The Social Dilemma is an American docudrama film directed by Jeff Orlowski and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. It discusses how social media's design is meant to nurture an addiction, manipulate people and governments, and spread conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and aiding groups such as flat-earthers. The film also examines the severe issue of social media's effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates).
The film features interviews with many former employees, executives, and other professionals from top tech companies and social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, and YouTube. These interviewees draw on their prior experiences at their companies to discuss how such platforms have caused negative problematic social, political, and cultural consequences. Some of the interviewees qualify that social media platforms and big tech companies have provided some positive change for society. These interviews are presented alongside scripted dramatizations of a teenager's social media addiction and a primer on how a social media algorithm powered by artificial intelligence may work.
The Social Dilemma premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020, and was released on Netflix on September 9, 2020. The documentary went on to be viewed in 38,000,000 homes within the first 28 days of release.
The documentary examines the effect that a handful of companies, including but not limited to Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, have over the public; it is emphasized that a relatively small number of engineers make decisions that impact billions of people. The documentary examines the current state of social media platforms, focusing more specifically on problems in the industry. Jeff Orlowski designed the film to include conversations that tackle technology such as data mining, technology addiction, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and surveillance capitalism. The film follows a cast of interviewees, most of whom have left their respective companies due to varying ethical concerns that the industry as a whole has lost its way.
The documentary begins with an introduction to the array of interviewees, each listing the companies they had previously worked for and their role within each respective company. The cast of actors is then presented with news coverage of social media's adverse effects playing in the background. Each interviewee then goes over their grievances with social media. Between interview commentary, the dramatization side of the documentary provides insight into the inner workings of the technology that powers social media.
The documentary states that social media is a "useful service that does lots of good with a parallel money machine." Social media has many beneficial qualities; a few mentioned in the film include the facilitation of interpersonal connection across long distances, acquiring knowledge, and even finding organ donors. However, former employees of social media companies explain how user data can build models to predict user actions and how companies keep user attention to maximize the profit from advertisements.
The film then dives into the manipulation techniques used by social media companies to addict their users and the psychology leveraged to achieve this end. The film debates that this often led to increased depression and increased suicide rates among teens and young adults. The documentary also touches upon how user actions on online platforms are watched, tracked, measured, monitored, and recorded. Companies then mine this human-generated capital to increase engagement, growth, and advertising revenue. Orlowski uses the cast of actors to portray this in the dramatization. Ben (played by Skyler Gisondo), the family's middle child, slowly falls for these manipulation tactics and dives deeper into his social media addiction. Following this, the dangers of artificial intelligence are touched upon once again. The interviewees further explain how computer processing power is advancing exponentially, increasing the capabilities of AI.
Another topic the film touches on is fake news. Tristan Harris refers to it as a "disinformation-for-profit business model" and that companies make more money by allowing "unregulated messages to reach anyone for the best price". The film discusses the dangerous nature of the flow of fake news regarding COVID-19 and propaganda that can influence political campaigns. The documentary also champions Wikipedia for being a neutral landscape that shows all users the same information without curating or monetizing it.
The documentary concludes with the interviewees casting their fear over artificial intelligence's role in social media and the influence these platforms have on society. In the film, Tristan Harris states, "It's not about the technology being the existential threat, it's the technology's ability to bring out the worst in society. And the worst in society being the existential threat." The interviewees come to the unanimous decision that something must be changed for society to prosper. They state that social media companies have no fiscal reason to change, one given example of a way to combat this would be to charge taxes on the data that social media companies acquire to incentivize lowering data collection measures.