The Social Dilemma: A Short Guide to Criticize it

Like many of you, I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix.

I disliked it. The interesting part is that I agree with most of its main points, but I still disliked it.

The main reason why I dislike it, is that I literally wrote a Ph.D. and a book about the Internet, I teach classes on digital media, but my non-academic friends send me texts saying “Wow, have you watched the Social Dilemma? You can learn so much” AS IF this is not the thing I literally talk about every day. (Lesson learned: when you’re an academic nobody cares about what you do, and even if they do, they prefer to gain knowledge from Netflix rather than you)

However, jealousy aside, there are several other points that disturbed me about the documentary, the first being that it is an oversimplification of a complex issue. Now it’s up to you: you can just keep the oversimplified message of The Social Dilemma, or take 10 minutes reading this post with no shiny images and try with me to disentangle the great complexity of the reality of social media.

There are some points I want to raise, and which I discuss throughout this post:

  • The documentary is very, very, very simplistic
  • The documentary is about capitalism, but manages to never explain what capitalism is
  • The documentary carefully avoids talking about race and gender, class, education, or power
  • The documentary never talks about digital media activism
  • The documentary criticizes the terrible algorithms of Google, Twitter, and Facebook, but it sorts of forgets Netflix
The Social Dilemma cover

First, before analyzing these points, a bit of a summary for those of you who want to criticize this documentary without watching it (I’m totally with you): a bunch of tech bros who all look like the lost cousin of Zuckerberg (plus a token South-Asian) realize that they did not make the world better by working for Google, Facebook, Instagram, but they only exploited people for making a profit. They spend moments looking puzzled at the floor and waiting for answers to magically appear. Then, there are videos of experts and academics talking about social media and images of a fictional family whose children are addicted to the smartphone. In particular, the fictional son of the fictional family has three evil little men (who look exactly the same as the tech bros) who control his social media behavior in a setting that is quite obviously taken from Disney movie “Inside Out.”

(For a better summary and an excellent thread, I suggest this tweet by Johan Farkas)

Now, here a little bit more about the problematic points I mentioned before:

  • The documentary is very, very, very simplistic.

The Social Dilemma points to social media as the scapegoat for everything.

Example: one of the fictional family’s children in a pre-teen who is hungry for “likes” and gets fixated on impossible beauty standards. I perfectly agree that social media can be very detrimental to the self-esteem of teenagers.

BUT, these beauty standards weren’t invented by Instagram. To address the problem of girls feeling inadequate in their bodies, one also needs to talk about misogyny and patriarchal values that existed well before social networks.

In its simplistic “social media make your child commits suicide!” cry, The Social Dilemma shows a graph about how girls are more prone to suicide starting from 2011. But it doesn’t explain why it is only girls, probably missing some important information about gender (see also my other point below). Also, it shows the correlation, but not the causation: the rise of suicide coincides with the increase of social media use, but let’s not forget that these same years also marked a deep economic crisis that arguably made family life harsher and people more prone to depression, just to offer a further reflection.

This oversimplification is applied to several other examples.

For instance, it’s very true that Facebook had a decisive role in the genocide against Rohingya in Myanmar, but the documentary makes it look like Islamophobia and ethnic violence is the exclusive consequence of a few wrong clicks, as if genocides haven’t been sadly happening through all of human history.

  • The film is about capitalism, but manages to never explain what capitalism is

Basically, the main message of the documentary is that companies such as Google and Facebook only want to make a profit and do not have the best interest of people in mind. When the tech bros deliver this message, it seems a little unrealistic to believe that they, after taking a Stanford class on how to persuade people, were initially unaware that their main job was manipulating Internet users and condition their behaviors. It’s a bit like having some trained fishermen saying “Gosh! I had no idea killing tuna was bad for the marine ecosystem, I thought I was joining Greenpeace!”

However, I completely agree with the criticism of the capitalist drive behind media.

