FlixChatter Review: The Social Dilemma (2020)

To say social media is addictive is really putting it mildly. Even as someone who’s relatively new to social media (I’ve actually opened a personal Facebook account just three years ago when I made my first short film), it’s impossible to refute the impact of social networking. Gone are the days when we actually use our phone to make/receive a phone call… that’s hardly the reason why we can’t put our phones down.

Set in Silicon Valley, the documentary fuses investigative documentary with tech experts who helped build the social networking platforms, and narrative drama that present how a family is dealing with the social media addiction. The concept being presented here is hardly surprising, but it’s still pretty alarming to reflect that the obsessive appeal of social networking isn’t a bug, it’s a feature – that’s the exact logline on Netflix.

I personally don’t think the dramatic narrative are necessary to grasp the concepts director Jeff Orlowski and his subjects are presenting here, but they are quite entertaining and certainly makes the big ideas like social engineering, and surveillance capitalism more relatable on a human level. What I find most fascinating are the fact that the experts being interviewed had a hand in building the platforms they are exposing and calling disturbing, even malevolent.

Two of the experts in particular, Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist and Justin Rosenstein, former Google & Facebook Engineer (who’s one of the people who invented the LIKE button) have some particularly damning revelations about the Big Tech industry. While we think of them as innovative industry that create ‘tools’ to make our lives more connected are nothing more than profit-driven industry that gain their billions trillions from manipulating human behavior.

”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”

”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”

Many of these tech experts admit that they too became addicted to their own products, even after spending hours building them, they too still fall prey to what those platforms are build for. One of the most intriguing part of the dramatization is when multiple AI (played by Vincent Kartheiser) are manipulating a teenage boy (Skyler Gisondo), complete with a digital dummy akin to a voodoo doll, to keep him engaged on screen as much as possible. It seems funny and hyperbolic, but the experts, especially Tristan Harris are saying the engineers behind these platforms are paid big bucks to ‘enslave’ us for their own gain. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. are not a passive ‘tools’ like a bicycle waiting to be used, but on the other side of these platforms, there are engineers who work with acute, unscrupulous precision to ensure that their users are addicted to their products.

I’ve already limited my time on many social platform and disabled notifications even before I watch this film, and I’m not one of those people who check their phone first thing in the morning either. But I have to admit that on occasion I had been so distracted by social media that an hour or two have gone by without me realizing it! It’s really terrifying to take in just how dangerous social media has become as the AI and algorithm become increasingly smarter and adept at predicting what we want to see/hear/buy/vote, etc. Most people who weren’t born in the age of social media (I’m going to date myself here, but I still had to do my college research using a Microfiche machine at the library!), I realize that technology as powerful as social media is going to have an evil, dark side to it, but I doubt many young people are conscious of it. Even if they are, they probably are too pressured by their peers to limit their use of it.

My heart goes out to the parents of Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, as mobile phones have become available to them since they’re in middle school. It’s no wonder that there’s skyrocketing levels of depression among children and teens… it’s bad enough kids get bullied in person, but being bullied through social media that reach beyond their own school/community is another matter. The film also touched upon some of the dire social implications all over the world. For example, it talks about how Facebook is used to spread false information, including Covid misinformation, and how it’s used to incite violence by white supremacist, etc. It even has an influence in something as horrifying as the genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Social Dilemma might seem hyperbolic at times, and I feel that is on purpose for a cautionary tale such as this one. I certainly find if eye-opening and sobering, even downright terrifying at times. It potently illustrates just how important it is for people to connect on a human level outside of the digital ecosystem. It’s also a visually-arresting film with beautiful animation to illustrate various points. I think it’s important for documentary filmmakers to use creativity to deliver information in an entertaining way, and Orlowski certainly did that. If there is one documentary you should watch this year (well, of any year), I can’t recommend this one enough.


Have you seen The Social Dilemma? I’d love to hear what you think!

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