Critics Pick

‘The Social Dilemma’: Film Review

Social media is a termite infestation eating at the foundations of society, according to experts in Jeff Orlowski's cautionary documentary.

The Social Dilemma Review
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Many a personal device will be at least temporarily darkened by “The Social Dilemma” — though whether it’s already too late to stem, mid-course, the societal disaster the film charts is just one of many questions it raises. This potent documentary by Jeff Orlowski lends a podium to various experts who are certain the pervasive influence of under-regulated social media is destroying civilization from within. The problem, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is that it’s much easier to manipulate people than to persuade them they’re being manipulated.

It’s a thesis that doesn’t seem so improbable after 93 minutes of this densely packed yet lively and entertaining documentary, whose accessibility is heightened by some narrative play-acting. Easily one of the most talked-about docs at Sundance this year, “The Social Dilemma” is sure to attract significant interest from buyers for various formats around the world.

Marking a sharp turn from Orlowski’s well-received prior directorial features about environmental crises (“Chasing Ice,” “Chasing Coral”), “The Social Dilemma” is about the physical world only insofar as its central issue leads us to neglect and distort it. Many interviewees here are former major honchos at Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al. — as with the current White House administration, presumably no one currently employed in such places feels free to tattle — who once believed that the companies they helped create were “fundamentally a force for good,” at least in theory. But as the wacky world of the internet became monetized, first to pay its own way, then to keep fueling astronomical profits, it became a vehicle for “surveillance capitalism.” Meaning that those companies began focusing on ways to deploy user data in order to keep people online longer, thus guaranteeing more views for paid advertisers.

But abetting consumerism has hardly proved the gravest sin of internet greed. The ability of algorithms to identify and target a user’s particular interests has led to people ending up exposed often to only narrow viewpoints that can encompass “fake news,” conspiracy theorists, trolls, predators and so forth. Their grasp on provable reality grows tenuous as they accept whatever’s on the internet as “true,” even as they interact face-to-face with real people and differing viewpoints less and less. “Technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society [is] the existential threat,” one commentator says here, as underlined by everything from school shootings to degenerating political discourse.

Yet the problem within that problem is that people who believe their digital intake is entirely a matter of free will, partly because much of it is so frivolous, refuse to believe they’re being manipulated. “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix?” asks Tristan Harris, a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and former Google “design ethicist” who’s something of a principal figure in the doc. He’s been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” — the rub naturally being that conscience tends to oppress profit margins. Keeping people dependent on their “digital pacifier” by any means necessary, no matter how ethically questionable, is seen by companies as good for the bottom line.

A dramatic narrative featuring an average (if suburban/affluent) family plays throughout the film, and illustrates the impact of social-media addiction: Mom (Barbara Gehring) is frustrated by her children’s short attention spans, while collegiate elder sister Cassandra (Kara Hayward) is worried about the larger issues around social media addiction. Falling prey to that phenomenon are youngest child Isla (Sophia Hammons), a pretty girl of about 13 for whom Instagram, et al. are exacerbating her insecurities and need for approval. Meanwhile alienated teenage brother Ben (Skyler Gisondo) is falling down a rabbit hole of extremist ideology, painted here in terms vague enough to be neither identifiably “left” nor “right.” Adding a humorous fantasy element is Vincent Kartheiser in triplicate as the imaginary pilot-curators of Ben’s online feed, not unlike the fully staffed biological “command center” that oversees the act of reproduction in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.”

Much of this fictional content is at an “After School Special” level that wouldn’t be very impressive in a wholly dramatized feature, but serves to diversify the already colorful content of “The Social Dilemma” and vividly exemplify its talking-head ideas. Elsewhere, the astute, fast-paced editorial package is full of eye-catching clips, graphics and all the other elements that make the online experience a dopamine-triggering addictive time-suck. No movie about the internet ever has an excuse for being visually dull, and this one provides plenty of sensory stimulus while never risking overload or resorting to mere flashiness.

Even when the consequences of their platforms’ influence enter the news cycle in some dire way, the companies involved in the mess protest that they’re just neutral entities not responsible for users’ offline behavior. It’s noted here, however, that people in the tech industry tend to be extremely strict with their own children’s social-media exposure — proving they’ve fully grasped its harm, even if they’re not at liberty to admit as much publicly and risk damage to the cash cow.

In the admirably cogent big picture presented by “The Social Dilemma,” what’s at risk clearly isn’t just profit, or even poorly socialized children, but the empathetic trust that binds societies, as well as the solidity of democratic institutions we’re learning can be all-too-effectively undermined by a steady diet of perspective-warping memes.

‘The Social Dilemma’: Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 28, 2020. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Netflix release of an Exposure Labs production in association with Argent Pictures. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Producer: Larissa Rhodes. Co-producers: Daniel Wright, Stacey Piculell. Executive producers: Laurie David, Heather Reisman, Linda A. Cornfield, David J. Cornfield, Jill Ahrens, Ryan Ahrens, Ben Renzo, Lynda Weinman, Bruce Heavin, Hallee Adelman, Ivy Herman.
  • Crew: Director: Jeff Orlowski. Writers: Vickie Curtis, Davis Coombe, Orlowski. Camera: John Behrens, Jonathan Pope. Editor: Davis Coombe. Music: Mark Crawford.
  • With: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser, Kara Hayward, Sophia Hammons, Chris Gundy, Barbara Gehring, Tristan Harris, Shoshana Zuboff, Tim Kendall, Jaron Lanier, Jeff Seibert, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Randima Fernando, Anna Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Bailer Richardson, Joe Toscano, Lynn Fox.