Review: A call to digital arms, ‘The Social Dilemma’ demands change


Jeff Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” may be the most important documentary you see this year. An indictment of the tech industry, the film succinctly lays out the damage being done by companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter through their social media platforms and search engines, the how and why of what they are doing and most vitally, what needs to be done to stop it. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been updated since with references to the coronavirus.

Like climate-crisis documentaries a generation ago, “Social Dilemma” is a dire warning and Orlowski marshals the voices of former key employees of the tech giants, plus industry critics and academics to sound the alarm. An unabashed advocacy doc, “The Social Dilemma” attempts to identify the root of the problems, but like some Facebook relationship statuses, it’s complicated.

Even if you have little interest in social media or rarely Google anything, this is a worthwhile peek behind the curtain and helps explain so much of the craziness we see right now in the real world. It’s not paranoia. It’s not disgruntled former employees with axes to grind — in fact, many of those interviewed walked away very wealthy and continue in tech, bullish on its benefits, only with more altruistic ambitions.


The movie opens with a quote from Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” And the veterans of Silicon Valley weigh in with tales of good intentions from the early days of social media (prior to its own vastness) even as they paint a bleak picture of the current situation. As former Google and Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein points out, the latter’s “like” button was designed to be a tool for spreading “positivity and love,” not the behavioral tracking device it has become.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, is the movie’s driving force as he attempts to appeal to tech companies’ better angels. It is Harris who notes that the “dilemma” is that social media and related apps simultaneously offer utopia and dystopia. They bring out the best and the worst in society. They make so many things so easy, but at what cost?

Mental health is a huge concern with ample data pointing to increased anxiety, depression and suicides coinciding with the rise of social media and mobile phone use, especially among teenagers and middle-schoolers. The film also cites the rising spread of disinformation, the radicalization of extremists in the Middle East and white supremacists in the U.S., political polarization and the use by authoritarian regimes in countries such as Myanmar and the Philippines, as examples where these platforms have failed.

Orlowski (“Chasing Coral”) and his team, which includes producer Larissa Rhodes, writer/editor Davis Coombe, writer Vickie Curtis and composer Mark Crawford, use animation, graphics and dramatization to augment the interviews. The vignettes, featuring a family of five negotiating the turbulent digital world, seem superfluous but are elevated by a good cast including Vincent Kartheiser, Kara Hayward and Skyler Gisondo, and may connect with audiences on a more emotional level.

The truly disturbing part of the movie is learning the degrees to which Facebook and friends go to monetize their users. “If the product is free, you’re the product,” Harris reminds us. And while most people are aware that they’re being mined for data while on these sites, few realize how deep the probe goes. If you think the trade-off is merely getting targeted ads for your favorite sneakers, you are in for a big shock.


The manipulation of your behavior through predictive A.I., “attention extraction” (keeping you clicking for as long as possible) and the harvesting of your data and selling it to the highest bidder (oh, you like conspiracy theories, do you?) are all ways that you become the merchandise and advertisers become the customer. (And it’s not just commercial interests. Foreign entities are wreaking havoc, destabilizing societies all over the world.) These platforms are designed to create dependency and addiction in the service of this “surveillance capitalism.”

Professor and author Shoshana Zuboff refers to these data markets as “human futures” — like pork bellies — and believes they should be outlawed. And ultimately the documentary lands on the business model as the villain of the story. Most of the interviewees are reluctant to label Mark Zuckerberg, or any individual, as a bad guy, preferring to present the companies as victims of their own success, trapped in a vicious cycle of needing to make more money to keep the machine alive.

According to Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, VR pioneer and author, the stakes for reform could not be higher. “If we go down the status quo, for let’s say another 20 years,” he states, “we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance … fail to meet the challenge of climate change … degrade the world’s democracies so they fall into some type of autocratic dysfunction … ruin the global economy. We probably don’t survive. I really view it as existential.”

In 2019, Harris testified before the U.S. Senate that it is up to companies to take responsibility. Given their track records, however, according to the film, self-regulation isn’t a credible option. Some of the subjects suggest stricter regulatory measures to protect consumers. Others propose that only financial incentives, such as taxing companies’ data collection processing, will stem the tide. Whatever happens, Harris says, it will require the collective will to embolden necessary change.

Full disclosure: “The Social Dilemma” is full of things I’ve been muttering about to myself the last five years, but said by smarter, better informed people. Watch for yourself (and if you don’t subscribe to Netflix, take advantage of a free trial but try not to succumb to their algorithms). It’s all pretty terrifying.

‘The Social Dilemma’

Rated: PG-13, for some thematic elements, disturbing/violent images and suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Available Sept. 9 on Netflix