Released: 9th September
Seen: 20th September
On some level we all know and accept that social media is evil. They sell our data to anyone who asks nicely, the algorithm has a disturbing habit of pushing people towards extremism and they have rules that they enforce sporadically at best. It’s a running joke that when someone we know finally joins Twitter or Facebook, we send them condolences because their lives are about to get dramatically worse. We know these companies are evil… but just how evil are they?
The Social Dilemma tries to explain the multitude of ways that social media in general is designed to get you addicted and how that can lead to things like suicide, political extremism and a wave of depression. Utilizing a combination of interviews with people who worked within the industry, animated recreations and live action dramatizations of hypothetical events to try and explain some of the technical topics, the film paints a portrait of a world that is scrolling on a direct path to ruin, led by Zuck and Jack and whoever the hell runs Pinterest.
In terms of explaining how social media gets you addicted, The Social Dilemma does an incredible job by exploring every trick that these companies use. It describes, in disturbing detail, how algorithms change our feeds to create an echo chamber that encourages the worst behaviors. The more the film goes on and the more it explains, you just wait nervously and wonder when it will get to the big guns about modern day politics… and sure enough, the final act of the film dives headfirst into things like Pizzagate, white supremacist extremism and fake news and, oh boy, it’s just as disturbing as you would expect.
The film slowly builds to show just how this new tool has helped exacerbate the divisions between us and pushed people to extreme ends of the political spectrum. It doesn’t hold back, it lays bare how easily this tool that we once used to connect to high school friends has been turned into a weapon that can bring down society itself. We learn how quickly social media can spread fake news, conspiracy theories and pure hatred. Every new interview with someone who worked inside the belly of the beast is genuinely powerful, they were part of building the very things they’re now condemning and it pulls you in… and then we cut to the weird dramatization where three versions of Connor from Angel control the social media feed of Eric from The Santa Clarita Diet!
The part of this film that really drags it down is this weird fictional story they keep cutting back to, intending to illustrate the power of the news feed in how it can control someone. In theory, it’s an interesting visualisation and there are moments when it does work, but most of the time it feels like a really bad Captain Planet episode that treats the audience like they’re idiots. Some of the individual shots absolutely worked for what they were trying to do, the little insert shots that provide a visual to the complex technical concepts were handy but I really didn’t need the scene where the main character is told that he really should go to Soccer practice instead of watching that stuff on his phone. When they actually tried to have a narrative, it was just awkward.
What really sticks out though is that this film makes one thing clear, it’s not the people who made the tool who are evil. The guy who designed the Like button just thought he was making something cute that would spread positivity, he didn’t think it would lead to a teenage girl cutting herself because she didn’t get enough likes. Whoever it was who came up with the idea that if you watched a video about cats that you might like a video about kittens didn’t think he was creating the tool that could paint a direct line from “How to bake bread” to holocaust denial. It’s the system that this tool was put into, the need for it to make money above all else, that turned it evil (Yep, this is another “Hey, maybe capitalism sucks and we should not do it anymore?” movie).
The Social Dilemma is a film that’s going to make you look at your social media usage differently, it’s going to give you the peek behind the curtain you didn’t want but you probably needed. It does try to offer us a solution, but it’s a solution that requires those who are making all the money from this system to be willing to flip the table and do something new and they won’t do that without the world demanding change. There’s literally a list of suggestions that are shown during the credits that might help… but probably won’t
Here’s the depressing truth about this documentary, at least as far as I can see… it’s not going to change anything. I mean, it’d be nice if it led to people deleting their social media profiles and taking power back from these companies but that’s probably not going to happen. Hell, I’m personally going to be posting this very review to multiple Facebook groups, Twitter, Reddit and any other social media service I can think of. I’m part of the problem, a problem that we probably won’t solve with a documentary. Still, for those who want to know exactly how their social media accounts are screwing them over, this is an impressive explanation of that very complex topic.