Is your teenage son falling in with a bad crowd? Does your tween daughter have low self-esteem and serious impulse-control problems? Are your family dinners brief and poorly attended? If this sounds familiar, your household may be a victim of… social media.
We’ve seen years of escalating (and reasonable) fears that Facebook, YouTube, and other big social networks are bad for their users. The Social Dilemma, a docu-drama that debuts on Netflix next week, is meant as a vivid cautionary tale. It’s actually something a bit weirder: a primer on manipulative interface design in the form of an earnest after-school special or a feature-length anti-drug PSA. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma is an enjoyably lucid explanation of how sites keep users scrolling and clicking. But it’s reiterating a familiar and simplistic assessment of how the internet has changed our lives.
The Social Dilemma advances a popular explanation for why social media has exacerbated the world’s biggest problems — including authoritarian politicians, COVID-19 misinformation, and increased suicide and self-harm rates among teenagers. Through expert interviews intercut with narrative segments, it argues that ad-supported networks use addictive interface elements (like endless scrolling and pop-up notifications) and automated personalization (like recommended videos or groups) to increase engagement with harmful but compelling content (like conspiracy theories, misinformation, and mean comments from your Instagram followers). In its telling — as well as that of subjects like tech ethicist Tristan Harris, internet pioneer Jaron Lanier, and academic Shoshana Zuboff — this has turned the internet into a global force for ill.
The film cleverly dramatizes social media’s downsides with a fictionalized network that’s literally run by three sociopathic men (all played by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) inside a server. Between its experts explaining specific systems, The Social Dilemma offers a story about teen social media addict Ben (Booksmart’s Skyler Gisondo) and his equally screen-dependent family. Watching a smirking, amoral personified algorithm ruin a kid’s life might be the most fun you’ll ever have learning about push notifications.
But the drama undercuts The Social Dilemma’s ostensible message — or maybe just reveals its weaknesses. The film’s interviewees hammer home the idea that social media is a totally unprecedented threat, dismissing comparisons with radio, television, or any previous mass medium. Ben’s story, meanwhile, is a typical Rake’s Progress of middle-class juvenile dysfunction. He loses interest in cute girls and sports, starts supporting an antisocial pseudo-political movement, and generally falls into a malaise that earlier social critics pinned on rock music or television. (It’s also worth noting that many real teens don’t have a supportive family or great social life to unplug for.)
Similar to The Great Hack, another anti-Big Tech documentary that Netflix distributed last year, Orlowski’s movie relies on tech industry insiders gone rogue, with all that strategy’s power and attendant limitations. The film features several former employees of Facebook, Google, and similarly large platforms, all of whom are now critical of their product. But these tech apostates are products of the same Silicon Valley culture they’re criticizing, and they’re selling a version of the same mythos: that a few omnipotent engineers caused the apocalypse by building a perfect mind-control machine.
In fact, conflating Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram with social interaction on the internet — and “social media” with the internet at large — is the greatest trick these platforms ever pulled. The Social Dilemma, like many critiques of social media, portrays a world where algorithmically manipulated data hives replaced wholesome physical interaction. By extension, it treats any problem with the internet as a problem with the specific conditions that make Facebook or YouTube bad. Any large-scale solution boils down to tinkering with or shutting down those platforms. And any small-scale one involves cutting back on “screen time” or deleting your accounts, the main options that The Social Dilemma proposes.
Propaganda, bullying, and misinformation are actually far bigger and more complicated. The film briefly mentions, for instance, that Facebook-owned WhatsApp has spread misinformation that inspired grotesque lynchings in India. The film doesn’t mention, however, that WhatsApp works almost nothing like Facebook. It’s a highly private, encrypted messaging service with no algorithmic interference, and it’s still fertile ground for false narratives. As Alexis Madrigal notes, condemning the platforms together comes “uncomfortably close to admitting that mobile communications pose fundamental challenges to societies across the world.” There’s a fair case for that, he argues — but a case with much more alarming implications.
