What Netflix’s The Social Dilemma gets wrong about Big Tech

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma premiered only a few weeks ago and has already provoked a substantial response. Taking a look at the overwhelming proliferation of social media, the documentary has a single, and simple, message: Put down your phone, you’re being manipulated.

That message is driven home by a series of tech industry employees — former and current — sounding the whistle on how AI and algorithms are not only watching everything you do, but are predicting how you will act in the future. 

But the hype, some say, may just be overblown — at least so far as how much social media users have to fear.  

Not only is there currently a reckoning over Big Tech’s reach into regular citizens’ lives — it’s been going on for some time. The fact that algorithms track people’s internet use — a central point to The Social Dilemma — has been discussed consistently for years, both through the news and Hollywood as well. Despite that, the internet is largely reacting as if everything contained in the film is revelatory.

“Please watch The Social Dilemma as soon as possible,” tweeted musician Pink, soon after it was released. The Independent called it “the most important documentary of our times,” and the movie itself — directed by Jeff Orlowski — shot to the head of Netflix’s top-10 movies in under three weeks. 

That buzz is what prompted 21-year-old Rachel Steinbach of Kelowna, B.C., to watch. Her whole friend group was talking about it, she said, and telling her to change her habits because of it.

“A lot of my friends were calling me up, saying like, ‘Oh, have you seen that? Have you deleted this yet? You should get rid of this right away,'” she said. 

Steinbach said that what she saw in the movie reflected many habits in her own life and frightened her. It’s a panic spread further every time someone posts on Twitter or Facebook that they’re deleting their accounts after watching, but it’s not one based entirely in fact — and it’s certainly not novel. 

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University, is among a raft of scholars who have looked into Big Tech’s proliferation in people’s lives and the potential effects that go along with it. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

“There is nothing new that is being said in this documentary that has not been said before,” said Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C

Among other things, Chun studies how social media platforms displace users’ habits and become embedded in their lives. She is among a raft of scholars who have looked into Big Tech’s proliferation in people’s lives, and the potential effects that go along with it. 

“What is different is … it’s framed as a whole bunch of tech insiders letting you know what has been out there in the general public for a while. It’s the way that they affirm what you know and is done in terms of this conspiracy logic.”

The reason the film has such a convincing argument, Chun said, is that framing. The tech industry is presented as insidious and omnipresent, manipulating users who are helpless to fight back.

Though surveillance and manipulation by the state and the tech industry are something to watch and be wary of, The Social Dilemma‘s power largely comes from the insistence that social media’s advertising model is personalized and malicious, Chun said, and it is oversimplifying a complex problem.

One of the ways the documentary represents surveillance, Chun noted, is by using three human actors trying to entice someone to use their phone and stay on social media longer. Along with their presentation of social media as an addiction (“there’s a difference between a habit and an addiction” Chun said) is the fear that is created when people think that real humans have access to all of their information, instead of algorithms that predict human behaviour. 

Though Chun argued users should not be tracked, she said the idea that algorithms know “everything” about you isn’t correct. She argued the film itself is based on revealing “open secrets,” and the information these services use to present personalized ads doesn’t reflect a deep knowledge of users.

“The idea that somehow they control you is overblown,” she said. “At the same time, you can say that a lot of what they know about you is accurate. But then the question you have to ask yourself is: So what?”

Algorithms and AI

Seth Abramson had the same thought after watching The Social Dilemma. An author and assistant professor who teaches post-internet cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire, he said that most of the fear the film generates is misdirected.

Those algorithms, Abramson said, merely predict your likes and interests. It isn’t about a specific human having access to your information but instead is an AI “on a server somewhere” using your patterns to better identify what you would like to see. 

Pointing to ads themselves as the problem — and representing them as the main issue — is “confusing the symptom and the cause,” Abramson said. It’s masking deeper issues that the film never truly grapples with — and because of that, neither does its audience.

The possibility that some of what these companies know about us could fall into the wrong hands is the bigger issue, Abramson said. That is an issue that has also been reported already — and led to legislation changes in countries around the world — but is not at all the focus in The Social Dilemma.

“That is a real concern, but it’s a little bit separate from this broad meta-narrative of ‘Someone out there knows everything about me,'” Abramson said. “I think that’s a little bit misleading, and I think it’s intended to induce a certain type of fear that is more correctly deployed against other concerns.”

Still, both Abramson and Chun noted the film’s popularity does have a potential for good. While it does oversimplify problems and rehash discussions — some up to a decade old — Chun said the movie’s power comes from where it can lead viewers from here.

“[The question] is not, ‘Is this accurate or not?’ Because, clearly, parts of it are, parts of it aren’t,” she said. “But why now is this resonating, and what can happen from it?”


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