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Social Dilemma poster

The Social Dilemma

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Why it’s worth your time:

Just about anyone who’s spent any time on social media knows how addictive platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube can be. The Social Dilemma examines why that’s precisely the goal of the companies behind them, how they go about hooking you, and the ramifications of that strategy on society at large. Through interviews with a variety of experts, from software engineers to behavioral psychologists, the documentary peels back the layers of manipulation and reveals the unintended consequences of a system that reduces human beings to a set of data points.

Media companies collecting data on users is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s the way in which that data is used, and the extent to which it shapes real-world behavior and global events that’s truly shocking. Concerns about who is buying and selling your information seem almost quaint by comparison. Now we’re dealing with skyrocketing teen suicide rates, mental illness, racism, the spread of conspiracies based on disinformation, and the spike violence as a result of these reinforced beliefs. Objective truth has become meaningless. Even the response to a global pandemic has become polarized.

Out of context this may sound overblown, but the evidence is overwhelming when presented by the very creators of the tools themselves. They know better than anyone what they’ve unleashed.

What to expect:

The filmmakers could have made their case through interviews and infographics alone, but they go an extra step and include a dramatization of the negative effects of social media influence on one fictionalized family. Through the family’s teenage son in particular, we see how his mom’s well-intentioned efforts to keep him away from his phone are thwarted by a trio of personified algorithms (all portrayed by Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser) designed to capture his attention and sell it to the highest bidder. It’s an interesting approach that might be jarring for documentary purists. Nevertheless, it gets the point across.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Buried underneath this heap of horrors, there’s a sliver of hope. Several interview participants, after seeing their work put to use in ways they never intended, left their positions at big media companies and now advocate for a more humane approach to technology. Toward the end, the filmmakers give them a chance to suggest some solutions to the problem. These include disabling notifications, restricting kids’ access, and even taxing companies based on how much data they collect. Given the magnitude of the problem, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough. Whether we as a society have the collective will to change things for the better, and what we can personally do to contribute to that effort, are subjects that remain largely unaddressed.

The takeaway:

The Social Dilemma might be scarier than any horror movie you’ll see this fall. It really does make you think twice before picking up your phone to check Twitter for the hundredth time in a hour. But that’s a good thing. Understanding the techniques these apps use to trap you is the first step toward neutralizing their influence.

Watch it with:

Do you know someone who can’t seem to put their phone down? Take it away and tell them you won’t give it back until they watch this. It could also be a good cautionary tale to show older kids before they even get started.

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