The new Netflix documentary "The Social Dilemma" lays out a case against the primacy of big technology companies.
The film highlights the concerns of former tech employees who say social media is undermining the shared sense of reality that underpins society. "The Social Dilemma" asks viewers to re-evaluate their relationship with technology and argues that social media is eroding democracy.
Director Jeff Orlowski is known for his environmental films "Chasing Ice" and "Chasing Coral." In “The Social Dilemma," one of the interviewees described the existential crisis of social media as “a climate change of culture,” Orlowski says.
“[Social media] is invisibly shifting us through the code and the information that we engage with every day,” he says. “And these platforms are changing our society and our civilization under our noses.”
After realizing the scale of influence these tech companies have, he wanted to explore this foundational issue which he believes underpins all other societal problems.
Most of the voices in the documentary are former employees of the tech giants, who were difficult to get on the record, Orlowski says. But as more people in the industry start speaking out, he says ex-employees are growing more comfortable.
His team wanted to focus on former employees after hearing engineers share how they designed code and executives explain why business models work a certain way. Their perspectives carried “credibility and validation” to help audiences understand the film’s message, he says.
A Culture Of Manipulation
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and central character in the documentary, says social media is no longer a tool for people to use. Instead, he explains that social media has its own goals and pursues them by using psychology against users.
“It's seducing you. It's manipulating you. It wants things from you,” Harris says in the film. “And we've moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction and manipulation based technology environment. That's what's changed.”
The advertising-centered business model behind social platforms fuels this need to manipulate users, Orlowski says.
The end goal for tech companies is to “identify an audience of one” and extract as much data about each user as possible, he says. This sends every person down an individually curated rabbit hole, he says, or as one subject in the documentary says, created “2.7 billion ‘Truman Shows’ operating simultaneously.”
“I think that's really where this whole issue has given me the most cause for concern, that we have moved away from a shared sense of reality,” he says. “And now we all have our own individual reality with our own individual facts, with our own individual stories that we see on a daily basis.”
The film also addresses the impact of social media on young people — many of whom don’t know a world without it. "The Social Dilemma" highlights rising rates of suicide and self-harm among teenagers, particularly young girls.
“We've created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture is manipulation,” writer Jaron Lanier says in the film. “We've put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do.”
At age 36, Orlowski says it scares him to see teenagers grow up using social platforms, which were designed by for-profit corporations rather than child psychologists. It will take years to find out the full impact of social media on how people connect and relate to each other, he says.
“If we don't make these changes now, we're gonna have an entire generation of humans that are being fundamentally shaped by this technology in ways that we can't predict what the outcomes will be,” he says.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter didn’t intend to hit this point at their founding, but "The Social Dilemma" says that doesn’t matter. Intentions aside, the harmful consequences of social media now draw parallels to the fossil fuel industry, Orlowski says.
When people first started extracting fossil fuels from the Earth, he says, it was viewed as a positive resource for humanity. But the consequences of burning fossil fuels were revealed years later, forcing the industry to choose between addressing the impacts or hiding them.
In both the case of fossil fuels and social media, the industries chose to hide, he says. Now, the question remains of whether the tech industry will decide to change for society’s best interests or let financial incentives “wreak unknown consequences on humanity,” he says.
Many subjects in the documentary talk about government regulation as a way to address this issue. Orlowski sees two options for tech companies: Choose to change or be forced to change.
“Ultimately, from my perspective, that means they have to move off of this business model, that they have to serve society's interests first, that they've gotten so big, they've become these public utilities, basically,” he says. “And if they're going to serve these roles, they need to serve it for society's purposes and not serve another master. They can't serve the advertising model and be funded that way and still garner the trust of the public.”
A Threat To Democracy
As the presidential election approaches, U.S. political campaigns and foreign actors are once again using social media to advance their messages. Orlowski says he feels afraid of political misinformation and concerned about “the breakdown of truth,” noting that it’s getting progressively harder for people who disagree with each other to have productive discussions.
If people can’t agree on the truth, he says, that puts society in jeopardy and makes it difficult to address its problems. In the documentary, former president of Pinterest Tim Kendall says he fears civil war.
At first, Orlowski doubted Kendall’s fear. But as he continued the editing process with this mindset, he says he was able to picture society going down this destructive path.
“We have a machine whose main currency is outrage and anger,” he says, “And if this is the trajectory that we're being programmed down, if we are constantly being fed the things that made us outraged and angry — and that is our life experience and that's what we see on a daily basis — how does it not end in that sort of result?”
A shift toward creating technology that brings people together instead of stoking divisions can prevent an outcome like a civil war, he says.
As information is continuously shared in a way that harms society, Orlowski hopes “The Social Dilemma” can serve as a wakeup call that shocks people out of a decade-long state of hypnosis.
“Social media could really be designed in society's best interest. Right now, it's designed around commercial interests. These are tools designed by and for capitalism, for financial profit,” he says. “This is the biggest issue of our time.”
This segment aired on September 18, 2020.