As the new school year begins, Netflix is ââmaking the documentary The social dilemma available for free on YouTube until the end of September. After just a few days, it recorded over 65,000 views, with one viewer commenting, “Literally one of the best and most worthy documentaries I have ever watched in my life.”
The voters of the Television Academy were equally enthusiastic. The documentary directed and co-written by Jeff Orlowski, produced by Larissa Rhodes, and edited and co-written by Davis Coombe has won seven Emmy nominations, more than any other film.
âWe were totally speechless and really expected none, let alone seven of them,â Rhodes told Deadline of the nominations. “For this team, we felt extremely proud and humbled by this response and recognition.”
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is probably one person who doesn’t support the film. The social dilemma supports the world’s largest social media company, and platforms like this have systematically “polluted our information ecosystem,” undermined democracy and harmed children’s mental health, all for profit. By the way, that review encompasses YouTube (ironically, given where the movie now streams for free).
“There was a lot of innocence they could plead 15 years ago, 10 years ago when they were small startups just trying to get by,” Orlowski notes. âNow these are some of the biggest companies in the world and they control the way the world thinks. “
Lest Orlowski sound like a lopsided conspiracy theorist – the kind that flourishes on Facebook – consider himself arguing from a rational, fact-based point of view. For his film, he interviewed many former executives and engineers from Facebook and Google who describe the overarching goal of these companies as keeping users “engaged”, that is, on the platform, constantly consuming content: watching videos, scrolling through “news,” etc.
âThey’ve built these social media feeds around a business model that’s driven by the volume, the amount of content,â Orlowski says. âThe more we can move forward, the more we can show you, the more we can keep you, the more money we make. It’s a business model where volume, eyeballs and attention are directly correlated to the amount of money they make.
The problem is, engineers at social media companies have devised amoral algorithms that push content to people, whether it’s true or not. In fact, bogus and inflammatory stories and conspiracy theories tend to keep users engaged far more than just factual.
âDisinformation and disinformation spread faster, naturally, than the truth,â Coombe points out. “People will click on outrageous material.”
Rhodes specifies: âAn MIT study [showed] Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than truth or real news. So imagine that for any problem, be it vaccine and health information, or any other conspiracy theory. It is very scary.
Orlowski says we are seeing the reckless effect of this “in real time”. Take the lies of the Covid vaccine.
This organization, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, discovered that there were around 12 people – the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ – who were responsible for the vast majority of disinformation about Covid. [on Facebook]Orlowski notes. “And Facebook could have regulated some of that content.”
Or take the January 6 insurgency at the United States Capitol, the citadel of democracy. The crowd was enraged by the electoral conspiracy theories of President Trump and his allies that swept across social platforms. In the world of social media, users receive personalized content by algorithms that confirm their biases and stoke outrage.
“I think you wouldn’t have had January 6, certainly not that day, without social media playing a role,” Orlowski says. âThese technological platforms have polarized our country for more than ten years. And it all blew up and turned out to be useful that day. The challenge is that it still happens behind the scenes, even without President Trump in the White House. And the polarization of these platforms is only continuing.
To illustrate how social media businesses work, Orlowski made the bold choice to include a fictional screenplay in his documentary. The subplot shows the deleterious impact of social media on a typical middle-class family. Teenage son radicalizes because of right-wing videos he consumes online; her younger sister suffers from depression after friends teased her about the selfies she posts. Neither child can go an entire day without the dopamine surge of “likes”, status updates, friend suggestions, “memories” regurgitated in photo libraries – the standard incentive. that we all get from Facebook.
Actor Vincent Kartheiser has been chosen to play three iterations of an AI algorithm that aims to keep the teenager engaged as much as possible on social media.
âThis narrative section was actually shot entirely in the month and a half before the film launched at Sundance. , says Rhodes. “I think it really helped me and the other team members to understand what these algorithms actually do, how this technology, especially the search and social media platforms, is manipulating us and manipulating us. really.”
Orlowski says he found the filming of the complex fictional segments âa total joy. It was a technical problem that was really fun to try to solve. For me, I loved this part.
Coombe, who was tasked with seamlessly combining the fictional and documentary material with the edit, said: âBringing those two things together was really delicate and refreshing. A lot of new challenges for me, because I am mainly an editor of documentaries. But it was interesting having to change gears and switch to a different storytelling mode for one scene and then go back to talking heads for another scene. And it was a humbling experience. “
Orlowski sees the free distribution of The social dilemma on YouTube, scheduled for children to return to class, to warn parents of the dangers of social media for their children.
âWe have countless partners, school organizations who have contacted us, as well as our team, who want to get involved, want to broadcast the film and make it 100% as accessible as possible,â he says. âWe can’t wait for groups to register for screenings and join the conversation. This has been, in some ways, the most rewarding part of the whole process. “
He does not hesitate to express the hope that his documentary also motivates political decision-makers.
âI think that’s really where the conversation comes back to law and regulation,â Orlowski told Deadline, âand what the opportunities are to curb what these tech platforms have done to our government and our government. democracy.”