‘Social Dilemma’ offers diagnosis but no real cure

“It’s plain as day: these services are killing people, making people kill themselves.”

This dire warning from former Pintrest president Tim Kendall is probably the best summary of Netflix’s latest documentary, The Social Dilemma, which explores the surprisingly dark side of social media.

Now this isn’t the first documentary to tackle this subject – 2019’s The Great Hack covered how social media sites were harvesting personal data to sell to the highest bidder.

What makes Dilemma unique is that this time, the message is being delivered by the very architects of those same services.

In addition to Kendall, the documentary also brings in former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, former Facebook engineering lead Justin Rosenstein and many more.

And all of them are very worried.

Where The Great Hack focused on how these companies were harvesting your data, Social Dilemma exposes something far more disturbing: these companies are not just selling you adverts, they’re subtly controlling the way you think.

It sounds far-fetched but its a well-researched phenomenon, and hearing the people who made the tools explain how they work is honestly chilling.

However, I found the documentary’s message was undercut by two key flaws.

First, the interviewees sometimes treat social media as the sole cause of certain problems even when it is highly unlikely.

The worst example was when the documentary laid the rise in teenage depression from around 2011 on social media, but don’t mention other contributing factors like growing economic insecurity or the ongoing climate crisis, both of which have been shown to lead to higher rates of depression in young people.

The second problem is that while the documentary doesn’t offer any real solutions to the problems it addresses.

While the interviewees are quick to denounce their former bosses, when asked what they suggest we do about it they mostly just shrug and look uncomfortable.

However, Social Dilemma is still a must-see just for the way it exposes the true nature of platforms like Facebook and Twitter – platforms which have come to dominate almost every aspect of our lives.

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