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Review: The Social Dilemma (2020)

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Directed by: Jeff Orlowski

Premise: A mix of documentary and drama about social media’s effects on society. The documentary portion argues that social media companies have used unethical techniques to addict users to their services while the dramatic portions act out those ideas in the life of a suburban family.

What Works: The Social Dilemma is a documentary that is intended to raise alarm about the way Big Tech companies have engineered their platforms to be addictive. The overall case made by the filmmakers is persuasive and The Social Dilemma’s greatest asset is the testimony by current and former tech employees. The film primarily unfolds through the narration of Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google who now rails against what he sees as a troubling business model. Harris and the other commentators explain how companies like Facebook and Google did not start with ill intentions but their economic model incentivized constant user engagement and their platforms were engineered to appeal to addictive tendencies. The economic model also rewarded bad actors, namely people spreading disinformation or using these platforms to organize for hateful or destructive agendas. This case is laid out clearly and concisely so that laypeople should understand what the filmmakers are trying to say. The Social Dilemma is slickly produced and it intercuts a straightforward documentary with a dramatic story of a suburban family coping with technology addiction. The dramatic portions of the picture risk being hokey but they generally act out the issues in an effective way.

What Doesn’t: In an effort to visualize abstract computer concepts, The Social Dilemma visualizes the algorithm like the control room from Pixar’s Inside Out. This is silly and out of character with the rest of the movie. Some of The Social Dilemma’s most dire pronouncements need to be taken with some skepticism. The film observes that mental illness diagnoses have skyrocketed among America’s youth; this is correlated with social media. The rise in mental illness cases is true but the filmmakers ignore other factors. The social media generation also bore the brunt of two financial collapses, multiple wars, crushing student debt, terrorism, climate change, and a pandemic all while the culture broadened its acknowledgement of mental illness. Blaming people’s anxiety on Facebook and Instagram without taking all of this into consideration is presumptuous. The Social Dilemma also downplays the responsibility of consumers and citizens. While social media algorithms do reinforce pre-existing beliefs, it is the users who have to make sense of the content they consume. Even in the pre-digital era, citizens regularly encountered malicious and wrong information. Then and now, it is up to them to use their judgement and reason to make sense of it. The Social Dilemma portrays users as helpless against the all-powerful algorithm.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Despite a tendency to overreach, The Social Dilemma is a relevant and important examination of the ethics of social media. At the very least it raises important questions about the faith users have put into Big Tech companies and reveals the mechanics and subtle manipulation at work.

Episode: #836 (January 24, 2021)