Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.
The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.
The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.
The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.
The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.
If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.
So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.
Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.
With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.
The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.