Director: Jeff Orlowski
I watched The Social Dilemma as soon as it was released but did not have the time to write a blog (this has happened all too often for a while now). However, since the whole hoopla with Facebook kicking off about the film, I felt I need to write something.
So, before I even start, three points need to be put forward.
First, I believe Netflix and the arguments The Social Dilemma is putting forward. That is the beginning and the end of it. It is plainly obvious in just observing the society that there is a worrying addiction to technology and nevermind all data and written work that has discussed this issue for many years now. Just go on public transport or pay attention in the streets and you will see people staring at their phones oblivious to the world around them. I do think the film is millennial in the way it was made and produced, but if it appeals to young people and makes them act, I will deal with it.
Second, I do not think there is anything wrong with technology corporations such as Facebook (which is my favourite social media network btw). They do what corporations always did, and that is run for profit. What is wrong is that Governments are shifting towards open market and marketisation ever more and thus letting societies self-regulate, which is how we ended up, for example, with a notorious concept of corporate social responsibility that the public and the media push onto companies and that keeps the status quo intact and benefits nobody.
Third, I do feel that digitalisation brought some improvement in our lives. For example, my life is much easier thanks to Google search bar and Google Scholar and the Internet generally makes my life easier. I think that digitalisation increased the quality of academic work because our literature reviews are better than ever and research is more rigorous than ever. However, the Social Dilemma acknowledges this too and specifically mentions also that social media connected lost relatives, found organ donors, etc.
So, what happened? What did Netflix say in the film, and why is Facebook kicking off?
Netflix invited a group of former senior officials in digital companies such as Google, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. These technology specialists, many of whom invented and designed the most popular social media tools (e.g. the like button on Facebook), expressed criticism of worrying addiction to social media and they talked first-hand about how companies encourage this addiction to increase revenue from advertising. The film does this in a way that can be appealing to masses by having actors participating in visualising scenario on what can happen if some regulation does not come into force. However, the film quite radically suggests that we might end up in civil war (this was suggested by Tim Kendall, a former Facebook executive) and shows how people end up rioting and attacking each other because of fake news but also because of bubbles and targeting. This is the most interesting part of the film as specialists explain how people are targetted with information companies think might be of interest to them, all for profit. This naturally leads to cementing existing views, not being exposed to any challenges or criticism, and thus inevitably being prone to fake news, of which social media networks are famous.
What Netflix’s film emphasises is that this targeting means that people do not talk to each other and when people say ‘how can people not know this’, the film says that actually, the people do not know because they are targetted with the information they are actually interested in, and this is rarely a conflicting view. This is clearly psychological targetting as people are bombarded with information they already agree with, with which advocacy is simply unsuccessful and it causes conflicts with opposing opinions when encountered due to cognitive dissonance that people experience. I was quite interested in this part because I often thought, during some political debates, how is it possible that people do not know XYZ. After watching this film, it makes sense they do not know. We have all already heard of social media bubbles and we all know companies are using big data to target people with adverts and encourage them to buy products they think they will be interested in, so Netflix is not saying something we did not already know. Netflix has simply brought people who have made all of this happen to admit what they did and express concerns as to whether everything has gone too far.
Netflix is also a company that often produces and buys programme that supports human rights so Netflix making this film is not really an isolated case, and it is quite frankly why I like Netflix. I like them because they express the same concerns and support the same causes I support. Am I perhaps in my bubble and supporting a company that panders to me? Maybe, but so what? At least the cause is right and socially supportive. I fail to see anything supportive in bombarding me with excessive information on social media websites, which I noticed long before this film.
So, what is Facebook saying then? In an official response, Facebook said
“Rather than offer a nuanced look at technology, it gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems. The film’s creators do not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts that take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film. They also don’t acknowledge—critically or otherwise—the efforts already taken by companies to address many of the issues they raise. Instead, they rely on commentary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years. Here are the core points the film gets wrong.”
The document Facebook released then goes into details on what they do to help and protect users, such as commenting on addiction, people as a product, algorithm, data and privacy, polarisation and elections and misinformation and fake news. Facebook is basically claiming that they take users protection seriously and that they have made steps to protect the privacy and fake news dissemination, which they say existed long before Facebook. Facebook also criticised Netflix for using the algorithm by saying in point 3 that,
“Facebook uses algorithms to improve the experience for people using our apps—just like any dating app, Amazon, Uber, and countless other consumer-facing apps that people interact with every day. That also includes Netflix, which uses an algorithm to determine who it thinks should watch ‘The Social Dilemma’ film, and then recommends it to them. This happens with every piece of content that appears on the service.”
I am afraid that even though I am not a liberal by ideology, I would have to draw from utilitarianism to argue for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people and say ‘so what if Netflix uses an algorithm to alert the public about this film and dangers of technology addiction and abuses? Everybody wins if people learn to pay attention to this and protect themselves and the youth whereas I fail to see how anyone benefits from social media companies using an algorithm which Facebook described as,
“Algorithms and machine learning improve our services. For example, at Facebook, we use them to show content that’s more relevant to what people are interested in, whether it’s posts from friends or ads. Portraying algorithms as ‘mad’ may make good fodder for conspiracy documentaries, but the reality is a lot less entertaining.”
At the end of the day, I am a trained WordPress web designer, SEO specialist and I am also a prolific social media user. I have been doing my promotion on social media which worked well in my career, however, does it make me a hypocrite to still criticise extensive digitalisation? I do not think so. I use social media to promote my work because I HAVE TO, and this is the problem. It is now part of the recruitment process for people to be on social media, be prolific, have these skills, get impact in research, etc. It is no longer personal, fun or optional. It is a must, and that is the problem. What is more, social media are imposed on children so youngest users with a LinkedIn profile are 12 or 13 years old, which is ridiculous. Some commentators have been arguing that new generations have an attention span lower than the one of a goldfish and do not read books, thus having their critical skills impaired.
We also know that young people are exploited and bullied on social media, which Netflix illustrates with a little girl who obsessively posts her selfies on Instagram and then gets upset when obtaining one negative comment, which affects her confidence. The film also correctly comments that young people are in the global spotlight all of the time, which goes beyond any normal socialisation the humankind historically experienced. Therefore, what Netflix is saying is that profit-driven companies cannot be allowed to operate in a current way without being regulated somehow. That is all, and I do not think it is too radical. It should be a common sense.
What prompted Facebook reaction is the call of Twitter users to delete Facebook and Instagram, and the fact some media outlets (e.g. the Independent in the UK) called Netflix’s documentary as the most important documentary of our time calling on rethinking how we use social media.
As stated before, this is not the first time Netflix has done something like this. In 2019, they also launched a film called ‘The Great Hack’ on Cambridge Analytica scandal that Facebook was involved with, which was also an attempt to warn about dangers of social media and its excessive use and the lack of regulation. I know this is not pleasant for Facebook and others and understand why they reacted, but ultimately Netflix’s activism might make a positive difference.
And on a final word, while I do appreciate technological advances such as Internet and Google, I have to say I miss a world in which people would spontaneously start talking on public transport or in bars. I sometimes feel not enough people appreciate what is around them or tries to build meaningful relationships. This film reminded me of one film, American Beauty, and its famous quote ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in’. I am afraid that in the current world, people only see the world’s beauty in pictures on their phones whilst failing to notice what is around them. So, if the Netflix’ algorithm targeted me, well done because I am glad I watched this and I was pleased to see the reaction and that many feel the way I do.
Thank you for reading.