‘The Social Dilemma’ misses the mark

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor In Chief

1.5/5 Globes


A few weeks ago, Netflix released a new documentary called “The Social Dilemma,” which was directed by Jeff Orlowski. 

The basic premise of the documentary was that social media is a growing presence in everyone’s lives and that malicious features that breach users’ privacy are purposefully used by social media platforms. 

What makes the documentary truly unique though is its use of both interview subjects and dramatized segments featuring characters who find themselves ensnared in and addicted to social media.

However, the documentary falls short in many ways.

One of the documentary’s main voices is a man named Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google. Harris alleges that during his time at Google, he drafted a presentation requesting that Google be more aware of the impact it has on its users through every design decision it makes. Harris makes a good point in raising concerns with this, however the confusion lies in comparing Google to other social media companies, like Facebook.

It is stated several times throughout the documentary that there are concerns regarding Google’s gmail feature, and how it is designed to make its users addicted to their emails. But this was directly compared to how Facebook operates, and how Facebook is designed to keep its users hooked. But I don’t necessarily think this is a fair comparison. It kind of felt like comparing apples to oranges in the way that I simply do not equate the function of my email platform to the function of social media platforms, where I interact with strangers, friends and a constant, depressing news cycle on the regular.

Gmail and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., are two entirely different types of platforms. Facebook has had its fair share of scandal, especially when it comes to allowing political ads with false information. Google and these platforms can be compared though when discussing their practices of using and selling users’ private information to advertisers. 

That’s another place where this documentary falls short. The driving force behind social media and Internet platforms’ unethical practices is capitalism and the constant need to be making money. The documentary comes incredibly close to nailing this down as the primary reason behind predatory practices and yet . . . it just doesn’t. It dances around this fact without analyzing the fact that this is simply how our society runs. As a viewer, this was frustrating. However, for a documentary made by Netflix, a major streaming and media company, I don’t know what else I expected.

I also want to be clear in the fact that I am not defending Facebook, Twitter and the like. These companies do invade their users’ privacy on a regular basis. They also expose users to news and commentary on a constant basis, and I don’t necessarily think humans are made to consume media like that. (This is also a point that the documentary makes, albeit too briefly.)

The documentary’s dramatized segments were also strange to view. They featured a radicalized political group, as well as abrasive political commentators who were so clearly producing content for shock value, and yet, the documentary never took a stance, as this group was labelled as a “centrist” group with no blatant political views. The documentary’s refusal to “take a side,” in this instance, while a nuanced choice in that it doesn’t alienate any viewers, definitely cheapens the point they are trying to make by not calling out the radical, far-right groups that are so clearly being represented. (The fictional commentators that are featured, in all of their loud and brazen glory, are so clearly a couple of Alex Jones-types.)

All in all, this documentary felt sensationalized in places and ignorant in others. Several times, social media is portrayed as the sole reason for our privacy being breached and our mental health being affected, but these are complex issues, with many factors, specifically economic factors, behind them.

As I was watching this documentary, I couldn’t help but feel like it was specifically made to make my grandparents, and the rest of the Boomer generation, afraid of the Internet. And if that was in fact the purpose, I’d say it succeeded. Otherwise, I would skip this Netflix release.