Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” Teaches Us that Social Media Is Not Just a Tool

What are the true efforts behind a recommended video you see on YouTube? Is technology somehow undermining democracy? Why do we spend an excessive amount of time on our smartphones? These and more questions will be elaborated in this review of “The Social Dilemma”, a recently released documentary on Netflix.

Dim background, sitting in a simple chair, Tristian Harris, the former design esthetic at Google, shares some chilling stories about how we are being manipulated by tech giants.

This is among the first scenes one is introduced in The Social Dilemma documentary film, directed by Jeff Orlowski, which highlights the profound (negative) impacts of big technology companies in our lives and sheds some light on the idea that we are living a life shaped by algorithms.

“Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” says Harris.

In addition to him, this documentary contains interviews with former employees of prominent tech giants, such as; Facebook, Twitter, Google, Pinterest, Instagram, and Apple. Recalling their experiences, they unanimously share their concerns that our data is being monitored, measured, predicted and sold.

Few quotes worth highlights from the documentary are:

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

‘There are only two industries calling their customers ‘users’. Illegal drugs and software.’

‘If something is being a tool, it just sits there to use it. Social media is not a tool just waiting to be used. It is demanding things from us.’

You may find below two key takeaways I could spot while watching The Social Dilemma.


Social media as a threat to Democracy- ‘Democracy for sale’

During the documentary you may hear expressions such as ‘today a country can invade another country without really having to invade their physical borders.’, or ‘If you ever want to control your country, there has never been a tool as creative as Facebook.’

Social media and democracy
Social media and democracy

These expressions are just examples of something very serious being presented to us, such as the idea that there is a global assault in democracy due to manipulation made possible by tech companies. Manipulation as a synonym to personally tailored content that keeps popping up in your screen- based on your previous interactions.

“Imagine a world where no one believes what’s true. It’s possible, of course, that the film itself is a conspiracy cooked up by chronic malcontents, but it has the ringtone of truth.” Harris says.

As you can read in the previous related piece ‘Social Media – Rushing to Have an Opinion’, the algorithms can limit your possibilities to see and hear different perspectives and voices of the other.

Accordingly, a far-reaching element of this part is the spread of fake news and the misinformation during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. An interesting fact that will stay with you even after you watch “The Social Dilemma’’ is the statistic that fake news spreads six times faster than the actual real news.

None of us want to live in a society where politics are shaped by such fake news, or in a society where political extremism and polarization grab the headlines. So, this documentary is a wake-up call to not surrender before a reality where unconscious habits created for the profits of big tech companies contain the body structure of our public environment and wellbeing.


Human psychology and mental health are endangered

Part of this documentary also has a few parts with actors. Just like a dystopian movie some fleshes of internet addiction come to the viewer’s screen through a family struggling with it.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes the human shape by being portrayed in three men in charge of a room scene from where they dictate everything that appears on the phone of a high school boy. They know when he is on a break, they know the exact percentages of what notification triggers what emotions, and they come up with a ‘master plan’ when the teenager gives up his phone for a week in exchange of which his mother will pay for the reparation of his cracked phone screen. They notice when he is offline and will intentionally choose what notification brings him back active.

Human Psychology and Mental Health
Human Psychology and Mental Health

The longer he looks at his phone/advertising, the amount of money for companies increases.

While he is being maneuvered directly from (invisible) AI power, his sister’s case is a bit different- she suffers the human touch in social media.  She ends up looking her ears in the mirror and secretly crying just because her picture gained two negative comments. These comments overtake the impact of other positive comments higher in number.

“Can you make your ears bigger”, “Haha elephant ears (emoji)” are the feedbacks arousing self-doubt and negative thought on her.

The documentary reveals that social media has led to a tripling of self-harm among pre-teens in the US and a 150 per cent rise in suicides. As per the fact presented here, social media is to blame.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, says that “There has been a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right around between 2011 and 2013.”

Among other things, he shares that it [social media] has left teenagers afraid to take normal risks like learning to drive or asking someone out on a date.

Without doubt, we all share a common desire or need to feel accepted by the others, however, an interesting thing is pointed out in this documentary. We are not supposed to feel accepted by 5,000 people (the potential list of virtual friends), but by a significantly smaller group of surroundings.


Watching The Social Dilemma through a critical eye

To my point, the documentary’s approach leaves no room, or it leaves just little room for betterment and improvement of the current worrisome situation. While watching this an hour and half film documentary I have the impression that their lenses of seeing the technological world are strictly black and white.

During the documentary, except some thoughts on regulations and digital privacy, one can roughly be introduced to ideas or solutions regarding how this situation can be fixed.

Nevertheless, this television piece is not a matter of tech passion and despite the documentary’s small shortcomings, The Social Dilemma, which has an 89% Rotten Tomatoes rating is breathtaking, real, and definitely worth your time.

Photos: Shutterstock

This review is published as a complement to two previous pieces:

Global Village – When the World Becomes Small

Social Media – Rushing to Have an Opinion

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