Netflix’s new documentary chronicling America’s addiction to social media appears to have struck a chord with a nation obsessed with online platforms. Moving into the last week of September, the top documentary trending on Netflix is on a course to become the first of its genre to become the most popular film on the streaming service’s digital library, according to Forbes.
Aptly named “The Social Dilemma,” the documentary poetically presents a plethora of perilous problems facing the addicted population over Americans’ compulsory use of social networking as a sort of virtual supplement to daily life in the 21st century digital era.
Americans, filmmakers explain through testimonies from former executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others, have blindly fallen victim to financial incentives in the tech industry. These incentives attach them to their devices through manipulative algorithms that harness the human psyche to achieve maximum attention for the benefit of the paying advertiser.
“We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary,” says computer scientist Jaron Lanier, where big tech has forged an entire generation whose relationships are built on the internet. Experts throughout the film say that’s a dangerous predicament citing a severe mental health crisis worsening with the rise of online platforms, particularly among younger people.
Tech addiction is compared to that of a drug. It pulls users into their devices as a result of tech engineers re-programming the brain to play on “biologic imperatives” eliciting rewardable responses. Strategies such as photo tagging, notifications, and constant refresh, among others, affect users’ dopamine levels. Younger generations, the experts argue, are especially vulnerable. Kids, teenagers, and young adults living online are incentivized to chase false and unattainable images of perfection while hunting validation, leaving people emptier than before the short-term “fix.”
A major criticism of the film is how little agency those interviewed assigned to users. It almost entirely strips questions of personal responsibility out of the discussion and instead blames tech platforms for the societal problems born out of the chemical addictions they foster.
On the other hand, that’s kind of the point. Tech companies have successfully found ways to hijack the human psyche to disarm them of the willpower to exercise that responsibility. If we’re being honest with ourselves, leaving our phones out of the bedroom at night can feel like an impossible fight. I’d guess most people reading this article have already checked their phones once or twice, or have at least fought the temptation.
Tech bias was a primary blind-spot in the program. The documentary centered on the poisonous polarization bred by online platforms in its addicted population, but entirely omitted big tech’s obvious animosity towards conservatives.
Probably aiming not to alienate viewers of one political stripe, the producers went great lengths to avoid offending the left in depicting a fictional protest that captured the attention of a device-obsessed teen who was ultimately arrested amid the unrest. The teen, inspired to attend by online commentary promoting generic messages, joined demonstrations where individuals sported signs with logos reading “extreme center.”
To illustrate the political consequences of big tech’s influence, the documentary covered several infamous cases in which widespread misinformation spread rapidly online, from Pizzagate conspiracies to made-up cures for the novel Wuhan coronavirus. Each stemmed from individuals growing increasingly ideologically isolated within online echo-chambers as platform algorithms fed information perpetuating narratives to feed their own confirmation biases.
“It’s 2.7 billion ‘Truman Shows,'” says Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook. “Each person has their own reality with their own facts,” where Facebook controls the newsfeeds of people who think they are being given the same information as their neighbors, and therefore failing to even comprehend opposing viewpoints. That is, of course, whether they can tolerate them.
Completely absent from the documentary is any discussion of these platforms’ role in suppressing certain viewpoints over others. Given the power of these platforms serving as the modern-day public square, as outlined by filmmakers, this could alter local, state, and federal elections.
Leaked emails from Google employees in 2018, for example, exposed the company’s efforts to boost turnout among Latinos in hopes of benefitting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which backfired to boost Donald Trump. Of course, there are also no shortage of examples of selective censorship, such as the shadow banning of conservative members of Congress, double-standards regarding posts from the president, and Google’s deliberate attempt to de-platform this very website. And let’s not forget, big tech employees overwhelmingly donate to Democrat candidates.
To their credit, the producers behind “Social Dilemma” are clear to emphasize that the broader theme of their documentary is just that, a dilemma.
The Netflix-produced documentary acknowledges social media’s positive impact on a global scale within just a short two decades. Past colleagues of those who made the major tech giants what they are today reiterated throughout that their former peers were not operating with the evil intent to bring down society by depressing the population and fomenting division and chaos. Justin Rosenstein, for example, who helped lead the team behind the creation of the Facebook “like” button, said they just wanted to “spread love and positivity in the world.”
There are myriad ways technology has made our world exponentially better. Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google, describes modern technology as “simultaneous utopia and dystopia.” Our devices have fundamentally changed the world for good, connecting people all over the globe to make life easier.
But, Harris clarifies, there are clear downsides being overlooked with the rise of big tech, which is where a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. “How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix?”