For his past two documentaries, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski focused on the environmental impact of melting glaciers and disappearing coral reefs. In the process of promoting the films, he began to notice a troubling and familiar pattern.
“We kept finding more and more people who were skeptical of climate change,” Orlowski says. “How is it that they’re in so much denial with all the facts and all the evidence? We were meeting people at film festivals, on the road, in Q&As, countless people who just questioned the climate science.”
Orlowski traced the source to the echo chambers of social media platforms and discrepancies in web searches, which can surface different information for different people.
“All of these technology systems are reinforcing different beliefs for people regardless of the truth,” Orlowski says. “We realized that this is a huge story. This is changing the way our entire civilization gets its information and thinks about truth and fact.”
And so began the journey to create The Social Dilemma, a deep dive into the algorithms and business models of the leading tech companies that are shaping human behavior and influencing politics. The documentary is now available on Netflix.
Through the testimony of tech insiders including Tim Kendall, the former director of monetization at Facebook; Jeff Seibert, a former head of consumer product at Twitter; Justin Rosenstein, a coinventor of Facebook Pages and the “like” button; and Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, The Social Dilemma deftly unpacks many of the concerns that have driven the conversation around these companies over the past few years, with a particularly keen analysis of the social media user as the product being sold to advertisers.
What emerges is a similar trajectory to what Orlowski saw with climate change: shortsighted capitalism superseding long-term damage to society.
“Nobody thought at the very beginning when they started burning fossil fuel that it would lead to global catastrophe. Now we’re stuck with the consequences of climate change, and it’s taking a long time to shift off of that,” Orlowski says. “I compare that to the tech industry, where we discovered this targeted individualized advertising business model that seemed extremely profitable at the start. And we’re now learning the consequences of those individual home feeds.”
“Everybody’s on their own island of thought now, and you see the algorithms are customizing a worldview for each and every one of us,” Orlowski continues. “And it becomes more and more difficult for us to engage with people that have a different worldview. My truth is different than your truth—that’s what we’re seeing in our society at large now. And I don’t think that was ever expected to be the case.”
To help illustrate his thesis, Orlowski shot a narrative short film of sorts that runs throughout the doc, featuring an average family that falls prey to the perils of social media. The main character in this arc is Ben (Skyler Gisondo), the teenage son who not only gets sucked into the algorithms that are intentionally designed for maximum addictiveness but also becomes radicalized by the rabbit hole of divisive rhetoric he starts to tumble down. To this, Orlowski added an additional character who personifies the AI behind these social platforms. Like a crossover event between Black Mirror and Pixar’s Inside Out, we see how the AI (Vincent Kartheiser) manipulates Ben’s everyday actions, from what he buys to who he interacts with.
“We didn’t want it to be a film that was just talking heads—that was a very low-hanging bar for us as a creative team. So we wanted to elevate it,” Orlowski says. “As we were learning about all of this and really started to understand how machine learning works, I started to understand what’s happening on the other side of your screen in a different way.”
Orlowski says Inside Out became a reference point to which they kept returning. It was also inspired by his own decision to quit social media during the making of this doc—and how aggressively social media wouldn’t quit him.
“There’s a thing called ‘resurrections’ where the platforms try to bring you back,” Orlowski says. “I just kept feeling there’s this force on the other side of the screen that nobody thinks about, and nobody really understands how it works. Yet that’s what’s driving all of these individual actions. That’s what we wanted to bring to life.”
“I felt like I was a pawn in the system,” Orlowski continues. “There’s a saying in the film, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. And I just felt like I was being manipulated and sold. I felt disgusting. I don’t want to be a cog in a machine that’s turning these trillions of dollars of value for the companies.”
Despite the ominous tone The Social Dilemma strikes and Orlowski’s personal decision to quit social media, he insists this doc isn’t antitech. Rather, it’s an indictment of the business models that are driving these platforms and a call for more regulation.
“Just like with climate change, we can’t put the full blame and burden on the public. The public isn’t gonna solve climate change by changing their light bulbs. That’s a step, but that’s not the solution,” Orlowski says. “Along the same lines, I don’t think the burden should be on parents to regulate their kids’ usage of their phones. I think parents can play a huge role in protecting their own families both from the mental health harms and from the political misinformation harms. But there’s a bigger problem we need to address.”