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Netflix’s The Social Dilemma: Social media takes a grim turn in the docudrama film

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma: Social media takes a grim turn in the docudrama film

Think twice

Text: Cheryl Lai-Lim


We've all heard of the downsides of social media: how such apps and sites feed into our incessant addiction for these platforms and eat away our privacy and data. But perhaps we've never quite understood the problem comprehensively — that is until, Netflix's The Social Dilemma was released. We've seen films detailing the effects of social media before, notably with Netflix's The Great Hack, which focuses on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. What makes The Social Dilemma stand out is its grim voice of addressing and breaking down social media issues. If the serious undertone and the ominous background piano score the film opens with gives away anything, it's that social media is no utopia.

The docufilm features interviews with ex-Silicon Valley employees and creators that have had impressive résumés at big names such as Facebook, Google, Twitter. Some of them had a hand in creating and inventing these social media platforms. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the 90-minute chilling exposé layers these interviews with dramatic film sequences around a family. These scenes ultimately come together to paint the consequences of our growing dependence on social media.

Right off the bat, the interviewees make clear that social media selling users' data to advertisers is simply scratching the surface. No, the quid pro quo to using these free networking sites isn't just simply receiving targeted ads from your favourite brands. Instead, the algorithm behind these advertisements work much more sophisticatedly to gradually manipulate you and your thoughts. The data systems record every action taken online; from images you look at right down to the time taken to look at it. This allows them to make better predictions at a higher level of precision, all done so to suit the particular social media platform's business goals. The film breaks down this complex revelation with Vincent Kartheiser playing three artificial intelligence (AI) characters that work to ensnare teenage social media addict Ben (played by Skyler Gisondo) into their platform.

Another sobering point is made when Ben's younger pre-teen sister, Isla (played by Sophia Hammons) feels the need to overlay her selfies with filters after being dispirited by the low engagement rate of previous unfiltered uploads. Although the filters used in the film were exaggerating comical to the extent where she looks cartoon-like, the point is made. The pressure to look seemingly perfect on social media is deleterious. The scene is followed up by statistics, where it becomes stark clear that social media has an inherent link to self-harm and suicide.

Beyond individuals, the film also highlights mass conspiracy theories charged by social media. The flat-earth conspiracy is due to a YouTube rabbit-hole algorithm, which recommended such videos hundreds of millions of times. Pizzagate, the social media conspiracy where ordering a pizza meant ordering a trafficked person, was fuelled by Reddit and Facebook and eventually led to a man showing up with a rifle-gun at a pizza restaurant. Misinformation about COVID-19 flooded social media, leading to crowds burning cell towers in fear of 5G technology. It's easy to think that these are preposterous claims, but the interviewees reveal that these users' social media feeds are permeated with such content, because the algorithm deem it so. Even the autocomplete on Google searches change depending on each individual's interests.

Quite ironically, you'll stay addictively glued to the screen throughout the entire 90 minutes of the film. And whilst the film makes clear the nefarious exploitations of vulnerability, it ends on a rather ambiguous note with no clear suggestions for the future beyond a call for rules and regulations. Still, The Social Dilemma makes for a riveting watch that will have you side-eyeing your phone throughout and reassessing every push notification that comes through.

To find out more about the film, click here.

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