September 23, 2020 by Cláudia
The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a movie that features several former social media employees as whistleblowers, as well as some researchers and activists, who denounce the deliberate unethical tactics employed by tech companies aiming to keep users engaged on the platforms and thus maximize profit.
After insistently being recommended by Netflix for weeks, paradoxically, I finally decided to watch the documentary on how social media shapes our world and manipulates our psychology. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know that I have shared a strong uneasiness when it comes to social media and how it is affecting our society and our relationships with one another and ourselves (for example, Screen Time or Imprisoned Inside a Screen).
This documentary promises to debunk the unethical tactics employed by social media platforms to keep users engaged, addressing important topics such as addiction, political polarization, the erosion of truth, the spread of fake news, mental health and self-image, among others.
The documentary is built around the idea that If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. This means that even if these online tools don’t require a fee, they are still profit-oriented corporations who employ traditional capitalist short-term thinking.
The movie introduces these and other useful notions aiming to diagnose what is so deleterious about tech companies, with particular focus on Silicon Valley. And yet, despite introducing a few interesting and thought-provoking facts (did you know that fake news spread 6 times faster than real news?), the movie felt incomplete and deliberately superficial.
When it tries to describe what exactly is wrong with current large technology companies, it seems to be out of words (“There is a problem happening in the tech industry and it doesn’t have a name”). Eventually, though, the term surveillance capitalism is thrown around for a minute, never to be fully explained or used again.
In fact, my first grievance with the movie is how little surveillance is discussed. At some point, it is actually mentioned that these companies have no interest in selling the collected data because they are much more interested in keeping the data for their own algorithms. This is just untrue, as it was demonstrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The movie seems to strategically avoid the hard discussions. It very conveniently avoided assignment of guilt (“There is no bad guy”), as if the results they were describing were not natural consequences of very deliberate choices but as a surprising malfunction. Even if it is mentioned that the people who created the codes and algorithms have some level of responsibility for the way their creations are employed, at no time there is an actual assignment of guilt towards those who spearheaded the need for the creation of these algorithms. Over and over, it is emphasized that none of them knew about the possible consequences of what they were creating (something they end up repeating one too many times for it to be believable). Plus, the interviewees keep trying to feed us the idea that the goal of social media was once to spread love and positivity. Mark Zuckerberg only very briefly makes an appearance in a seemingly inconsequential and out-of-place interview scene, in which he denies Facebook’s responsibility in the 2016 election. He claims: “That is hard. There were so many factors at play.” – That’s the full extent of his appearance on this movie.
The Social Dilemma is a piece of manipulative filmmaking on par with the social media platforms it critiques. While presenting itself as a clear-eyed expose of Silicon Valley, the film is ultimately a redemption tour for a gaggle of supposedly reformed techies wrapped in an account that is so desperate to appeal to “both sides” that it is unwilling to speak hard truths.Zachary Loeb, Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers (Review of Jeff Orlowski, dir., The Social Dilemma)
Without assigning guilt and responsibility, the answers to the underlying issue fall short, which is why the ending is so unsettling. The viewer is told to take small actions to minimize the negative impacts of social media: turn off notifications, never watch a recommended video on Youtube, leave the phone on the car or don’t bring it to the bedroom… And it’s eerily reminiscent of when big government officials and the big polluters tell us to recycle, change lightbulbs and eat less meat to tackle climate change. At first, it may feel good to be taking some concrete action to tackle a problem that seems to transcend our individual action. But soon, because we’re not actually addressing the root of the problem, it will become very clear that we are trying to put out a forest fire with a teaspoon of water.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this movie is that we are made to believe that the same people who designed the tools that allowed this “surveillance capitalism” paradigm to thrive are the same ones fighting to make it right. The Social Dilemma attempts to place these people at the forefront of the movement, instead of the actual people who are demanding true and lasting change and not just small tweaks in the algorithm.
But the absolute most concerning aspect of the movie is how it seems to equate politicization of social media and destabilization, fanaticism and, ultimately, the erosion of democratic society. It incurs in slippery-slope argumentation that culminates in a melodramatic (and frankly, quite cringeworthy) arrest scene during a protest (significantly, not specifying exactly what they were protesting).
Mass protests are frequently shown in the background without bothering to explain who is protesting what and why, while a voiceover alerts to the perils of radicalization, erosion of democracy and polarization. Are we to believe that persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is equally threatening to our democracy as protests in Hong Kong against government repression?
The Social Dilemma clearly wants to avoid taking sides. And in so doing demonstrates the ways in which Silicon Valley has taken sides. After all, to focus so heavily on polarization and the extremism of “both sides” just serves to create a false equivalency where none exists. But, the view that “the Trump administration has mismanaged the pandemic” and the view that “the pandemic is a hoax” – are not equivalent. The view that “climate change is real” and “climate change is a hoax” – are not equivalent. People organizing for racial justice and people organizing because they believe that Democrats are satanic cannibal pedophiles – are not equivalent. (…) There are people online who are organizing for the cause of racial justice, and there are white-supremacists organizing online who are trying to start a race war—those causes may look the same to an algorithm, and they may look the same to the people who created those algorithms, but they are not the same.Zachary Loeb, Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers (Review of Jeff Orlowski, dir., The Social Dilemma)
The underlying message is that both sides are equally corrupt and that any radical idea is a threat to democracy and coexistence. In The Social Dilemma, the perfect society is apolitical and uncritically harmonious.
The real fabric of democracy is collective action and challenges to the status quo. The real fabric of democracy is non-conformity, the conversations between opposing views. They are absolutely right that the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories and rabbit holes are a threat to our democracy. But they make a very dubious overgeneralization that all collective action that happens online is moved by fanaticism and presents a danger to democracy.
Paradoxically, much of what has been collectively achieved lately has relied heavily on social media, both to build digital networks bringing activists and organizations together, and to organize the mobilisations.
Let’s look at the recent protests in the USA against police brutality and systemic racism, which made the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter explode all around the globe and, in turn, mobilized people all around the world to march in solidarity, creating a global dynamic rarely seen. Or the school strikes for climate which, having begun with a non-compliant Swedish student, suddenly multiplied internationally in a coordinated global and unprecedented movement (Fridays for Future). I’ve even been seeing Youtube creators who are using their platforms and knowledge of the algorithm to create pointless videos with the sole purpose of creating ad revenue for different social causes, and thousands of people liking, commenting and watching as a way to donate.
Yes, civil society is much more resilient and adaptable than The Social Dilemma makes it to be. And the implications of the overall message of the movie can be sinister: do not fall into panic-driven social unrest, do not foster disagreement, just try to disconnect. Not completely, though. Just a little bit. That’s all you can do as an individual. We at the Center for Humane Technology are taking care of it.
Overall, the movie promises too much and achieves too little. Filled with vague statements, unfinished thoughts and clunky pseudo-narrative devices, it barely scratches the surface of the dangers that greedy market-oriented tech CEOs pose to democracy and our safety. Worst, it pathologically avoids addressing the root cause, which is probably why it was allowed as a Netflix production, a streaming platform suffering from many of the same ailments.
After hours of ranting and two sleepless nights, thinking about the dangers posed by this movie, I can only hope that this movie is taken as a beginning of a larger conversation instead of an endpoint.
For further reading, I highly recommend the review by Zachary Loeb that I’ve been quoting: Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers (Review of Jeff Orlowski, dir., The Social Dilemma). It is impeccably well written and it really helped me to make sense of the confusing feelings this movie left me with.