Netflix review: Algorithm as antagonist in 'The Social Dilemma'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 18 2020 06:12 AM

American documentary "The Social Dilemma" premiered earlier this year in the Sundance film festival, and has just been released on Netflix for mass distribution. I had an inkling that this will be talking about social media, so I was apprehensive about what it was going to tell me. This modern phenomenon had definitely taken a strong foothold in human life these days, and it is now difficult to imagine a world without it. Could these apps that were initially conceived with the intention of connecting people be the same ones to tear people apart?

The first few scenes were spent introducing the various personalities that the filmmakers were going to interview in the course of this film. They were all former technicians and employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., who have now decided to step forward to share what they knew about the very apps they helped to develop, and to warn us about the insidious danger they are currently inflicting on human society. These "business models" have gone way beyond their original motives.

The speakers shows us how we are being manipulated by these social media apps by taking note of our likes and dislikes based on what we click in these apps. Once you express interest in an item, your feed will be inundated by ads about this item and similar products and services. Once you watch one video on Facebook or YouTube, they will then begin to recommend you to watch more videos related to that video. We get to feel this unwelcome intrusion more and more these days -- it is actually too obvious to ignore now.

To further drive home their point, director Jeff Orlowski used a fictitious family being torn apart by addiction to social media. They showed that it was usually the teenagers and children who were at most risk for this brainwashing. Once, when the mother tried to keep all their phones in a locked container for just an hour at dinner, the youngest daughter could not even hold off for that long -- even using a hammer to get her phone out. We see the negative influence of filtered standards of beauty and the ego-boosting value of likes and comments.

Watch more in iWantTFC

They personified the algorithm into three men who were arguing how to direct the decisions made by the teenage son. They observed how his interest moved on from his sports and his crush to his current obsession about conspiracy theory videos. They then show how watching these videos like a zombie, causing him to be withdrawn from his usual routines and even getting actively involved in such movements in reality. These may seem over-the-top dramatizations, but they may not be as far-fetched as we think.

The speakers try to convince us that these apps are actually mining our minds for our opinions and hence will be able to hold sway our future decisions. The feeds we see on our social media platforms present us the views we want to see -- our personalized versions of the truth. They admit that there is no feasible way to weed fake news out. They admit that we are now entering that phase when humans cannot agree on what is the actual truth anymore. It seems that AI cannot solve problems as human as this. They expressed that these apps are threatening the very existence of human society as we know it.

One social psychologist from Harvard compared these social media apps to outlawed practices (like slavery) which undermine democracy and freedom. These former executives admit that they do not allow their children to have social media apps. They exhort us to shut off all notifications on our phones, as we should not be held hostage to these seemingly innocuous beeps. They would later exhort us to make that big leap of actually uninstalling social media on our phones altogether.

So we have learned all the red flags and heard all the warnings, so the next move is now up to us. Are we ready for pulling out that plug?

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."