The Social Dilemma: A Review

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Kathmandu. Netflix released a 2020 American docudrama called ‘The Social Dilemma’ on September 9. Directed by the Emmy award winning American filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski, it has caused quite a stir as the film sheds light on the perils of social media and of how the users are exploited beyond their knowledge when they signed up on the social media sites. It highlights the motivations of the tech giants when they attract profits through surveillance capitalism and data mining. The portrayal of the orchestration of social media addiction through meticulously designed algorithms that leads to mental health issues for many individuals, could have a person signing off of all social media platforms, and vowing to not touch their digital devices ever again, even as they reach for it.

The message relayed across is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and algorithms are not only watching everything we do, but is also predicting how we will act in the future. Subtle focus is given on the ability of the platforms to influence humane characteristics. The content moves from social media companies using algorithms to cater to individual preferences, towards further probing on the issues of harvesting the consumer’s data, without their knowledge. Facebook has vehemently argued against this by stating that it is an ad-supported platform, running on those advertisements to keep its services free for everyone’s usage. They added that no data is collected that personally identifies a person unless they explicitly give their consent in the matter.

The film relies heavily on the interviews with former tech executives, who apparently learnt much later of the menace that the social platforms were creating, leading them to diverge from their respective institutions. They expressed the notion of the Silicon Valley fantasy, noting that they were just innocent geniuses wanting to improve the world. The interviews are amalgamated with dramatizations by actors expressing a story of a teenager’s social media addiction, in alignment with the film’s content. As the film moves along, raising anxieties for everyone who grapples with their choices to engage within such platforms, another hazard is underscored: the exhibition of a false reality that is deemed ‘ideal,’ leading to self-abhorrence for a lot of people with their personal need to fit in.

The entirety of this film simplistically aims to project how the platforms creep into human lives without much noticeable differences but end up controlling the smallest aspects of a person’s life, without the person even registering that a change has been caused. The dramatic enactment harmoniously knitted with the issues being touched upon presses all the right buttons to evoke viewers to gravitate towards the served argument. The film has been met with both positive reviews and critique.

The New York Times specifically praised the efforts and asserted that the film has mostly featured “conscientious defectors from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram” who stress upon “the perniciousness of social networking platforms is a feature, not a bug.” Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University, however, considered it to be an inaccurate portrayal of how social media algorithms worked and criticized the exaggerated portrayal of the control that such platforms actually had over their users. She stated that, “What’s completely different is … it is framed as an entire bunch of tech insiders letting what has been on the market in most people for some time. It is the way in which that they affirm what and is completed when it comes to this conspiracy logic.”

The Social Dilemma discusses an issue extremely integral in the current times. However, it doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. Threats surely loom around social media, which now is embedded onto most of our lives, but, abrupt abandonment may not be the answer. The social media platform is a new tool that we are gradually getting used to, and slowly incorporating it into our lives. It may not be as monstrous as portrayed in the film when the benefits and costs are weighed with a clear mind. Therefore, rather than wholly denouncing it, looking for ways to adapt is much more crucial in these times.

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