But the thing is… that’s what every single company in every single capitalist system does. Social media platforms aren’t NGOs, they aren’t public service broadcasting, they don’t get public money, so they need to support themselves exactly like every company, from Coca-Cola to private TV channels. Persuasion has existed long before social media.

At a certain point, there’s a tech bro complaining that Google was doing nothing for making mails less attractive and addictive. Which is a little bit like having someone working for Coca-Cola saying “We made this Santa character to advertise Coca-Cola and… it turns out that we didn’t want to protect the health of children! We only wanted to get them addicted to this sugar-filled useless beverage and create for them the need of continuing buying it despite risks for obesity and diabetes! How could this happen?” Of course Google needs to be attractive, it’s a for-profit company. It’s bad, but it’s literally the system we live in.

Only throughout the end there’s a tech bro who does an overall criticism of capitalism, with some references to trees and whales. But he doesn’t really say the word “capitalism” nor he bothers to explain the overall mechanism of a capitalist society and communicative capitalism. There are some statements about social media being different from “traditional” advertisement, but nobody really explains how brands changed their mechanisms of persuasion.

  • The film carefully avoids talking about race and gender, class, education, or power.

The movie heavily criticizes the mechanism of algorithms, and I agree with most of this criticism. However, The Social Dilemma forgets that one of the big issues of algorithms is the reproductions of the same inequalities that exist offline. In other words, algorithms are much more harmful to some people rather than others. This is why online hate speech is especially addressed against women, people of color, sexual minorities. 

The documentary presents the challenges of the Internet as equal for everybody, without thinking that some people are more impacted than others by social networks. The tech bros that cry desperately because they got addicted to Twitter probably never got online rape threats or were never told to go back to their countries on social networks, they are educated people who have full access and skills to be online but can choose not to connect to the Internet or to take a digital detox, but portray themselves and their children as the biggest victims of this system.

What is important to notice, however, is that these same people that can be threatened and abused online (non-white, non-male, non-cisgender, non-heterosexual people, among others) are also the same people who most of the time do not have the same visibility of the tech bros, who don’t have the power get their messages on Netflix and are often ignored by so-called mainstream media. For those people, engaging with social media can be threatening but it can also be the only way for getting their voices heard. Which brings me to my next point.

  • The film never talks about digital media activism

Even if social media can have detrimental consequences, let’s not forget that they are a tool (despite what the documentary repeats incessantly), and people have the agency to use them creatively.

The same teenagers that the documentary depicts as brainless drones are also using YouTube to watch Greta Thunberg’s videos and protest to save the planet, and royally trolled Donald Trump using TikTok. People are not only watching cat videos online, they are also organizing citizen journalism during protests in non-democratic countries. The thing is that people have much more critical thinking potential than the documentary claims.

The portrayal of protests in the documentary is questionable. It shows images of violent protests in France saying that European democracies are destroyed by social media (even if we literally have no context for the French images). It also shows rallies for the bad guys who are elected thanks to the Internet such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, but carefully avoids criticizing movements within the US. There are zero images of QAnon followers and Trump in a MAGA hat.

The Social Dilemma has a scene about protests that I found quite disturbing. The fictional son of the fictional family becomes addicted to conspiracy theories and, after watching fake news video, goes to a rally. The organizers seem to be extreme centrists: they shout “Don’t vote” and people could read them as both left or right wing, in what I imagine is an attempt to make all (American) viewers happy. At the end, police intervene and a black woman cop forces the teenage (and white) son on the ground, in a scene that seems to tell the viewers “See? If you become addicted to the Internet, you’re going to get into trouble”

But the point is, one of the positive aspects of social media is the possibility of organizing protests. While the Internet as a tool is far from perfect, we have seen Black Lives Matter activists being able to denounce police brutality online and getting their voices out there even when mainstream media were not paying attention. Protesting is not a negative thing, it is fundamental in a democratic country. The Social Dilemma’s claim that “we need to avoid tribalism” may somehow be an echo of a #AllLivesMatter mentality that risks negating differences rather than eradicating inequalities. I found the scene of the brainwashed teenager disturbing because it can also be read as an indirect criticism of activist movements such as BLM: social media gets you addicted, you cannot think with your brain, and you then join a protest, which is wrong.

