Netflix released The Social Dilemma on 9 September and it is, quite frankly, a documentary you cannot un-watch. If we were in The Matrix, this documentary would be the “red pill”. The narrative comprises of 1 hour and 33 informative minutes that expose how social media platforms are altering human behaviour on a global scale for profit.
AT A GLANCE
- Starring: Tristan Harris, Tim Kendall, Bailey Richardson, Sandy Parakilas
- Directed by: Jeff Orlowski
- Rating: **** and 1/2 (four and a half stars)
The documentary introduces us to ex-Silicon Valley executives who previously worked for companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (to name a few). These interviews with the professional techies effectively reveal the manipulative agendas of social media companies driven by commercial interests.
It feels like the people responsible for the population’s addiction to social media are admitting to us the ominous place they’ve lured humans into.
Another story-line that runs parallel to the overwhelming interviews is a fictional family battling social media addiction together. It involves a concerned mother and elder sister that strongly wish to help the younger members of their family overcome a habit they don’t even know exists.
We see a young girl developing body-image issues and becoming insecure because of the constant comments on her photos from online followers. Another boy in high school is shown to be a slave to his phone who can’t seem to go three days without checking his social media accounts.
In a clever simulation, The Social Dilemma portrays how the teenager is a zombie controlled by 3 algorithms in human form. These algorithms know exactly what the boy wants to look at online. They show him the content he is most likely to engage with and then effectively “squeeze in a sneaker ad” to make money off him.
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Since we don’t pay to use apps like Google and Pinterest, the business model for these companies is to make money from advertising; and advertisers are willing to pay a fortune for users’ attentions.
We find out that those employed at these companies are encouraged to keep users chronically engaged on their platforms. To do this, algorithms are developed that take into account human psychology to keep users hooked. The algorithms are so intelligent that they keep self-learning methods to successfully predict what a particular user wants to see. These tactics are clearly powerful since they have produced entire generations of people that can’t look away from their phone screens.
Tristan Harris, one of the interviewees, was a design ethicist at Google and he calls it a “digital pacifier”.
The Social Dilemma also divulges disheartening truths like – fake news on Twitter spreads 6 times faster than true news, which is a result of shrewd and shifty algorithms. The Rohingya refugee crisis was also raised as an example of the horrifying offline consequences of malevolent online behaviour.
Those interviewed for the documentary are now reformed professionals working to correct the very businesses they helped build.
It appears as if these contributors never intended such sinister outcomes from the success of their companies. Instead, they viewed it as a way to make life easier, more convenient and grow human connections. They are portrayed as people who couldn’t have known that their genius contributions would soon become unscrupulous and change the course of humanity as we know it.
Whether it’s reuniting with old friends and family or looking up reviews for hair salons near you, the internet has been an extraordinary feat for humans. However, the documentary alerts audiences of the dangers of these unregulated companies who have now become the wealthiest businesses in the world.
The Social Dilemma is more of an ethical dilemma, it warns us that the longer these tech giants go unsupervised by governments, the greater the problems that will need solving. On the bright side, the film also informs users how they can fight this perversion and empower themselves.
This review finds that The Social Dilemma is an absolute must-watch for anyone who owns a smartphone. It is a compelling education about the effects of capitalism, an increasing online presence, and their consequences on human psychology, evolution, democracy and global freedom.
Several celebrities like Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar, Vir Das, Kusha Kapila and Abhimanyu Dassani have recommended watching the eye-opening non-fiction film.
Lyricist and singer Swanand Kirkere also publicly requested Netflix to release the documentary in Hindi and other Indian languages so it could reach a wider audience.
Watch the trailer here-