Review: Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” is a hard-hitting eye-opener on our relationship with social media

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Image: Mariyka O. Sich

A student scrolls on their phone.

“The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a new docudrama on Netflix that tackles the increased popularity of social media in recent years and the effects that usage is having on people and society as a whole. The film features interviews with former executives from companies like Google, Facebook and Pinterest. A fictional physical representation of social media’s effects intercut the interviews to demonstrate a suburban family’s struggles with social media and its effect on their lives.

Former executives and engineers revealed that the addictive nature of social media was an intentional part of the design, with features like notifications and the endless refresh enticing users like a slot machine in a casino. The film excels at making you question your own relationship with social media and advises critical thought on how you’re actually using it.

Interviews with former executives such as Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, Pinterest president Tim Kendell and the Facebook like-button co-creator Justin Rosenstein highlight how the algorithms originally intended to tailor ads to your personal interests. Eventually, however, this leads into polarizing entire groups of people by showing them completely different results, feeds or ads based off of the data they already have. 

Renée Diresta, former head of policy at Data For Democracy and research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, explains how those narrow perspectives then allow the algorithm to feed you conspiracy theories that then impact the real world. An extreme example that’s discussed in the documentary is Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that believed people ordering a pizza actually meant ordering a trafficked person. 

“If a user was, for example, anti-vaccine or believed in chemtrails, or had indicated to Facebook’s algorithm in some way that they were prone to belief in conspiracy theories, Facebook’s recommendation engine would serve them Pizzagate groups,” Diresta said in the film. This actually culminated in a man showing up to a pizzeria with a gun to liberate the trafficked children who didn’t actually exist.

The film ties everything back into the current events going on around us, including conspiracy theories, radicalized politics, the drastic polarization between conflicting groups and more. Premiering back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Social Dilemma” is more relevant than ever, especially with the upcoming election.

To serve as a physical demonstration of the concepts and psychological effects discussed in the interviews, the film adds in a dramatic narrative about a family’s relationship with social media. While the drama tends to fall into that of an after school special, its addition illustrates a concrete and watchable example of the damage that our reliance on social media can cause in our lives. 

Towards the beginning of the film, Tristan Harris shares how, during his time at Google, he created a presentation discussing the damage that social media could and was causing, which sparked a frenzy among the company. 

“It created this kind of cultural moment that Google needed to take seriously. And then… nothing,” Harris said.

Unfortunately, and ironically enough, the film falls into that pitfall itself. It lays out all of these negative consequences and risks and primes itself to offer up some kind of solution, or even just a next step. However, no one really seems to have an answer for that next step, leaving the film on a somewhat dark note. 

Over the credits, former executives and researchers who were interviewed share their own relationships with social media and even family rules, which could have helped provide some kind of call to action or change for watchers to take. It was a missed opportunity that gives viewers a hopeless feeling concerning how to actually make change.

Despite that, however, “The Social Dilemma” has the ability to spark a vital conversation right now about social media. It shares important information about its usage and its history about events currently going on right now, straight from those who helped create it. The only major flaw is that those who created this dilemma have no solution to it.

For people wanting to learn about what impact social media is having on them, their loved ones and even their society, this film is a must-see, but the solution will have to be found by themselves.