The Social Dilemma is a bold, alarming, and somewhat simplistic documentary about the dangers of social media. It’s directed by Jeff Orlowski. Unlike his previous two films, Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017), which were more conventional documentaries, The Social Dilemma is a slickly produced docudrama that moves fast and thinks faster.

I enjoyed the documentary part. Not sure if I enjoyed the drama. Ringing the alarm bell about humanity’s exploitation through data mining are people such as Tristan Harris (co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and former Google design ethicist), Aza Raskin (the other co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology), Justin Rosenstein (co-creator of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button), Shoshana Zuboff (Harvard professor), Tim Kendall (ex-president of Pinterest), Rashida Richardson (AI Now Director of policy research), and others.

They talk about how social media’s algorithms are designed to reinforce our incorrect views and connect us with others who share them for the sake of profit, in essence, placing us in giant echo chambers. They argue that these giant echo chambers are the driving force behind the rise of the far-right, fake news about Covid-19, and mental health issues that result in self-harm. They also argue that social media platforms are aware of the role they’re playing in the rise of stupidity and ignorance, but the powers that be care about pleasing shareholders, not people.

Cut in between these interviews is a silly film that feels like it was made by a first-year college student for his school project, and paid for by his rich dad. This film is a cautionary tale about a teenager hooked on social media and stars Skyler Gisondo (Ben) and Kara Haward (Cassandra). It also features Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser (A.I.) as three men who run a social media network inside a server. No, that doesn’t make any sense.

Netflix docu-drama The Social Dilemma is a cautionary film about how our thoughts are manipulated by algorithms designed primarily to increase profits for Big Tech

Certainly, The Social Dilemma drives home some fair points. For example, I used to think Pakistani social media was stupid with its conspiracy theories about the young activist Malala. But nowadays, North American social media makes Pakistani social media look quite intelligent by comparison. It’s downright scary how so many Americans actually believe that liberals are a global clan of child sex-trafficking pedophiles who worship Satan and are plotting against Donald Trump. These QAnon idiots also believe that Donald Trump is a secret superhero fighting against them.

Countless Americans believe these theories. This includes actual right-wing politicians, law enforcement officials, and everyday people. One American engineer intentionally derailed a train near a NAVY hospital ship because of QAnon conspiracies.

Sure, social media algorithms have amplified the noise. But The Social Dilemma oversimplifies things. For example, many of these viral theories took birth in the intestine of the internet, on platforms such as 4chan, which aren’t affected by social media curation. Likewise, it talks about the lynchings in India inspired by viral fake news on WhatsApp, except WhatsApp is an encrypted messaging service. It has nothing to do with Facebook’s algorithms.

Overall, The Social Dilemma is a timely film. Any kid on social media platforms should watch it to learn about how our thoughts are manipulated by the actions of Big Tech. It’s just a pity that the film isn’t as smart or as nuanced as it should be.

Rated PG-13 for disturbing and violent images, suggestive material and some thematic elements

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 27th, 2020

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