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Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma' exposes Big Tech

"The Social Dilemma" is a Netflix documentary exposing the harmful effects of social media.  – Photo by Twitter

You’re probably reading this on your phone, but let’s talk about social media.

Anyone who uses social media knows that despite all its affordances, it poses threats to our mental health and society as it grows increasingly ubiquitous. The Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” directed by Jeff Orlowski, explores just how dangerous it is by exposing the psychological manipulation social media platforms perform on their users.

The documentary includes interviews with former executives at Big Tech companies: Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. They claim that these companies are primarily profit-based and exploit their users to drive more likes, clicks, comments and shares.

The documentary depicts this astutely by creating a fictional character that is trapped inside the social media algorithm — managed by three devoted engineers aiming to keep him scrolling on his phone.

It delves into how algorithms are intricately structured to produce more and more content tailored to a person’s interests, forming a digital reality that doesn’t mirror the outside world.

Every decision made on social media — every like and share — is taken into account and determines the next recommended piece of content. This forms an unhealthy addiction, unbeknownst to the user.

An insider also discusses how our phones provide us a sense of security in moments of awkwardness, loneliness and boredom. One particular scene unveils how positive comments on a selfie can uplift us, while a single negative comment can tear down our self-esteems and cloud our self-worth.

What’s shocking is how these technology companies are a deliberate factor in the obstruction of our human experience. They run on a business model that predicts our next move and is designed to take advantage of our weaknesses for monetary gain.

The effects of this have been increased rates of anxiety and depression among young adults and a dangerous level of divisiveness among the American public. Social media has devolved the realm of public discourse, conflicting our ability to understand one another.

Upon finishing the documentary, I sat with my thoughts in silence and eyed my phone in fear — as ridiculous as that sounds. I’ve also grown more aware that my first instinct upon completing any task is to pick up my phone and check my notifications.

We are obsessed with the connection we have to the rest of the world, plugging in first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed. 

In this time, people are constantly trying to achieve a balance on social media and outsmart the algorithm, which is an unrealistic feat. I’ve turned off my notifications on certain applications and placed time limits to apply more discipline. Simply being cognizant of the unhealthy habits you’ve developed through social media is a big step. Addiction and low self-esteem are embedded in these platforms, they’re not simply side effects.

The interviewees conclude with a call to action. They argue that nothing is going to change unless these platforms upend their business model for one that is more humanitarian. While asking social media platforms to forgo the very tactics that made them successful is comical, it brings these conversations to light and builds a movement against such practices.

Important discussions can enact change, and the documentary effectively educates viewers on what they’re getting into — or what they’ve already endured. I don’t expect people to discard their phones in a river after watching this but be more conscious navigating their time on social media.

For many of us who have struggled with social media or are trying to take a detox from it, “The Social Dilemma” is an alarming breakdown of how it works and penetrates our lives. Check out the podcast “The Targum Tea” for further commentary on the documentary.

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