Opinion | ‘The Social Dilemma’ raises questions, answers to no one

Lucas Seehafer, Contributing Columnist

The opening scene of “The Social Dilemma” ends with a menagerie of tech insiders finding it difficult to concisely articulate what, exactly, is the problem with social media – a question that the documentary spends its 89-minute runtime trying to crystalize. 

Various former Google, Facebook and Twitter head honchos are asked, point-blank, “What’s the problem?” and the answers range from deep contemplative silence to a smirk and a chuckle to unintelligible stammering. The reality, which is elucidated thoroughly throughout the course of the film, is that the answer is complex, thorny, and entangled. 

Essentially, this simple question does not have a simple answer.

“The Social Dilemma” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January to rave reviews—it currently boasts an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—and became available to stream on Netflix in early September. 

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the director of 2012’s “Chasing Ice” and 2017’s “Chasing Coral,” the documentary focuses on the dark underbelly of social media and the social media industry. The lineup of interviewees, whose expertise and opinions are tapped frequently throughout the course of the film, is impressive, featuring former top executives at various social media companies—including Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Uber—as well as academics from Stanford and New York University. One person who saw a healthy amount of screen time was Justin Rosenstein, the guy who helped create Facebook’s Like button as well as Google Drive.

The views of these 20 or so tech insiders can be simply summarized by this quote from Alex Roetter—the former head of engineering at Twitter—at the beginning of the film:

“When I [was at Twitter], I always felt like, fundamentally, it was a force for good,” Roetter says. “I don’t know if I feel that way anymore.”

The documentary features the former tech executives and decision-makers wrestling with the decisions and business models that have propelled the beasts that they helped create into positions of extreme power and influence. Says Tristan Harris—a former Google designer and the closest thing to the main character of the documentary—“If something is a tool, it is genuinely just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you; it’s seducing you; it’s manipulating you… We’ve moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction and manipulation-based technology environment. Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals and it has its own way of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”

A large focus of the documentary is the tendency for social media to manipulate its users through subversive and often imperceptible techniques that end up morphing an individual’s behaviors and perceptions over time. This gradual change in behavior, according to Jaron Lanier—whom the documentary coins the “founding father of virtual reality”—is the product that social media is selling to its investors and advertisers.

“[Social media] is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures… Those markets have produced the trillions of dollars that have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity,” says Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. 

On Facebook specifically, Zuboff says they realized after conducting vast amounts of research that “we can affect real-world behavior and emotions without ever triggering the user’s awareness. They are completely clueless.”

“The Social Dilemma” does a wonderful job of portraying the dangers of social media and puts forth important questions that need to be rigorously contemplated. However, where the documentary falls short is providing a tangible way forward.

Various long-term solutions were suggested, such as holding platforms accountable for their actions, an increase in governmental regulation, increased taxes and outlawing the human futures market, but examples of how to pursue these ideas are not stated. In addition, the various insiders provided short-term solutions—largely saved until the end credits were rolling—including fact-checking information seen on social media, deleting social media apps from all devices or, at the very least, turning off notifications as well as ignoring all content recommended while using the platforms. 

However, all these purported solutions are in essence the equivalent of saying everything about the industry needs to change and, while that may be true, how we get there is up in the air as the social media industry—particularly those companies stationed in America—is bursting with money and influence in the political sphere, making large scale change difficult. 

Yet another dilemma.