That social media can be addictive and creepy isn’t a revelation to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. But in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary ‘‘The Social Dilemma,’’ conscientious defectors from these companies explain that the perniciousness of social networking platforms is a feature, not a bug.
They claim that the manipulation of human behavior for profit is coded into these companies with Machiavellian precision: Infinite scrolling and push notifications keep users constantly engaged; personalized recommendations use data not just to predict but also to influence our actions, turning users into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.
As in his documentaries about climate change, ‘‘Chasing Ice’’ and ‘‘Chasing Coral,’’ Orlowski takes a reality that can seem too colossal and abstract for a layperson to grasp, let alone care about, and scales it down to a human level. In ‘‘The Social Dilemma,’’ he recasts one of the oldest tropes of the horror genre — Dr. Frankenstein, the scientist who went too far — for the digital age.
In briskly edited interviews, Orlowski speaks with men and (a few) women who helped build social media and now fear the effects of their creations on users’ mental health and the foundations of democracy. They deliver their cautionary testimonies with the force of a startup pitch, employing crisp aphorisms and pithy analogies.
‘‘Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on 2 billion people,’’ says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. Anna Lembke, an addiction expert at Stanford University, explains that these companies exploit the brain’s evolutionary need for interpersonal connection. And Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, delivers a chilling allegation: Russia didn’t hack Facebook; it simply used the platform.
Much of this is familiar, but ‘‘The Social Dilemma’’ goes the extra explainer-mile by interspersing the interviews with PSA-style fictional scenes of a suburban family suffering the consequences of social-media addiction. There are silent dinners, a pubescent daughter (Sophia Hammons) with self-image issues and a teenage son (Skyler Gisondo) who’s radicalized by YouTube recommendations promoting a vague ideology.
This fictionalized narrative exemplifies the limitations of the documentary’s sometimes hyperbolic emphasis on the medium at the expense of the message. For instance, the movie’s interlocutors pin an increase in mental illness on social media usage yet don’t acknowledge factors like a rise in economic insecurity. Polarization, riots and protests are presented as particular symptoms of the social-media era without historical context.
Nevertheless, ‘‘The Social Dilemma’’ is remarkably effective in sounding the alarm about the incursion of data mining and manipulative technology into our social lives and beyond. Orlowski’s film is itself not spared by the phenomenon it scrutinizes. The movie is streaming on Netflix, where it’ll become another node in the service’s data-based algorithm.