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Documentary Film Review: The Social Dilemma

Nicole Dahlgren ‘21 

Staff Writer 

The Social Dilemma is a Netflix original documentary that was released in September 2020. The film focuses on the experiences of one hypothetical family who experience online addiction, and is narrated by former executives, presidents, and engineers of social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and Pinterest. Most of those featured left these companies due to “ethical concerns.”

The stories of former workers, coupled with those of Ivy League professors and insightful authors, provide a whole new perspective to the ideas that we may already be aware of. It is a call to action for us to take seriously the business and effects of social media.

The first half of the documentary focuses on the algorithms that manipulate human psychology on the platforms that most people use daily. Following these startling revelations, the second half is centered around the spread of fake news. On these platforms, an individual’s feed is actively personalized to their interests and opinions. 

Let’s dive into the algorithms behind the apps we’re using every day. The fact that internet companies are the richest companies in the history of humanity is already pretty disturbing, but it becomes more so when you think about how Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook and Google are all free for us to use as often as we desire. This is because advertisers pay these platforms in exchange for them showing their ads to us – our attention is what is the money maker. The longer we are engaged on the screen, the more money these companies are making, and the better they compete with rivals, so of course their main intent is to keep our attention for as long as possible. 

Equally as disturbing is the fact that every single thing you have ever looked at online is tracked. Every post you like, the amount of time you spend looking at a photo of your ex, every little thing you search for on Google. This is the data that your devices collect to get a better picture of what triggers you as an individual, and to predict what content will keep you locked into your screen. Everything down to the ellipsis you see when someone is typing was created to keep your attention on the screen. Yes, this is terrifying to me, too.

The highlights of the negative impacts of social media on mental health were not all surprising, although it was incredibly interesting to learn just how these companies are captivating people. Not only are younger generations losing their sense of self-worth and identity by placing far too much value on the approval they get from users on the internet, but they’re missing out on so much of what they’re truly meant to be experiencing. 

The latter half of the documentary was full of new information and analysis that I’d never really considered before, and it left me fearful for the future of our society of surveillance capitalism. 

Evidently, we’ve entered an age of misinformation, a world where fake news spreads six times faster than real news on Twitter. False information makes companies more money than the truth because it tends to be less “boring,” thus gaining more traction online – it is a disinformation for profit model.

This is incredibly relevant today in the midst of the pandemic and the presidential election. When conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 hit the internet, they get millions and millions of views, so it can be difficult to decipher fact from falsehood. In a time of so much uncertainty, people turn to the internet far too much for explanations.

Algorithms come into play here through your newsfeed, and even what will pop up for you in a Google search. If you’re a Trump supporter, the news sources you’ll come across online will likely be about the incompetencies of Joe Biden. On the other hand, if you’re a member of the Democratic party, you’ll be met with sources speaking to the ignorance of Republicans.

You may often wonder how members of the opposite party can be so clueless about what you are seeing online, and the answer is simply that they are not viewing the same things as you are. Google cannot tell fact from fiction, and our search engines are programmed to understand our interests and expose us to them. 

People see different worlds because the computer calculates what is perfect for each individual, giving everyone their own set of facts and realities. It is a false belief to think that everyone’s newsfeed is the same as yours. Before you share something, fact check and consider the source. Follow people you disagree with to get different points of view.

This film is eye opening because the facts are coming from people who actually piloted and engineered the platforms that are manipulating human psychology and causing polarization in our society. The fact that former executives of social media platforms won’t let their own children use them speaks volumes. 

The algorithms powering these platforms are only going to become better at understanding us and more precise at predicting what we want to see individually, and our own “willful ignorance” will be our downfall if we don’t change. Tim Kendall, a former Executive of Facebook and former President of Pinterest, believes we will see a civil war if we continue down the path we’re on toward an existential threat. 

The Social Dilemma is a horror movie for the times we live in. In today’s world, online connection has become primary, people are getting plastic surgery to match Snapchat filters and losing friendships over political opinions. However, the element of this documentary that was the most upsetting to me is the fact that we would be different people than who we are now if social media and the internet weren’t in our lives. We may have thought different thoughts, we may have made different decisions, and may have different relationships than we do right now. 

Take the time to ask yourself if you would hold different values than what you spend your time caring about today if you weren’t locked into your phone. Who would you be without it?