The Dilemma that The Social Dilemma Put Me In



Image by Brittany Leanna Chee


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I was three months late to the party, but I finally watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Released in September 2020, this drama-documentary hybrid dives into the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to modern society. 

Tech experts sit down to share their personal experiences working in the industry, and throw around dark phrases like “remote-control warfare”, “digital Frankensteins”, and my personal favourite because it’s so dramatic: “this is checkmate on humanity”. These are just a few that stuck in my head. 

Throughout the one and a half hour experience, thoughts of “Wow, I’m going to delete all my social media accounts right after this” crossed my mind several times. But every time they did, I reminded myself that I was a student of Communications and New Media. How could I possibly go without social media? 

The film paints the tech industry in a highly unflattering manner—firstly, all the companies are so profit-driven that they’ve become evil, and secondly, all their algorithms are turning your brain into mush. 

The film is interspersed with quotes about the industry, and one that I found to be so dark that it became almost laughable, was: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” 

I’ll be honest, this quote really made me sit up. The quote “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is old news. But likening software to illegal drugs? Now that’s something I’d never heard of before.

The film also presents us with a peek into the life of Ben, a teen who makes a bet to leave his phone alone for a week. He gets lured back by the mastermind artificial intelligence behind the social media (to be exact, there are three human personifications of artificial intelligence, each representing the nefarious main goals of all social media companies—engagement, growth and advertising), and he ends up addicted, with extreme political views to boot. 

As dramatised as this scenario is, it’s not hard to imagine myself in Ben’s shoes: everything that I see on my social media feeds is spoon-fed to me by artificial intelligence that hides behind my phone screen. The possibility that I’m just an entity with a pair of eyes and no control over what content I consume, not to mention the feeling of being constantly surveilled by my own social media feed, sends shivers down my spine.

There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories mentioned in the film either. We all know about conspiracy theories: the earth is flat, the moon landing was faked, and the government is made up of lizard-people. It’s entertaining to mock these, but watching actual mobile towers being burned down because of the fake news that “COVID-19 is spread by 5G” really puts the power of misinformation into sobering perspective. 

And of course, the film tries to add some nuance at the end by having the experts say that the technology itself isn’t the problem—it’s the profit-at-all-costs business model. Trying to force the viewer to see some light at the end of the tunnel, one expert says that the Facebook “like” button was created to answer the question of “how can we spread positivity and love around the world?” This is extremely difficult to believe after watching an hour’s worth of people explaining how social media is controlling my brain, but at this point I’ll take any positivity the film has to offer me. 

As the credits roll, interviewees also offer tips like “turn off your notifications” and “turn off your recommendations”. They say that their kids are not allowed to be on social media, at least not until high school, and one expert even suggests using Qwant instead of Google. Qwant.com is a search engine launched in 2013, headquartered in France. It claims to offer an alternative to Google since it doesn’t track its users, save search history, or personalise search results. (However, it is not available in Singapore. I checked.) 

Ultimately, I do think the film accomplished what it set out to do. 

It made me seriously consider going on a social media cleanse, knowing full well that I absolutely do not have the willpower for such a thing. (But someone who does have the willpower is Azreen. Read about her experience logging off from social media here.) 

It also made me set limits on how much time I spend scrolling through social media feeds, but again, I’ll cite my lack of willpower as a stumbling block and so we’ll just have to wait and see how long these limits last. 

But one thing that bothered me about The Social Dilemma was how bleak they painted everything to be. Not just making out the entire tech industry to be evil, but also how users are essentially stripped of critical thinking, and reduced to mindless drones consuming content. It neglected to show how social media can be a force for good, providing a voice to those who feel like they have none. And especially in an era of COVID-19, social media really does help us stay connected to friends and family whom we cannot see in person. But that might just be the Communications and New Media student in me speaking. 

The Social Dilemma rating: Three giant social media companies out of five