Review: ‘The Social Dilemma’

True Confessions But No Real Answers

By Kelvin Childs

“The Social Dilemma,” a Netflix documentary-drama by director Jeff Orlowski, shows the common ground that undergirds a society relentlessly being fractured with each “like,” tweet and click on social media.

Orlowski, 34, is behind such hit nature documentaries as “Chasing Ice” (2012) and “Chasing Coral” (2017).

In “Social,” Orlowski parades numerous former founders, executives and engineers from the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, Apple, Uber and Firefox as if they are at a confessional — sounding the alarm about the Frankenstein they all had a hand in creating.

Yet, they disingenuously declare that no one’s fingerprints in particular are on the weapons they claim were formed from their work.

Tellingly, “Social” has no current representatives of the companies speaking to how — or, whether — they’ve course-corrected.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears in news footage evading congressional questions on his company’s responsibility and asserting that it can set things right with its algorithms.

But these former insiders and some outside critics, in rebuttal to Zuckerberg, say it can’t be done.

“We are allowing the technologists to frame this as a problem they are equipped to solve,” says data scientist Cathy O’Neil. “That’s a lie.”

O’Neil is author of the 2016 book, “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

“People talk about AI as if it will know truth,” she observes. “AI is not gonna solve this problem.

“AI cannot solve the problem of fake news,” O’Neil says.

Algorithms in Control

In their telling, the algorithms that govern these platforms magically operate without human intervention, or human judgment — which can’t be true.

The algorithms are fed by every keystroke users make on their platform of choice, amassing a dossier of interests, search queries and purchases.

“Social” speaks little to the privacy implications of collecting the data, how the companies safeguard it, or how they do or don’t help users limit how their information is applied.

Instead, the talking heads speak at length about how the data is used — all for one, overarching goal: to keep people coming back for more.

The strongest point is made by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who coined the term “virtual reality”: Unlike users of Wikipedia, those tapping search engines like Google and platforms like Facebook and Instagram don’t get the same thing.

Links, Images, Friends

They are, instead, fed links and images and videos selected by those algorithms — even shared by friends who are screened by the algorithms, too — all in service of advertisers, Lanier says.

This manipulation has terrible effects on the family in the film’s dramatization.

Mom, dad and eldest daughter are concerned about the middle son’s and youngest daughter’s increasing addiction to their cellphones but cannot stop it.

Mom locks away the phones for an hour during dinner, but the young girl smashes open the glass lockbox, snatches up her cell and sprints to her room.

The son bets his mother that he can stay off his phone for a week but cracks in three days, with help from an element of “AI,” played by Vincent Kartheiser of AMC’s “Mad Men.”

Skyler Gisondo plays a teenager whose addiction to social media leads him down a dangerous path in Netflix’s docudrama “The Social Dilemma.” Credit: Netflix.

AI’s ‘Elements’

The three elements of AI, all played by Kartheiser — “Advertising,” “Growth,” “Revenue” — continuously shoot the boy alerts to get him engaged, caring only about keeping him online to add money to their coffers.

None of AI’s actions has any moral underpinning. 

Soon, the son has fallen into an echo chamber of propaganda.

“Social” warns that the world is with him — using archival footage of the “Pizzagate” controversy and of violent protests in Berkeley, Calif.; Charlottesville, Va., and Washington — along with scenes of political unrest in the Philippines, Brazil, Myanmar and other countries.

And since social media companies won’t apply moral judgment, they themselves are vulnerable to manipulation.

As technology venture capitalist Roger McNamee asserts, Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections by cynically using Facebook’s tools.

“Manipulation by third parties is not a hack,” he says.

However, the solutions offered during the closing credits appear ineffectual.

The contrite advisers recommend limiting screen time, keeping social media from preteens and pressuring companies to change their ways — as if the firms, primarily through federal legislation, will listen to people not using their wares.

“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change,” says Joe Toscano, former Google experience design consultant. “And that is why I think we need regulation.” 

As a whole, “The Social Dilemma” is about connecting the dots, but it leaves critical elements out of the picture.

Kelvin Childs is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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