Movie Review: The Social Dilemma

How does social media culture need to change, and how invasive is technology?

Fueled by criticisms of the social media platforms they helped create, former Silicon Valley executives warn of social media’s dangers in Netflix’s newest documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” Any user of the Internet has heard how Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are dangerous, but almost none of us know the extent to which social media’s addictive quality and polarization can affect us. 

The documentary comprises of many interviews and conversations with former leaders and critics of the technology industry, such as Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, and Jaron Lanier, who wrote a book on the benefits of deleting your social media accounts. “The Social Dilemma” goes the extra mile by intertwining scenes of a fictional family who suffers the consequences of social media addiction, including polarization and destructive obsession with self-image. 

The 90-minute film highlights the increasing mental health and suicide rates that seem to align with social media’s growth. Compared to the first decade of this century, the suicide rate for girls ages 15-19 was up 70% by 2018 and up 151% for girls ages 10-14, eerily aligning with social media’s availability beginning in 2009.

According to the documentary, social media is such a large and successful industry because of advertising. Advertisers can always be certain that users will see their ads, as intelligent algorithms put the perfect piece of content on your screen to keep you engaged and scrolling, and therefore viewing more advertisements. Because social media is free for users, the users themselves are the product, and the advertisers are the buyers.

The algorithms aim to only show users posts with which they will engage. The Facebook news feed is one of the main sources of news for its 2.7 billion users, and when billions of people are only hearing news that they agree with, the world becomes divided and polarized. But Facebook doesn’t care, because they are being paid to keep users on the app looking at the news. An MIT study shows that fake news spreads six times as fast as real news on Facebook, which is one of the main reasons that Russia was so successful in its election interference campaign in 2016. Simply put, Facebook has the moral responsibility of being a main news source for 2.7 billion people, yet its algorithm operates solely to make money and fails to educate people correctly and fairly. With all of this polarization due to social media, Tim Kendall, a former executive at Facebook and the former president of Pinterest, went as far as to say that his biggest worry in the short term is civil war.

Overall, the documentary suggests that the culture in Silicon Valley needs to change completely. As Tristan Harris puts it, the entire culture of capitalism needs to change. Just as a tree is worth more as lumber and a whale is worth more dead, a human is worth more distracted, polarized, and addicted. “The Social Dilemma” explains that we have a big problem: We are all using technological platforms at the expense of human and social good, and the incentives of these platforms, such as profit and control, are not beneficial for our mental health and our democracy.

Though exposing all of these problems in the technology industry, the experts fail to give any real solutions. Not once were viewers directly told to delete their social media accounts or even set screen time limits on their phones. So it’s up to us, the addicted and polarized products of social media, to speak out and force change in the world just as we have for hundreds of issues in the past.