  • The documentary criticizes the terrible algorithms of Google, Twitter, and Facebook, but it sorts of forgets Netflix

Clearly, The Social Dilemma needed to be produced and distributed by someone. But it really points to a lack of authenticity the fact that it is distributed on Netflix, a platform that employs the same exact persuasive and manipulative methods of the platforms the documentary so vividly criticize.

The point is, The Social Dilemma is far from immune to the need for commercial revenues that it portrays as wrong. Exactly as Facebook monitors what people like and try to give them more content to consume, so does Netflix. When Netflix proposed The Social Dilemma to you, it was through an algorithm that also collected your viewing preferences. Sure, Netflix is not free and has not (yet) been involved in a scandal such as Cambridge Analytica, but it is another platform that is far from having your best interest in mind. In fact, Netflix also desperately tries to buy your attention to have you binge-watching La Casa de Papel instead of doing something good with your life.

When it comes to persuasion techniques, The Social Dilemma is hardly different from social media platforms: it captures attentions with shiny image, fictional scenes, extreme dramatizations, a catchy storytelling. It presents only one side of the debate, the fact that social media are bad. It is quite evident that the tech bros took what they learned at Stanford about getting people’s attention and they applied it to this documentary. I don’t blame them for it, they clearly wanted to sell their documentary, but why shall we give our time and attention to Netflix and not to other Internet platforms?

I know what you’re thinking: “Yes, yes, but this is a complex issue and the documentary couldn’t get into this nerdy stuff you’re talking about, it had limited time. And it’s better like this than nothing.” TRUE, I absolutely agree. I also know it’s better to watch a nicely-shot Netflix documentary rather than reading a long, tedious post such as this one (and thank you for getting until here). But I also want to point out that The Social Dilemma repeats for 1 hour and a half one single concept (“social media are manipulating you because they want profit”) in many different ways, at the point of being redundant, instead of trying to talk about any of the issues I mentioned in this post. In oversimplifying a complex message, the documentary uses the same techniques of the social media platforms it criticizes to keep the audience engaged.

Furthermore, what bothers me is that the documentary poses problems, but gives only vague solutions. Something I would have wanted to hear about more in the documentary and that I invite you to think about:

  • Regulations exist, and there are people constantly thinking about how to protect people’s data online. These regulations aren’t perfect, but to understand how social media can be regulated I invite you to look into documents such as the GDPR
  • In a society where we’re increasingly surrounded by media, we need media literacy. My first-year university students are able to have conversations about social media that are much more sophisticated than The Social Dilemma only after two months of studying these matters. Clearly, if people would get more possibilities of knowing about social media already during compulsory education, they will be able to make much more informed choices. We don’t need to make people afraid of media, we need to advocate for a good media education for them and their children
  • There is excellent academic work of scholars who have been asking the same questions of the tech bros but gave much more sophisticated responses. We (as academics) are probably not good at getting our voice out there if the majority of people ignore it, but I did put links in this post to some interesting works which I also attach at the end of the post and I invite you to explore them.

So, would I suggest people watch The Social Dilemma? Absolutely. But don’t just watch it and freak out and delete Facebook and then get back to Facebook the first time you’re bored. Use The Social Dilemma as a starting point to learn more about media use and use more critical thinking to make choices.

And since this is a complex topic and I am trying to disentangle it myself, I do not have the presumption that all my opinions are absolute truths (and that’s probably why I’m not a tech bro), so I am very curious to know what you think about this and learn more on the topic.

Good readings for the topic

  • Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Duke Univ Pr.
  • Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York University Press.
  • Treré, E. (2019). Hybrid media activism: Ecologies, imaginaries, algorithms (1 edition). Routledge.
  • Turkle, S. (2017). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

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