After Edward Snowden’s controversial confession back in 2013, it is no longer a secret that global surveillance programs through cameras installed in every device allow some powerful groups to covertly spy on people, raising concerns on national security and individual privacy. However, unbeknownst to the majority, there is an even greater threat that looms in our midst, existing right in front of our eyes, and yet somehow, keeps itself invisible—social media. It’s easy to miss the danger it poses because for us, it’s simply a tool for communication. But Jeff Orlowski’s documentary drama The Social Dilemma proves otherwise, giving a provocative commentary that effectively and thoroughly peels through layers of social media’s simple façade, revealing a complex system of human psychology, data analysis, and human exploitation behind-the-scenes.
“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” these ominous words by Sophocles immediately set a haunting atmosphere at the beginning of the documentary, which carries over as soon as the interviewees settle into place. Expressing initial unease, they begin to introduce themselves. Some were former executives and employees of Facebook, Google, and YouTube, some were data analysts, while some were psychologists. Including several people in an interview with different backgrounds might be confusing if handled poorly; however, The Social Dilemma was able to smoothly and comprehensively use this to their advantage, with each individual telling their side of the story. Orlowski crafts them together to form one succinct, compelling idea after another. The singular question they were asked acted as a compass, a guide across the different “chapters” the film is divided into: “What is the problem?”
The lack of ethics in the tech industry is the biggest concern at the moment. One of the main reasons social media is starting to alarm industry professionals is the amount of manipulation done to its users. They use the most deep-seated aspects of the human psyche as a tool to generate more profit. According to one of the interviewees, the main component in achieving success in business is to have great predictions; you need to be able to predict the behavior and personality of your customer to target precisely which of their wants or needs you can address. To achieve this, you need massive amounts of data. I was immediately reminded of Snowden’s confession. The scoring adds brilliantly to the tension of each revelation, mounting a feeling of dread as the pieces begin to come together.
To further drive the point home, the film incorporates a story about an ordinary suburban family in parallel with what the interviewees were trying to say. The children depict more prominently the different kinds of social media users: Cass, the eldest who willfully chooses to disconnect; Ben, our main protagonist, the typical teenager who heavily uses social media to interact with friends and his crush; and Isla, the youngest, who tries to find acceptance and approval through the photos she posts. This narrative touch makes everything feel more real and current, depicting ordinary lives that reflect our own, trapped in circumstances caused by unseen entities that manipulate us to only serve their own interests.
In a clever depiction that bears resemblance to The Matrix, each user has their own “model,” a caricature molded from the entirety of one’s online activity. It tries to emulate the user’s personality, current mood, likes, and habits. Through this, computer-generated algorithms— portrayed as persons in the film—can predict what kind of content will best catch our attention. As the film progresses, we eventually grasp the horrible realization that the more attention we give to social media, the more it is able to control us into submission. The lines between who we truly are and what the system dictates about us begin to blur; what comes after is an endless cycle of self-doubt, self-depreciation, and an identity crisis.
However, despite these dark discoveries, the film offers a satisfying conclusion: at its core, social media did not set out to be evil. As the inventors and consumers of the system, it is our responsibility to use one of mankind’s greatest inventions to good use. Knowing its dramatic consequences in today’s world, both in ordinary day-to-day living and on a global scale, we must infuse a more humane and benevolent approach to a system that knows not what is true, but only depends on its user to make the right decision.
The Social Dilemma is now streaming on Netflix.