The Social Dilemma is a real-world problem happening before our eyes

By Sarah Jacob
rioters at the Capitol in Jan 2021

The scenes of rioters storming the Capitol buildings in Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia, last week captured the world’s attention for days. Never in modern times have such scenes occurred in the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy,” prompting calls of a coup attempt from commentators and politicians worldwide.

Suddenly, news and social media channels were alive with discussions trying to tease out how we arrived at this moment in time.

A sentiment readily expressed by public figures was that they were “shocked, but not surprised” that such an overt attack on democracy had happened. Many were ready to lay the blame solely at Donald Trump’s feet, as causation was drawn between his words and the actions of his supporters. A smaller number pointed the finger at the big social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, seeing the writing on the wall, were quick to enact permanent bans of Trump’s accounts. 

With the world’s media channels now awash with opinions and analysis of the event, Netflix’s timely new documentary The Social Dilemma can provide us with a few clues to a crucially important question that is more and more often on our lips: how did we get here?

The opening scenes of this 94-minute docudrama introduce us to some of the interviewees, who are asked a few key questions – namely, is there a problem with social media today, what is it, and who is responsible?

Cue pregnant pauses all round.

By the end of the film, it does not sound outlandish when one of the interviewees declares this problem an “existential threat.”

As the minutes roll on, we receive a comprehensive overview of exactly what the problem is, and exactly how the technologies designed to maximise profit for big tech companies have gone on to have serious and unintended consequences for the world at large. By the end of the film, it does not sound outlandish when one of the interviewees declares this problem an “existential threat.”

When the people who developed technologies used by almost everyone with access to the internet are speaking out against their destructive power with genuine fear, it’s time to stay paying attention.

From children’s mental health to surveillance capitalism, conspiracy theories to rigged elections, the laundry list of transgressions is long. After watching the film, the desire to immediately delete all of one’s social media accounts is almost overpowering, and the suggestion of one of the interviewees is for the public to do exactly that.

The popularity of the docudrama genre is growing, and this film employs its techniques to full effect. It cleverly breaks up the large cast of talking heads – almost all of whom formerly worked for big tech companies – with dramatisations illustrating the real-life consequences of social media policies and algorithms.

Several of the data visualisations included in the feature provide a statistical basis to the reality that many have already seen play out on the ground: most notably, a graph that illustrates just how wide the gulf between people of different political persuasions has grown. Democracy in Australia even gets a mention in the discussion of how social media tools can easily be leveraged at low cost to shift the political opinions of the voting public.

The film takes care to address many of the counter arguments advanced by proponents eager to convince us that the problem is not a big one, or at least can be fixed through the implementation of even more sophisticated technologies.

For example, a common counter to the notion that technology – or rather the way it is exploited – is a threat to the peaceful functioning of societies, is that we will simply adapt to it over time. The tech experts interviewed demonstrate the incredible growth in technological innovation in a very short timeframe – exponentially faster than any other phenomenon in history. They then contrast this against the lagging of ethics and law put in place to police it, and the inability of the human brain to evolve rapidly enough to override the suggestions of persuasive technology.

Case in point: one expert tells of his struggle to ditch his screen addiction despite possessing an intimate understanding of how he is being manipulated. The corollary to this argument is that, now that tech companies have discovered how to subtly manipulate our behaviours over time with dwindling margins of error, it is impossible to “put the genie back in the bottle.” Those lessons have already been learned, and built upon, by bad actors with the power to control and harm others.

Our protagonists paint a picture of the systemic difficulties that a world whose population does not share the same truths would face.

The film’s stars describe how search and recommendation algorithms have now become so attuned to a person’s preferences that someone who has been consuming media on conspiracy theories will find that, after only a relatively short period of time, it is almost impossible to locate online content that debunks those theories.

Our protagonists paint a picture of the systemic difficulties that a world whose population does not share the same truths would face. Extreme examples of this are already evident. Media reports have emerged about the woman fatally shot in the chest during the Capitol protests. They indicate that she was a heavy consumer of conspiracy theories online and appeared to believe that Democrats are evil paedophiles.

When you base a film around interviews with tech nerds, pop culture references will inevitably be drawn into the conversation. It is unsurprising, then, that the situation is quickly likened to the plot of The Matrix, with one person comparing the unwitting behavioural modification achieved by algorithms to the way people in the fictional matrix go about their lives, oblivious to the fact that they are lifeless, motionless components in a machine so big it is invisible to its occupants. The comparison becomes more apt, the more you think about it.

With that image in mind, it is easy to start contemplating the human rights implications of this dilemma. The right to political freedom and self-determination outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is only one of many such considerations. It is little wonder that attempts are now being made to hold big tech accountable for human rights harm.

It is always those with the least power who are most likely to be hurt by the activities conducted by those with power, in their pursuit of ever greater profits. Indeed, should we consider the deaths of the five people who died as a result of the riots at the Capitol to be – at least in part – the collateral damage of technological advancement unfettered by ethical restraint?