The Social Dilemma

Written by on February 25, 2021

The more we learn about the insidiousness that underlies social media in the new documentary “The Social Dilemma,” the more it seems like the film is bringing a sling shot to a nuclear war.

What we learn in this movie is that our brains are being manipulated and even rewired by algorithms that are designed to get our attention and make us buy things, including buying into distorted ideas about the world, ourselves, and each other.

“The Social Dilemma” is from Jeff Orlowski, who gave us the similarly terrifying “what are we doing to ourselves” documentaries “Chasing Coral” and “Chasing Ice.” This one might as well be called “Chasing Us” as it asks fundamental and existential questions about whether we are literally writing (with code) ourselves out of the ability to make vital decisions about our own survival.
There have been other documentaries raising concerns about the impact of social media on our privacy and our morale and even our democracy, including the very good-to-excellent “Screened Out,” “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” and “The Great Hack.” But this documentary has a significant advantage. While all of the films have impressive experts to explain how we got here and why here is not a place anyone should be, in this movie many of the experts are the same people who got us here—top executives from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and other sites that seduce us into spending time and sharing information so they can sell both. As the film opens, we can see that the people who will be telling us their stories are uncomfortable and embarrassed. It turns out, they will be confessing and apologizing.
For example, there is Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of Facebook’s most ubiquitous feature, the “like” button. He sheepishly says it was intended to “spread positivity.” What could be wrong with letting your friends and their friends “like” something you’ve posted? Well, it turns out people get their feelings hurt if they don’t get likes. So, they amend their behavior to attract more likes. Does that seem like a problem? Consider this: a large population of the people urgently trying to get “likes” are young teenagers. We all know the excruciating nightmare that is middle school, when all of a sudden you no longer take for granted what your parents tell you and decide that what you really need is to be considered cool or at least not a total loser by your friends at school. Now multiply that by the big, unregulated world of the internet. This is why there is a precipitous spike in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts by the girls of Gen Z, current middle and high schoolers, as much as triple in some categories. Then there’s the new clinical term “Snapchat Dysmorphia,” describing the people who seek plastic surgery to look more like the filtered images they see online.The experts assure us their intentions were good, even the one whose job title at Facebook was head of “monetization.” Another one confesses that he worked on making his site irresistibly seductive at work all day and then found himself unable to resist the very algorithmic tricks he helped to create when he went home at night.The film’s biggest mistake is a poorly-conceived dramatic re-enactment of some of the perils of social media. Even the wonderfully talented Skyler Gisondo cannot make a sequence work where he plays a teenager seduced by extremist disinformation, and the scenes with Vincent Kartheiser embodying the formulas that fight our efforts to pay attention to anything outside of the online world are just silly. The excellent feature films “Disconnect” and “Trust” have illustrated these issues far better.

We may question whether audiences are able to absorb any old media narrative requiring sustained attention without the “positive intermittent reinforcement” of a “like” button to click. Even in the world of “the attention economy” this film has some worthwhile suggestions, including taxing the “data assets” of social media companies, and be sure to stay through the credits for some clear, simple rules parents can adopt. The most important lesson from “The Social Dilemma” is that we should question everything we read online, especially if it is presented to us in a way that reflects a detailed understanding of our inclinations and preferences. And we should resist the “attention extraction model” that makes social media seem friendly and reinforcing. Now, you’ll have to excuse me—I have to go delete Twitter from my phone.
Available on Netflix.

Brandi Carlile and Renée Elise Goldsberry Cover ‘I Put a Spell on You’ for the ‘Social Dilemma’ Soundtrack (EXCLUSIVE)

The part-documentary/part-drama “The Social Dilemma” deals in part with the spell that Silicon Valley tech companies have cast over a willingly mesmerized populace, and so Nina Simone’s version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put a Spell on You” was brought in as a musical accent mark for the film. For the soundtrack album, producers thought that maybe a new and lyrically updated version of the tune could be hypnotic in its own right.

That led to recruiting the surprising team of Brandi Carlile, the singer/songwriter who has come to be a recent Grammy queen, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, the singer and actor best known for her Tony-winning performances as the fiery Angelica Schuyler. They recorded a new version of “I Put a Spell on You,” not heard in the recently released film but debuting on the album that comes out Friday. Variety is hosting the exclusive track premiere in advance of its official bow on digital service providers. (Click below to listen via Soundcloud.)

Facebook Slams Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ as ‘Distorted’ and Sensationalist

Facebook complained that the film’s creators “do not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts [who] take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film.” In addition, the company said, “The Social Dilemma” does not “acknowledge — critically or otherwise — the efforts already taken by companies to address many of the issues they raise. Instead, they rely on commentary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years.”

Regarding the film’s discussion of Facebook’s “mad” algorithm, the company also pointedly noted that Netflix itself uses an algorithm “to determine who it thinks should watch ‘The Social Dilemma’ film, and then recommends it to them. This happens with every piece of content that appears on the service.”

Among the points raised in “The Social Dilemma” that Facebook challenged:

  • The company claims its News Feed product teams are not incentivized to build features that increase time spent on Facebook products.
  • On election interference, Facebook said that it has “acknowledged that we made mistakes in 2016. Yet the film leaves out what we have done since 2016 to build strong defenses to stop people
    from using Facebook to interfere in elections.”
  • Facebook says the “idea that we allow misinformation to fester on our platform, or that
    we somehow benefit from this content, is wrong.” The company claims it has a global network of more than 70 factchecking partners.
  • Facebook says that, contrary to what the film suggests, the company has policies that prohibit businesses from sending sensitive data on people such as users’ health info or Social Security numbers.
  • The company claims it has “made significant changes” to how it manages user data as part of the agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, under which it paid a record $5 billion fine. “We’ve created new safeguards for how data is used, given people new controls on how to manage their data and now have thousands of people working on privacy-related projects so that we can continue to meet our privacy commitments and keep people’s information safe,” the company says.

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