Netflix recently released the documentary The Social Dilemma that combines nonfiction interviews and footage with a dramatized narrative, with the aim to “explore the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” In other synopses, the doc promised to explore the way in which social media data-mining contributes to the current state of surveillance capitalism that has infiltrated our lives through targeted ads and algorithms. From a brief first glance, the documentary seems promisingly progressive, as it claims to tackle newly fleshed out social and political issues that are consequential of new media forms. And, initially, the documentary seems to be on track to address these issues from a radical or reformist perspective until it takes a sharp neoliberal turn, leaving the audience with the conclusion that the youthful users of social media are ushering forward the demise of democracy.
Despite its wide-spread positive reception across the internet, the contents of this documentary are highly problematic and highly concerning from the perspective of a young American. It begins by introducing a long list of interviewees, all of which worked for big names in the tech industry at some point. It’s pointedly unclear whether or not these subjects have continued in the tech media industry, but most signs point to yes. Right away these industry professionals dive into the psychology of social media and algorithms, the way these platforms have addictive properties, and the convoluted influence of targeted social media advertisements. All of this information is interesting and informative, as it gives insight into the way the industry works in general and also how it works against the users it so hollowly cherishes.
But from here the film quickly twists its narrative; it begins to present an opinionated thesis as objective truth. Suddenly the documentary switches to real footage, both domestic and international, of protests with heavy emphasis on their violent or destructive manifestations. This footage is coupled with interviewees testaments that social media is divisive in the way that it is working to divide nations and create polarizations, both political and social, among its users. One interviewee claims that his biggest fear, in terms of social medias psychological impact among its users, is the outbreak of civil war. This begs the question, how does political unrest on social media translate to the outbreak of nationalized warfare? They answer that question through their braided fictional narrative.
The dramatized narrative within the film clearly aims to represent the contracted “plague” that social media has spread among teenagers and young adults. This plague is depicted through targeted ads popping up on a teenagers Instagram feed showing the Black Power fist, as largely used by the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the phrase “Don’t Vote”. This narrative coalesces into the drama plot’s climax which is the teen getting arrested at a protest where other young people are picketing with signs that oppose voting, and therefore demonstrate their objection of democracy.
The conclusion that this fictional narrative and the “hard truth” elicited from industry professionals come to is that the addictive way in which young people are using social media allows for them to be brainwashed by subliminal messaging via advertising, causing the current dissent against democracy as seen in the political uprisings across the country. This messaging is problematic in multiple ways, a few of which this article will now attempt to explain:
- Demonization and delegitimization of social movements- The way that this film directly pairs a popular emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement with the rhetorical destruction of democracy directly demonizes the social movement. The inextricable coupling of these ideas within the film create the harmful narrative that the point of protesting for social change directly harms democracy, when in reality it is a right that said democracy provides. It delegitimizes the BLM movement by chalking up its origin and occurrence to the brainwashing of Gen Z-ers and millennials via social media, when in reality people have been protesting for civil rights since before the abolishment of slavery. The populace’s cry for social justice and subsequent uprising is not some new concept, birthed through the malicious intent of algorithms and evil corporations behind screens. The call for revolution is as old as the United States and is actually an inherent value the country was founded upon. To depict it as otherwise is irresponsible and harmful to American citizen’s ability to exercise their rights.
- Inaccuracy – As one of the young people that this documentary tries to represent, I can attest that I’ve never received targeted ads encouraging me NOT to vote. If anything, it’s the complete opposite; everywhere young people look on the internet there seems to be a new campaign encouraging registration and participation in voting. Any sort of questioning that young people of today have with the democratic system most likely comes from an internal critique of the oppressive systems that this democracy upholds, such as white supremacy, classism, and misogyny, all of which has been demonstrated through real life examples.
- It’s encouragement of complacency – The neoliberal framework that defines the latter half of The Social Movement renders the documentary as completely non-revolutionary. It doesn’t make some new point, offer some fresh perspective, or innovative solution to the addictive qualities of social media. It labels dissent and any actors upon opposition and critique of the institutions in place as “bad”. It fails to acknowledge the real things and events that have justifiably stirred up social turbulence such as police brutality, systemic racism widely perpetuated by the nation’s leader, and the hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths facilitated by the nation’s underdeveloped healthcare system. All of these legitimate reasons for radical change are tossed to the side, labeled as products of a corrupt media platform, and the documentary viewers are encouraged to limit their time on their phones in promise for a better, more peaceful and democratic future. It argues that people should have full faith in their government and that the true liberal solution to the worlds injustices is simply complacency to violent opinions and institutions, rather than having oppositional opinions or beliefs.
All in all, this documentary is a visceral example that documentaries, just like persuasive essays, function to argue their point. They are not these beacons of truth that their creators uncovered, as many assume them to be. The argument presented in The Social Dilemma, is that there is nothing wrong with society or its capitalist systems; the outrage seen through protests across the country are indicative of individuals being sneakily influenced by their social media. This is about as neoliberal as it gets- placing the blame for national social unrest on the individual, rather than reflecting on the flaws of the capitalist system that has created and perpetuated the unrest in the first place.
The panacea that the documentary offers to the “plague” contractible via social media is startlingly reminiscent to Trump’s solution to the steady rise in Coronavirus cases across the U.S. The president stated that cases are up because the country tests people so frequently, and if that testing slowed down so would the positive test rate; similarly, The Social Dilemma concludes that if people simply use their phones less frequently, they would be less exposed to information that could potentially propagate social unrest. This, Netflix, is just as unsatisfactory of a solution to the pandemic of inequality that this country is facing and that has led to hundreds of deaths, as Trump offered to the viral outbreak that has done the same. The statement that this documentary makes is irresponsible in a time when people’s lives are on the line, and this analysis is a strong and direct testament that Netflix needs to do better.