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‘The Social Dilemma’ unveils dangers behind social media but offers blank solutions

Netflix’s new documentary focuses on industry and expert voices, fails to tackle social issues and exploitative business models it raises

“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” Director Jeff Orlowski opens his documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” with this ominous quote from Sophocles, reminding audiences of the downside of powerful social media tools. 

He establishes a critical tone from the onset of the film. It examines how social media companies and the technologies they employ contribute to offline, real-world issues like political polarization and teenage suicide. Former employees from Facebook, Google, YouTube, Pinterest and other mega social media platforms, alongside academics, venture capitalists and authors, offer their comments throughout the film. The diverse opinions enable Orlowski to explain what exactly is the problem with social media.

In between their comments, Orlowski intersperses snippets from news channels stressing growing concerns regarding the influence of social media in various aspects of life. Broadcasters report on how social media has affected individual perceptions of worth, depression rates, elections and political weaponization. 

More interestingly, however, Orlowski has also constructed a narrative surrounding a fictional American family to illustrate the ways that digital connections have affected their interpersonal relationships. 

The ways this typical suburban family of five is affected by social media drills home the themes of the documentary. It parses out more clearly and personally the ways that commercial interests of companies like Instagram and Facebook have taken precedence over their users’ privacy. 

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, remarks how the tech industry has shifted from selling products to users, to selling users as products, with the buyers being advertisers. 

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” says Aza Raskin. Raskin is a former employee of Firefox and Mozilla Labs, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and inventor of the infinite scroll. His reference to this saying from the 1970s is still applicable to tech industries of today who have developed a similarly exploitive business model to earlier advertisement companies. 

The film explains that these companies have adopted an attention-extraction model as part of “surveillance capitalism,” a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and professor emerita at Harvard Business School. Apps like Instagram, Twitter and Reddit track users’ data to make predictions about what they’ll want to buy and what they’ll want to do, and consequently sell it to advertising companies. But in order to make accurate predictions, a lot of data is needed. 

To obtain this data, companies need to track more extensively what keeps users engaged on their screens. They set three key goals: increasing engagement, growing the number of users and tailoring the advertisements. This is what Zuboff calls “the market that trades exclusively in human futures.” Companies are manipulating human vulnerabilities in order to pursue their goals and increase their profits.

There is no doubt that the documentary highlights the terrifying ways social media works, bringing a new depth to the apps that we use every day but don’t think much about. But the documentary is not without its faults. In its endeavor to stress just how insidious these algorithms and design features are, there is only a brief mention of the human minds behind them. 

The documentary examines the danger of a small number of people controlling the screens and shaping the realities of billions, but there is not a nuanced discussion on the biases of computer scientists and programmers, and the effects of these biases on the technologies they create. We hear Cathy O’Neil, data scientist and author of “Weapons of Math Destruction,” say that artificial intelligence is just human “opinions embedded in code,” but we hear nothing more explicit about the very pertinent issues such as racial bias that plague the industry. How did a feature, such as Facebook's like button, turn from a way of “spreading love” to a toxic method of defining self-worth? 

More importantly, the documentary’s focus on the issues of the industry means that there is little-to-no concrete discussion of the possible solutions. As the credits roll, there are hopeful messages from the different commentators emphasizing how we are compelled to solve this problem, either through regulation or creating financial incentives for more ethical practices. This hope seems empty, though, given the shallowness of each suggestion. 

Even with such caveats, though, “The Social Dilemma” undoubtedly makes us more cognizant of how we use the internet. With less instructive tones, the documentary functions more as a directive of what we should consider in our own behavior, online and offline, moving forward.


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