Radicalization doesn’t just happen on Facebook and YouTube either. Many of the deadliest far-right killers were apparently incubated on small forums: Christchurch mosque killer Brenton Tarrant on 8chan; Oregon mass shooter Chris Harper-Mercer on 4chan; Tree of Life Synagogue killer Robert Bowers on Gab; and Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik on white supremacist sites including Stormfront, a 23-year-old hate site credited with inspiring scores of murders.
These sites aren’t primarily driven by algorithms or profit motives. Instead, they twist and exploit the open internet’s positive ability to connect like-minded people. When harmful content surfaces on them, it raises complex moderation questions for domain hosts and web infrastructure providers — a separate set of powerful companies that have completely different business models from Facebook.
Big social platforms can play a key role in amplifying hate and conspiracies. The QAnon movement, for instance, began on 4chan and 8chan but spread through Facebook’s group recommendations and similar algorithmic promotional tools. In a world without gigantic, centralized social giants, its power might have been far more limited.
But small, toxic online spaces have already proven adept at hijacking a simple backlash against Big Tech by presenting themselves as alternatives. The Social Dilemma, by contrast, doesn’t offer a terribly convincing portrayal of life without its fictional Facebook clone. It assumes that if you weren’t scrolling through your feed, you’d be drawn to spontaneous tête-à-têtes or reading Zuboff’s 700-page sociopolitical tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism… instead of tabloids, telephones, movies, television, shopping centers, pornography, talk radio, internet forums, or any of the million other activities that were previously blamed for killing good books and conversation.
There’s a clear hunger for polemics like The Social Dilemma, even if most people view big tech companies favorably. When a handful of sites dominate the internet, their problems are easy to spot. But neat unified theories — including the tiny evil server men — unhelpfully conflate problems posed by specific social platforms, mass online communication, and bad actors outside the tech world.
Old-fashioned business, media, and politics still play a powerful role in shaping what we see online. Misinformation peddlers and propagandists include world leaders, political parties, and military figures, as well as celebrities minted on film or television — people who can and should be held accountable in their own right, not dismissed as inevitable byproducts of “the algorithm.” Similarly, web platforms aren’t just run by code. Senior Facebook leadership, for instance, has reportedly intervened to protect right-wing misinformation from its standard moderation process.
And as with many self-help movements, denouncing screen addiction is an easy trick for transmuting workplace culture problems into personal shame. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and one of The Social Dilemma’s central figures, relates his epiphany that Gmail’s email interface is addictive. Nobody raises an equally obvious issue: at many companies, answering email around the clock is encouraged or required. (Weirdly enough, Harris later lauds ride-hailing apps — a ruthlessly exploitative business built on opaque algorithms and manipulative interfaces — as an example of Silicon Valley’s potential.) Instead of asking companies to untether employees from a 24-hour office, tech addiction experts chide phone users for leaving their notifications on.
The Social Dilemma discounts the notion of using social networks creatively or critically, sometimes to the point of condescension. (A couple of interview subjects imply that ordinary people see sleight-of-hand tricks as literally magic, so no wonder they don’t trust them.) But it’s easy to find people thoughtfully engaging with these apps, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has turned screens into some of the only safe public spaces. Activists who are deeply critical of Facebook and Google have still built mutual aid networks and organized protests on their networks.
These activists aren’t oblivious to the downsides of big platforms, and plenty have called for — or even constructed — better independent tools. Despite this, they’ve repurposed flawed systems to serve real social needs. In the process they’ve helped illuminate the ways that social media might be used for good, as well as the changes required to make that happen.
It’s overly glib to say that all media have caused problems, and therefore social media is no different from TV or radio. The internet scales up, speeds up, and automates older media in a way that poses unique problems.
But it makes the old status quo look worse, not better. Talk radio, television, and books have pushed misinformation for years with little more than affectionate eye-rolling from the public. Cable channels dedicated to science, history, or “reality” are rife with pseudoscience, deception, and conspiracy. Modern social networks have magnified all the worst parts of existing culture. Fixing that can’t simply mean condemning Facebook. Instead, we have to treat it as one part of a much bigger problem. And more importantly, we need to imagine what comes after it.
The Social Dilemma will debut on Netflix September 9th.