Review of “The Social Dilemma”

Kevin Luhrs, Reporter

In a saturated market of documentaries on social media, Netflix’s latest docudrama is a refreshing addition to the medium. 

“The Social Dilemma” details how social media has become a marketplace in human futures, in which numerous actors compete to influence your behavior.

The Drama Side

The drama aspect of “The Social Dilemma” has acting on par with the 2011 TV film “Cyberbully.” It’s cheesy, with unrealistic dialogue that intends to push a one-sided narrative. An example of this narrative-pushing is a scene that showcases the social media addiction of “Ben” and “Isla.” Their mother (who wasn’t given a name) buys a box that locks itself for a period of time—at dinner, Isla and Ben’s mother gives the typical “No phones at the table!” spiel. She takes the family’s phones and locks them in the box. 

The family sits uneasily at the table in silence as their phone notifications go off. Isla then gets up and tries to open the box normally before being told that she “can’t open it.” Isla then grabs a hammer and a pair of goggles before smashing it open with the hammer. It’s a far-fetched scenario that is not helpful in describing the average user. Is it possible? Sure. However, it’s doubtful that the average user is willing to smash a glass box and risk harming themselves because they couldn’t look at social media for an hour. It’s melodramatic and unhelpful to the narrative.

There is also a political polarization aspect, the segment portrays a fictional ideology named “the extreme center.” There are scenes of various social media posts, the posts say “Don’t vote!”, “Defy!” and a vlogger saying that he’s willing to “do whatever it takes” for the extreme center. The narrative would have been much better served had they used multiple examples of political and religious extremism (i.e. the Islamic State group, the Alt-Right, QAnon etc.) 

The only real upside to the drama aspect is Vincent Kartheiser’s performance as the A.I.s (there are several of them)—the purpose of which is to illustrate how applications compete for our attention. In the drama, they debate over what content will grab the character’s attention, nudge them with notifications about their friends joining the platform, and track what type of content is looked at the longest by the characters. It’s a helpful illustration that does inform, unlike the rest of the drama aspect.

Overall, the drama section receives a 2 out of 5. 

Ben, played by Skyler Gisondo

The Documentary Side

While the drama lets down significantly, the documentary aspect is much more enlightening. It gives an insider’s perspective into the revenue-models of various social media platforms and provides the real-world examples that the drama lacks. It goes into how social media gathers information on its users and then feeds those users content. As many of the interviewees state, this is not by giving users content with accurate information, but misinformation which compels them to go down various rabbit holes. By pushing users down these rabbit holes, it increases revenue—however, it can also lead to users becoming radicalized by misinformation.

An example that was used is the “Pizzagate” theory. It shows the bodycam footage of a police officer in Washington D.C. arresting a man who walked into a pizza restaurant with a firearm, the man attempted to go into the back of the restaurant to find a fictional child trafficking ring. It’s a terrifying example of how social media can cause real world damage and it serves the narrative well.

Overall, the documentary portion is well-made, the examples are illustrative of the times, and it is informative. The documentary portion receives a 5 out of 5. 

The Verdict

“The Social Dilemma” is a well-made docudrama that is dragged down by the drama portion of it. The documentary aspect is informative and well-made, whereas the drama aspect is poorly executed, cheesy, and could have been cut out altogether. Despite this, however, the documentary aspect still makes it enjoyable and worthwhile to watch. 

“The Social Dilemma” receives a 3.5 out of 5.


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