Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (trailer) is certificate 13 but I wouldn’t watch it with younger teens. All the talk of suicide, civil war and adults losing control makes heavy viewing.

With its slick production, fast-paced editing and strong musical score, The Social Dilemma reminds me of Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation (2016). If Curtis’ film looked at the complex threads underpinning the creation of a simpler “fake world” for us to inhabit (watch it here), The Social Dilemma sets out to explain the fast unravelling of that world.

Facebook and not-so chill

It’s ironic that Netflix, one of the most addictive platforms on the planet, should make a film about the perils of social media. Like social media, Netflix also serves up endless recommendations based on content you’ve interacted with earlier. It limits choice and restricts your influences in ever-decreasing circles.

This apparent removal of our free will, without us even noticing, is the central concern of The Social Dilemma. Of course, while watching Netflix simply allows us to Netflix and chill (or sink ever further into our sofas while ignoring the health risks), social media are actively destroying democracy.

Here are my three main criticisms of the film – and one takeaway.

1. The context is too narrow

At one point the filmmakers show us a graph of suicide rates going up which they say exactly maps onto the rise in mobile phone usage. Well…so does the impact of austerity. Globally, the proportion of suicides may indeed be rising, but that has to be due to a variety of factors. Poverty, climate change, rising inequality, social isolation, long-term stress – these all contribute to everyday anxieties and have a negative impact on mental health.

VUCA is a military term which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It was coined by the US military as a way to describe global geopolitics after the Cold War. Since 2002 it’s been increasingly popular in business, as a learning model for strategic leadership.

I first heard VUCA used to describe our digital world by David Siegel in 2016. He was right. Everything is interconnected – you can’t pull out just one variable.

2. Social media aren’t all bad

Hashtag-driven movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too simply would not have happened without social media. But The Social Dilemma doesn’t reference these seminal, change-making protests in any depth.

Pinterest’s former President Tim Kendall talks about “meaningful changes around the world” as the camera cuts away to scenes of peaceful demonstrations. But he immediately adds: “we were naive about the flip-side of that coin”. And we’re back to the film’s main premise.

I don’t disagree with Kendall, but I also like what journalist Will Oremus wrote back in June:

“If social graphs and personalisation algorithms that show us what we want to see are driving the left and right farther apart…they’re also turbocharging political agendas that lay outside the old bipartisan consensus [….] Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy.”

Social media provide virtually universal free access to a global communications network. That is a valuable and amazing thing. In addressing the problems with social media’s business model, let’s not forget these platforms can also be a force for good.

3. Current tech leaders can’t fix it

When you’ve had a bad haircut, do you ask the same hairdresser to ‘fix’ it for you? Or do you run as far away from them as possible? This is why I’ve got a problem with the idea that the current leaders of Silicon Valley are the best placed to make everything better. As mathematician Cathy O’Neil says in The Social Dilemma:

“We’re allowing technologists to frame this as a problem that they are equipped to solve. That’s a lie. People talk about [Artificial Intelligence] as if it will know truth. AI isn’t going to solve these problems. AI can’t solve the problem of fake news.”

Despite the presence of O’Neil and a handful of women, most of the spokespeople in the film are white, male technologists.

In her book, DeepFakes and the Infocalypse, broadcaster Nina Schick argues that we need “society-wide mobilisation” to address the problem of fake news and polarising content. We all have a part to play in fixing what Schick calls “the corrupt information ecosystem”.

We need a diverse, fully networked approach to a networked problem.

4. The vulnerable are most at risk

In The Social Dilemma, real-life interviewees are intercut with dramatised scenes about a family struggling to come to terms with its own social media use. The younger daughter and the son are portrayed to be most at risk. The younger daughter seeks constant reassurance from her social network by posting selfies. She’s distraught when someone suggests her ears are too big. The son gets increasingly sucked into a shady, nondescript political movement called Extreme Centre. As the film progresses, he appears to be no longer in full control of his actions.

In a report for the Observer on the rise of QAnon, Jamie Doward suggests that people with underlying mental health issues may be more easily drawn than others into dangerous online rabbit holes. One interviewee told Doward that:

“People who fall into QAnon or adjacent modern conspiracy thinking, including my family member and friends, are people who have unresolved trauma, such as from childhood, that has left them with deep insecurities about their place in the world and the state of society.”

Tapping into anxieties

Doward also quotes Gregory Stanton, founding president of Genocide Watch, who sees QAnon – and others like it – as opportunistic movements, ready to tap into current social and economic anxieties:

“I think it comes at a similar time to the 1920s and 1930s. We have mass unemployment. We face a plague that is like the Spanish Flu that killed millions. Nazis and QAnon both seek a ‘saviour’ leader who will deliver society from disorder and the cabal of conspirators that is secretly taking over their nations.”

Okay. I know The Observer’s a left-leaning newspaper so maybe only reinforcing the ideas of my bubble but if we’ve learnt anything from the Cambridge Analytica scandal it’s that anxious, discontent and socially isolated people are being cynically targeted by political marketers (aided by social media’s emotion-focused algorithms).

This is a point made strongly in the film, through the teenage characters.

Doc for good

The Social Dilemma is a compelling, well-produced documentary, and an excellent advert for The Centre for Humane Technology, which the film’s main speakers either co-founded or advise. It’s far from perfect, and if you work in social media, or follow social media news, there won’t be any surprises. But the film helps push awareness of social media’s shortcomings into the mainstream. And that can only be a positive thing.

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Main image: screenshot from the Netflix trailer (on YouTube)