Jeff Orlowski’s new documentary The Social Dilemma has been garnering attention for its bold predictions of end times brought on by social media. The film takes a dark tone from the very beginning, which is held through to the end. It’s mostly made up of interviews with former tech employees who were a force in creating the social media we have today — people who worked on Facebook’s “like” button or were a part of Instagram’s early staff. They had a hand in developing the technology that would define the childhood of a generation. My childhood.
The Social Dilemma is fueled by fear. For this reason I was skeptical going in, as fear sells very well and is often marketed for clicks. However, Orlowski makes a very compelling case. The fear seen in this documentary does not feel artificial, but is sincere and backed up by reasonable arguments. The tech insiders came across as remorseful and scared, if not outright terrified. Social media is portrayed as a sort of “Frankenstein’s Monster,” a man-made creation that has spun out of human control. By the end of the documentary, it’s clear we are amid a crisis, one that needs to be addressed by serious change. As a teenager growing up in the age of screens, The Social Dilemma rang so true for me that I felt as if I was being personally addressed. I was riveted.
Orlowski and the former tech insiders’ argument centers around the business model for major social media companies like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. These platforms appear free to consumers, but this is not really true. Instead, companies make their money by selling the time of their users to advertisers. The user is the product. What this means is that social media companies will make the most profit if they are able to capture and hold your attention for as long as they can. To do this, they collect data, which they feed to algorithms to select your content. The documentary argues that this personalized selection of content has done such a good job getting and holding people’s attention that users are no longer able to decide when to log on or how much time to spend on social media. In other words, they’re addicted.
The first section of the documentary largely focuses on the more personal aspects of social media. Remorseful tech employees set the stage with accounts of their own screen addictions. This is followed by experts explaining that youths’ dependence on social media has led to a sharp uptick in teen depression and anxiety. The amount of self harm and suicide has increased dramatically among teens and nearly doubled in preteens. While often subtle, the real-life counterparts to these statistics are hard not to notice, and may be a defining part of Generation Z’s experience.
The documentary goes on further to tear apart the notion that social media connects people. It makes the point that all the human interaction on social media is controlled by algorithms whose only job is to keep you online as long as possible. The very nature of online socializing is based on the manipulation done by tech corporations. This is catastrophic to the generation, my generation, that grew up with social media at the forefront of their social lives.
The film goes on to claim that this level of control over what information people consume leads to the spread of misinformation, fake news, and propaganda. Social media has already allowed meddling with American elections when it was bombarded with fake information. Facebook was turned into what could be called a “tool for ethnic cleansing” when it was used by Myanmar’s military to incite something that closely resembled a genocide against its Muslim population.
This notion of spreading online propaganda should hit close to home for the Berkeley High School (BHS) community, when you consider that during any social or political movement you may see the same unverified photo or piece of information reposted over and over again by students on Instagram.
The documentary takes this reverberation of a one-sided opinion to be an inherently bad thing. It allows for misinformation to spread like a wildfire. I have certainly seen false information, which should otherwise be knocked dead by a quick Google search, make the rounds from person to person. A toxic spread of information is all too real in today’s political world. One concern is that this spread of misinformation can be used very intentionally as a tool to destabilize a democracy. Many are concerned that large tech companies have too much control over our lives, with no plan to address the negative consequences on our minds and society as a whole.
The best solution posed by the documentary is strong legislation. Tech companies should be regulated in the same way that telecom companies are regulated in their use of user data. The simple ask is that social media giants be responsible for the harm that they bring.
I highly recommend The Social Dilemma. It is a brave documentation of the shortcomings of our society, along with the harmful mentality of big tech and its detrimental effects on the world. It is a very powerful narrative, but also one that should be taken with a grain of salt. There is never just one side to the story, especially not in one this globally complicated. However, at the end of the day, Orlowski’s message hit the nail on the head in regards to the high school experience. This accuracy makes The Social Dilemma effective in conveying its argument as well as bringing across the severity of the situation. This film is a must watch for middle school and high school students, and captures perfectly the current dilemma of social media in our society.