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Film / The Social Dilemma

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"There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users': illegal drugs and software."
Edward Tufte

"Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures."
Shoshana Zuboff

The Social Dilemma is a 2020 docudrama directed by Jeff Orlowski. It explores the negative ways social media has impacted our world through interviews with various tech insiders (many of whom were formerly high-ranking members of popular social media apps) and academics. It also features a story about a family struggling with their children's social media usage, starring Skyler Gisondo and Kara Hayward. A visual representation of how the algorithm influences people is portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser.

The film was released on Netflix on September 9, 2020.


Tropes in this film:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Discussed.
    • One interviewee points out that the concept of an AI gone rogue might bring to mind high concept antagonists as seen in Terminator, but the AI we do have to be concerned about is all the data-gathering algorithms that run largely without human supervision over the consequences that people are exposed to. A segment of a TED Talk showed that the fear of a Robot War is when AI becomes more powerful that Human Strengths, but the AI they are talking about is when they become more powerful than Human Weaknesses.
    • Because of the inherently faulty nature of AI, the claims from the social media companies that they need to build better AI sorting algorithms are dismissed by the people interviewed because they believe AI will always be faulty trying to make moral determinations. It was these same programs applied to a worldwide population that created the problem in the first place.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: The fear of the data collection being misused by the companies or government is only briefly touched upon. Far more scary is seeing the algorithm combining GPS location, relationship history and new social developments in a desperate bid to get Ben back online.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: A message the film makes is that tech companies put profit before ethics or their search engines (that seem perfectly innocent in concept) only end up dividing people by making them unexposed to other lines of thinking.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The Advertising, Engagement, and Growth are colored yellow, purple, and blue respectively.
  • Civil War: What tech expert who are interviewed fear what will happen to America within the near future. Already a country infamous for having two political parties vying for control each election, they fear that now in the digital age where political tribalism has become more prevalent, it will amount to scale civil conflict with both parties.
  • Cyberspace: The business model for social media is demonstrated through three manipulative men within Ben's phone who react to all his online activity and try to keep him using the app, all within a small room. A Wham Shot the film has that emphasizes how many people are being manipulated by their phones are a countless array of similar rooms, all being similar duped for different reasons.
  • Cyberbullying: The movie touches on everything from cyberbullying at a young age, increasing numbers of self-harm and suicide attempts, radicalization of teenagers and all the way to bringing up the Myanmar ethnic cleansing that was facilitated through Facebook.
  • Gullible Lemmings: Why tribality has formed because of the internet and social media. Basically, it shows that only being exposed to certain groups with similar ideologies, people cannot acknowledge or are hostile towards those who oppose their ideologies. This results in conflict that may even escalate outside the online space.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Many of the people interviewed were early developers for various social media platforms, and are appalled at what their creations have gone on to become. The creator of the Facebook "Like" button laments that people can develop depression if their post doesn't get enough likes.
  • Nuclear Family: The family in the scripted story is a blended one, consisting of a mother, a father, one eldest daughter, one middle son, and one younger daughter.
  • People Puppets: A representation of the algorithm shows how its three parts, advertisement, engagement and growth, work to maintain influence on Ben. It initially starts as a generic digital avatar responding to the content being provided, but when Ben is unable to go more than a few days without his phone the avatar becomes Ben, seemingly suspended in air and with no will of his own.
  • Social Media Before Reason: In the story, the family's youngest daughter Isla is so addicted to her phone that when her mother locks it away during dinner, she smashes the container with a hammer and runs upstairs rather than eat without it. Ben in the story is also shown this but within a much subtler way as when he jumps back onto his phone despite promising his mother he would not because he wants to know how people at school are doing.
  • Social Media Is Bad: The central theme of the documentary is how social media only ends up dividing
    • The film explores first how tech companies are mainly concerned with profit, and how this profit-driven business model can be weaponized by bad actors. Not only does it lead to spreading conspiracy theories, it also plays a role in destabilizing many democracies by creating tribalism and election influence. The film even goes as far as showing that Facebook of all things was a tool for an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
    • It also touches on how social media negatively affects mental health, and how its usage is correlated with teen suicide rates.
    • The acting performance features a teen named Ben who struggles to disconnect with The Internet and slowly becomes drawn into an online bubble of conspiracy theories. His younger sister Isla is also shown struggling with her self-image due to social media. Their elder sister gets into a violent confrontation at a Republican rally at the film's climax and though it is not shown also being manipulated by social media, it would not be out of the question she was as well.
  • There Should Be a Law: The film suggests that the government should put more regulations on social media. Better yet, people should not use suggestions made by search engines that influence their ideologies through automatic exposure.

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