There will be no horror movie premiering this year that will be as frightening as THE SOCIAL DILEMMA. Vampires, zombies, and Martians from outer space have nothing on the terrifying truths presented in this new documentary that just premiered on Netflix. It chronicles how social media disrupts our lives, dumbs us down, and feeds us false narratives on a daily, if not, hourly basis. Director Jeff Orlowski, and his fellow screenwriters David Coombe and Vickie Curtis, have done an incredible job in showcasing just how online companies track our every move, manipulate our minds, and use all our data to jump through their hoops. They are like virtual reality ventriloquists, controlling our moves and turning us into veritable dummies.
The tech experts providing most of the on-camera testimony about the overreaching influence of social media companies are those who used to toil in the top ranks at companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. One after another sits for the camera and renounces what they did back in the day. It’s a fascinating form of penance. Still, the sins they committed in the name of the digital revolution couldn’t help but remind me of the story of Victor Frankenstein. He too thought that he instigating important strides for the progression of mankind, but what he really did was unleash a marauding monster onto the world.
Most who’ll watch THE SOCIAL DILEMMA should be keenly aware already of how advertisers use our digital footprints to target us for ads and further purchases. Surely, most audiences have some idea as well of how we’re fed news and stories that tend to flatter our belief system. But what this documentary exposes most vividly, and with startling clarity, is just how insidious so many social media platforms are about hawking ‘fake news’ to a public that cannot tell the difference between the truth and lies.
These platforms are “hacking our psychology” as Dr. Shoshana Zuboff puts it in the film, and can corrupt us into not just believing in such utter bullshit, but lead us to rageful and even violent reactions to such manipulations. One example detailed in the doc is how a propaganda campaign instigated by the Myanmar government on social media convinced hordes of people to violently attack the Rohingya Muslims in the country, ultimately forcing 700,000 victims to evacuate their homeland.
It’s dark stuff, depressing, and infuriating. And some of the technical explanations can get complicated and wordy. That’s why the filmmakers cleverly showcase actors dramatizing how social media targets us online. Actors Skyler Gisondo and Kara Hayward play two teenagers in an interwoven drama showing them falling victim more and more to the shenanigans of the social media platforms they’re so avidly following.
Additionally, the computer programs tracking them, three algorithms monitoring them if you will, are all played by Vincent Kartheiser. It’s audacious, sort of an adult version of Pixar’s INSIDE OUT animated movie where emotions were ruling inside the head of the little girl, but it works. It makes the technical mumbo jumbo easy to understand, and having Kartheiser play a variation on his sleazy ad exec Pete Campbell from MAD MEN is one very clever in-joke.
Still, most of the intrigue in the film comes from the blunt and disturbing testimony of how easily the world falls for such digital chicanery. Computer expert Tristan Harris, one of the more vocal anti-tech advocates, is admirably earnest as he details all the evils before Congress not long ago. Indeed, our feeds online need much more oversight, and as the social media ad spend is about to reach a record high of 100 billion this year, his timing couldn’t be more necessary.
The film is incredibly timely too in chronicling how various news outlets online lied about COVID-19 too and certainly dovetails into the Bob Woodward tapes showing the White House’s creating false narratives around the pandemic for months. Yet even with such truths being exposed, how many will start to be more discriminating in what they’re being fed online?
Indeed, the real dilemma as presented in the film seems to be whether John Q. Public will do anything about all the horrors glutting their feeds. Can we put the genie back in the bottle? Can most of us overcome our addiction to posting, liking, and retweeting? One expert in the doc calls it “surveillance capitalism” and it may very well be the only sure thing in today’s world. The public loves to watch and being watched, well, that’s just part of the contract. Terrifying, isn’t it?