The Social Dilemma, a wake-up call? 

The Social Dilemma is a documentary on social media that premiered on Netflix in September 2020.

It raised some good questions about privacy, security, our habits, and the mental health dangers faced by anybody using social platforms.

Exposing the subtle threats of tech to as many people as possible is admirable, but tricky. Let’s see how the Social Dilemma did.

The lowdown

The 2020 Netflix docudrama looks at the rise of social media and its negative impact on our society.

On the surface, The Social Dilemma looks like a wake-up call for people addicted to their phones. But a few minutes in, you realize that the director, Jeff Orlowski, tries to tackle the ambitious task of exposing evil tech corporations.

Throughout the Social Dilemma, we are presented with interviews from people that had essential roles in tech. They’ve realized the harm their companies were causing and are now on a path to redemption.

The interviews include:

        • Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist, now the founder of the Centre for Humane Technology
        • Justin Rosenstein, one of the co-founders of Facebook and the co-creator of the Like button.
        • Tim Kendall, a former president of Pinterest.

The documentary also brings in a handful of psychology experts and research to prove their point. Among them are:

        • Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard University professor
        • Rashida Richardson, the Director of Policy Research at AI Now, an institute that studies the social implications of artificial intelligence
        • Anna Lembke, Addiction Medicine Fellowship Program Director at Stanford University

The interviews are intercut with dramatizations of teenagers that are addicted to social media, starring Skyler Gisondo and Kara Hayward, plus a tech algorithm visualization starring Vincent Kartheiser.

At the end of the day, the documentary tries to explain to people how the business models of tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google affect our society. And how oblivious users are to it.

But it sure feels ironic to be watching it on Netflix, yet another notorious platform competing for our attention.

The highlights of the documentary

If you watch the documentary, here are some of the bits that might stick with you.

There are just two industries that call their customers users

And tech is one of them. That’s because they’re trying to get people to their products as much as possible.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter want your attention, and they’re doing everything they can to make you come back to their platforms. That can mean confirming your beliefs, preying on your fears, and reinforcing your beliefs.

Persuasion is built into AI technology

A lot of digital tech relies on people acting or reacting. Entire platforms are built to convince you to come back to them. They use instant gratification techniques like attention or praise that will give you a dopamine boost.

The problem is your brain chemistry changes, and after artificial boosts, your dopamine levels start dropping. So, you’re soon left chasing a high.

Algorithms feed you what you want to believe

Most of the time, they’re right. Companies are collecting data about your past actions to determine what they should show you in the future.

One example: Google, who doesn’t show the same search results for everybody.

Facebook defending themselves

After the documentary premiered, Facebook released a blog post titled What the Social Dilemma Gets Wrong.

Their narrative is they’re being blamed for complex social problems that are out of Facebook’s control. Instead, they’re drawing attention to all the things they’re actively doing to counter any Facebook negatives.

For example, they worked with mental health experts and launched programs focused on loneliness, racial justice, mentorship, and mental health.

But Facebook can have a detrimental effect on mental health, and it’s been like that for more than a decade now. But It wasn’t until 2016 that people started realizing the good and the bad that comes with Facebook.

Another point made by The Social Dilemma is that “if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.”

Facebook tries to counter this by saying that you’re not the product they offer to advertisers. When your data is being sold, advertisers don’t know who you are. But this doesn’t mean they’re not selling your attention to advertisers.

In the blog post, Facebook also mentions that their daily usage dropped by 50 million hours. Apparently, their intent is not to keep you on their platform as much as possible, but to “offer people value.”

They attribute the drop to banning viral videos, but let’s be real. Daily usage is way too broad of a metric to be swayed by just one action.

Throughout the post, they mention more of the recent changes they’re making to their data collection strategies, or the combat the spread of misinformation. But it feels like too little, too late.

In search of the solutions

So, is deleting your social media accounts or throwing away your phone the right answer?

Probably not. And it seems like, so far, we don’t really have a right answer.

But maybe we should begin by taking some responsibility for what’s happening to us and put our foot down. We can’t act like Facebook & co are ruining our lives, and there’s nothing we can’t do about it.

And it all starts with personal action and accountability.

Is your phone too addictive? Control your screen time, block, and uninstall apps ruthlessly.

Is your feed flooded with fake news? Learn how to tell what’s real and what’s not.

Instead of looking to confirm your own biases, try and find as many diverse, credible news sources. And remember to keep a healthy dose of skepticism.

So, do your part and be more than just a pawn.


Did you watch the Social Dilemma? What did you think of it? Did it make you reconsider your relationship with social media?

If you didn’t watch it because the documentary’s not available in your country, you can use CyberGhost VPN to unblock geo-restrictions and stream Netflix.

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