“The Social Dilemma” is a frightening documentary of self-reflection in a digital age

Documentaries aren’t usually on the watchlist for this column, but after watching “The Social Dilemma” recently, I think it speaks volumes to kids and parents alike. It’s a hybrid documentary and dramatic film highlighting the dangers of social media on both the personal and global levels from tech industries pioneers – and even the very people who built the platforms they now wish to dismantle. 

The main subject of the doc is Tristan Harris, former big-wig at Google and now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Along with countless others from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pintrest, and more, he breaks down the nuts and bolts of how social media algorithms and artificial intelligence predict our online behavior and drive our viewing habits toward what they “think” we’d be interested in seeing, even if it’s uninformed, untrue, or even dangerous.

The narrative of the doc follows a high schooler named Ben (played by Skyler Gisondo of “Santa Clarita Diet” fame). As the experts explain the dangers of social media and its extreme addicability, we see Ben fall further and further down the rabbit hole of propaganda, fake news, and click bait – all stemming from a notification that his ex-girlfriend is seeing someone else. His life slowly dismantles – he stops going to sports practice, he’s ignoring his friends and family, he becomes more and more depressed – until he ends up at a protest rally on the wrong side of the issue. It also shows how negative reinforcement is damaging his younger sister’s self-esteem and self-image after someone leaves a nasty comment on one of her selfies. 

Probably the most frightening thing about the documentary is that it confirms nearly every fear and trepidation I’ve had about social media for the past four or five years. I’ve taken many “breaks” from sites like Twitter and Instagram and have completely left Facebook due to the toxic and malevolent nature I started to see before, during, and after the last election. Turns out, that wasn’t just ME noticing it – it’s a traceable trend that outside influences have hijacked social media in perfectly legal ways to push their influence based purely on how you browse and what you click on. 

It’s really quite terrifying. 

There’s traceable trends driving people apart socially, politically, and intellectually. The best example was given by Jaron Lanier, the Founding Father of Virtual Reality. He said imagine if everyone used Wikipedia like they use social media. Right now, it’s all the same information and anyone who goes to a given page gets the same experience. Now imagine if Wikipedia changed it’s content purely based on your interests. Now suddenly that information we once shared is skewed to what you want it to be – which may or may not be based on truth at all. That really hit me. My main complaint with society lately is “How are people not seeing X?! It’s all I’m seeing!” That’s because MY feed has become tailored to what I think and believe. That will be entirely different from someone from Iowa or Hawaii or Germany. Where do the facts become fiction? Who’s responsible for making sure those “facts” I see and share are correct and not outright lies and propaganda? Many believe that should come from regulations similar to what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes on telephone companies, broadcast TV, and other utilities. 

Social media is a business for advertisers. We are the pieces that move those dollars. And none of these companies are doing enough to protect us from them. But these folks in the doc are stepping forward – at the cost of their professional reputations and even entire careers – to say, “No, this isn’t right. We should be doing better to protect people.”

A truly fascinating look at how social media manipulates, influences, and blatantly brainwashes us into following the crowd. And I’m sure there will be many who read this and say, “Seems like the doc did the same thing for you, bud.” I’d disagree. This is a movement toward change for the better. The better for all. And I think we could use some help in that regard. “The Social Dilemma” is streaming now on Netflix. Watch it.


Rating 5 out of 5 Snack Packs


Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writer in NYC. He’ll be launching a new YouTube show in the coming months. To keep up, follow his work at www.lincolnlhayes.com

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