if the message was taken out of context. The greater your emotional reaction to the message, the greater the chances are that it is inaccurate, misleading information.

“The Social Dilemma” website offers a toolkit to “realign your relationship with technology” and explore these issues—including what social media is doing to our democracy—more deeply.

Living in the Matrix With Awareness

We can’t ban the internet. We wouldn’t want to, even if we could. There are obvious benefits to digital communication, and we can’t put the genie back into the bottle.

However, if we don’t want to be trapped in a dystopia where humanity is controlled by a manipulated reality, we have to realize that “free” online services are anything but that. The cost is the truth. We sacrifice a balanced view of the world because of our desire to belong, and we lock ourselves in the matrix.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.




  1. Suzi Montgomery on October 19, 2020 at 1:42 am

    One of my favorite quotes from the film, The Matrix – “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.” Great topic and enjoyed the read. After all, it is Halloween.

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