Of all the answers to his film The social dilemma, director Jeff Orlowski cherishes a reaction above many.
“[Author] George RR Martin tweeted that The social dilemma was the scariest movie he had seen in 20 years, âOrlowski told Deadline. “It was one of my favorite little moments.”
The Netflix documentary alarmed Martin and many other viewers with its chilling description of the influence of social media companies, claiming they have weakened democracy at home and abroad, sowed discord at the community and national level and had a negative impact on the mental health of users.
âIt’s like a dystopian matrix that we already live in,â Orlowski maintains, âand it’s not fiction.â
The film, which is an Oscar nominee this year, attempts to reframe how we understand the function of companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and more. It’s not, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2019 Georgetown University speech, “giving people a voice and bringing people together.” The real business goal is to engage an audience for as long as possible so that advertisers can reach them.
âWhat they sell is access to our eyeballs,â Orlowski says. âWe are the raw resourceâ¦ It’s a business model where volume, eyes and attention are directly correlated to the amount of money they earn. “
Social media companies maintain algorithms that push content to users in an attempt to keep them on their platforms. The problem lies in the type of content that has proven to be the most engaging: disinformation, conspiracy theories, stories that stoke “outrage”.
“We have created a system that promotes false information,” notes an expert on the film. âBecause fake news makes more money for businesses than the truth. The truth is boring.
The social dilemma cites the notorious âPizzagateâ conspiracy theory of 2016 which falsely claimed that Democratic Party officials were running a sex trafficking ring at restaurant establishments, including a pizza place in Washington, DC.
“This is an example of a conspiracy theory that has spread across all social networks,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher at Stanford University, in the documentary. âThe social network‘s recommendation engine offers it voluntarily to people who have never searched for the termâ Pizzagate âin their life. “
Orlowski sees a more recent example of the dangerous impact of social media in the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Trump, who believed his false allegations of massive voter fraud in the election.
“We see how [January 6] just showed how conspiracy theories, disinformation, how these platforms that sold us this connection idea actually only increase tribalism in some ways, âOrlowski says,â and connect us to a thought sharing the same ideas. They don’t really connect us with the world. They distance us and separate us from reality.
By feeding users a constant stream of material and opinions they already agree with, social media platforms have isolated us and deepened political divisions, Orlowski says.
âWe haven’t addressed climate change, even though the science has been very clear on this for a long timeâ¦ Politically, we are stuck,â he says. âIt’s one of the things that scares me the most is that whatever issue is close to your heart, it’s increasingly difficult for us to take meaningful democratic action becauseâ¦ essentially, every problem in the world has been, in one way or another, form or form polarized through these platforms.
The issues are complex. To help illustrate them, Orlowski created a fictional script in the documentary, about a suburban family. Girl suffers from anxiety and depression after selfies she posts on social media mock her classmates. School-aged son radicalizes while watching conspiratorial videos online.
“His story was inspired in part by the cover of The New York Times … an article they published about creating a YouTube radical, and it was something where you could see how people were falling down the rabbit hole. Â», Orlowski comments. “I think [the dramatizations] had a huge influence on how many people saw the movie and how it was sort of captured by audiences as they could end up in the family history, or they could end up in the story of the girl or the parents. “
Orlowski actor Vincent Kartheiser, best known for Mad Men, to play a human embodiment of an AI algorithm. He keeps his prey, the high school student, addicted to social networks with a drop of dopamine from “likes”, notifications, friend suggestions, etc.
âMuch of the idea originally came from understanding how algorithms work and trying to figure out how we portray [that] for the audienceâ¦ these non-moral intentions of puppeteer algorithms what you see and when and how and why you see what you see [on your feeds]Â», Orlowski explains. “That was the concept … to show that the human on the other side is being manipulated by these systems.”
Interestingly, the themes explored in The social dilemma appeared to resonate in part in President Biden’s inaugural address on Wednesday, as he championed democracy and pleaded for unity.
“We must reject a culture in which the facts themselves are manipulated and even fabricated,” said the 46th President. âWe can see ourselves not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the screaming and turn down the heat. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
Whether this is really possible without social media reform is a question worth asking. Orlowski’s point of view is clear.
âI think we need massive regulationâ of social media companies, he told Deadline. âThese tools were not designed for democracyâ¦ We, the public, are the thing exploited and manipulated, turned into money. It turns out to be terrible for democracy. We need democracy to fight back. We need our systems, we need our lawmakers to say, âWait a second. It has gone way too far. We need to change what these things can and cannot do, for the betterment of society.