The Dilemma with “The Social Dilemma”

Amy Burke
October 28, 2020

Some say creepy, others say sophisticated—either way we can all agree that social media has expanded far past what anyone thought it would become. The addiction is real and there’s no denying it. That being said, was it really designed to be like this? Are social platforms manipulating us for monetary gain?

Enter Netflix’s latest hit, The Social Dilemma, that sets out to show viewers the “dark” side of social media. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, this documentary interviews former techies, CEOs, and lawyers from inside the industry to tell the public what’s going on behind your screen.

It’s caused quite the stir, ironically, on social media. Facebook (and therefore Instagram) specifically have been taking a lot of the heat, with people considering deleting their accounts in a frenzy. And parents are watching with a wary eye thinking about their children being manipulated by big brother. 

Out of all of the points discussed in the film, here are the top three claims—facts, opinions, speculations and more—that you should know about the film. 

Claim 1: Social media companies create systems and algorithms that foster addiction. 

Okay yes, as the tweet above indicates, people have a real problem letting go of their devices. The Social Dilemma uses scripted drama to portray these kind of effects of social media, specifically in teenagers. 

Stalking an ex, waiting anxiously for positive comments on selfies, and reading and spreading misinformation are certainly real situations, but there is something to be said for the dramatization in the film in which a family can’t have a screen-free dinner together without all hell breaking loose. The Social Dilemma calls itself a documentary, but fictional scenes aren’t supposed to be invented as tools of persuasion. This is also ironic, since they claim social media is what’s manipulative. So to me, some credibility is lost in its sensationalism. 

Facebook, of course, rebuts the documentary’s claim. They stress that instead of driving addictive behaviors, they want their features to add value to users’ lives. Facebook even claims to collaborate with mental health experts and have a dedicated research team to learn and understand the effects of social media on people’s well-being. Check out some of the steps they’ve taken for World Suicide Prevention Day.

Also keep in mind that social media is a constantly, and rapidly, evolving field. An insider’s take from six years ago just doesn’t cut it for me. Systems and policies change so quickly in social that most of this information is just outdated, leading one to wonder if the film is even credible anymore.

Claim 2: Social media collects personal data on its users to deliver highly targeted ads.

Honestly, facts. But it’s not as sinister as you think. Facebook is adamant in saying that these practices is only to keep the platform free to users. It also helps small business keep up with larger brands with a fraction of the budget by reaching a new audience. The biggest key, though, is that all information is anonymous. No one’s selling your information, or personally identifying you without your permission. They’re building out information to help a business learn about their consumer base, and in the process giving you more relevant ads that you might actually interest you.


Claim 3: Social media promotes polarizing ideas and the spread of misinformation. 

The Social Dilemma asserts that social media propagates divisive behavior and the spread of misinformation that people, unfortunately, believe. In a world where kids might grow up seeing various forms of extreme content, is social media really something that will cultivate tolerance, education, and acceptance? 

There’s no denying that arguments spread like wildfire on social media, and are often caused by content on the platforms themselves. In fact, social media often gives a platform to many people in the world who truly do not deserve one. All the Holocaust deniers and flat-Earthers have a way to spread their conspiracy theories to the masses, and that alone is a scary thought. 

But whether you can peg social media as the bad guy in this problem is a little different. Yes, the concept of social media easily allows the spread of misinformation, but suggesting it is algorithmically designed to do so is another. If social seems to promote polarizing claims it may say more about the society we live in, and the sick or weird interests of the human mind, than an algorithm. These issues have always existed. Propaganda has worked horrific miracles in the past, and to suggest that Facebook or YouTube are responsible feels like we’re just playing the blame game. The real question here: Why are crazy conspiracy theories so addictive? 

But that’s a blog for another time.

If you haven’t already, I suggest watching this doc to fuel your knowledge in the social sphere. I may think it’s slanted, but there are certainly truths to the effects social media has on us, and as they say, knowledge is power.

What I find most interesting is that Facebook felt a need to respond to this documentary. They’ve been attacked plenty of times before and said nothing, so I’m sure this struck a nerve.

But instead of throwing your phone away, take this as an opportunity to learn more about the systems, algorithms, and platforms that we spend so much time on. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a reason for its success with almost every type of person in the world. If you’re worried, take some steps to fix access issues, or if you’re like me, sit back and happily let those shoe ads roll in. They just know me so well!