As the new school year begins, Netflix is making the documentary The Social Dilemma available for free on YouTube, through the end of September. After just a couple of days, it’s recorded over 65,000 views, with one viewer commenting, “Literally one of the best and worthy documentaries I have ever watched in my life.”
Television Academy voters have proven similarly enthusiastic. The documentary directed and co-written by Jeff Orlowski, produced by Larissa Rhodes, and edited and co-written by Davis Coombe earned seven Emmy nominations, more than any other single film.
“We were totally speechless and really not expecting any of them, let alone seven of them,” Rhodes tells Deadline of the nominations. “For this team, we just felt hugely proud and humbled by that response and that recognition.”
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One person presumably not cheering on the film is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. The Social Dilemma argues the world’s largest social media company, and platforms like it have systematically “polluted our information ecosystem,” undermined democracy, and harmed the mental health of kids, all in pursuit of profit. This critique, by the way, encompasses YouTube (ironically, given where the film is now streaming gratis).
“There was a lot of innocence they could plead 15 years ago, 10 years ago when they were little startups just trying to make it out there,” Orlowski notes. “Now, they are some of the biggest companies in the world and they’re controlling the way the world thinks.”
Lest Orlowski sound like an unhinged conspiracy theorist—of the kind that flourish on Facebook—consider that he is arguing from a rational, fact-based point of view. For his film, he interviewed many former senior executives and engineers at Facebook and Google who describe the overriding objective of these companies as keeping users “engaged,” that is, on the platform, endlessly consuming content—watching videos, scrolling through “news,” etc.
“They built these social media feeds around a business model that is incentivized by volume, quantity of content,” Orlowski states. “’The more we can push through, the more we can show you, the more we can keep you on, the more money we make.’ It’s a business model where volume and eyeballs and attention is directly correlated with how much money they make.”
The problem is that engineers at the social media companies designed amoral algorithms that push content at people regardless of whether it’s true. In fact, false and inflammatory stories and conspiracy theories tend to keep users engaged much more than what’s merely factual.
“Misinformation and disinformation spreads faster, naturally, than the truth,” Coombe points out. “People are going to click on the outrageous material.”
Rhodes elaborates, “An MIT study [showed] fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth or real news. So just imagine that for any issue, be it vaccine and health information, or any other conspiracy theory. It’s very scary.”
Orlowski says we’re seeing the reckless effect of this “in real time.” Take Covid vaccine falsehoods.
“This organization, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, found there were about 12 individuals—the ‘Disinformation Dozen’—that were responsible for the vast majority of the Covid misinformation coming out [on Facebook],” Orlowski notes. “And Facebook could have regulated some of that content.”
Or take the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the citadel of democracy. The mob was riled up by election conspiracy theories from President Trump and his allies that roiled on social platforms. In the world of social media, users are fed content—personalized by algorithms—that confirms their biases and stokes outrage.
“I think you would not have had January 6th, certainly not that particular day, without social media playing a role,” Orlowski asserts. “These technology platforms have been polarizing our country for the last decade plus. And it just all erupted and came to avail on that particular day. The challenge is that this is still happening behind the scenes, even without President Trump in the White House. And the polarization of these platforms is only continuing.”
To illustrate how social media companies function, Orlowski made the bold choice to include a fictionalized storyline within his documentary. The subplot shows the deleterious impact of social media on a typical middle class family. A teenage son becomes radicalized by rightwing videos he consumes online; his younger sister suffers depression after friends tease her about selfies she posts. Neither child can go a full day without the dopamine rush of “likes,” status updates, friend suggestions, “memories” regurgitated from photo libraries—the standard prodding we all get from Facebook.
Actor Vincent Kartheiser was cast to play three iterations of an AI algorithm that plots to keep the teenage boy maximally engaged on social media.
“That narrative section was actually shot completely in the month and a half prior to the launch of the film at Sundance ,” Rhodes says. “I think it really helped myself and other people on the team understand what these algorithms are really doing, how this technology, especially the search and social media platforms, really are puppeteering and manipulating us.”
Orlowski says he found shooting the complex fictionalized segments “a total joy. It was a technical problem that was really fun to try to solve. For me, I loved that part.”
Coombe, who was tasked with seamlessly combining the fictionalized and documentary material in edit, says, “Putting those two things together was really tricky and refreshing. A lot of new challenges for me, because I’m mostly a documentary editor. But it was interesting to have to switch gears and move into a different mode of storytelling for one scene, and then back out to talking heads for another scene. And it was a humbling experience.”
Orlowski sees the free distribution of The Social Dilemma on YouTube, timed to kids returning to class, as a way to warn parents of the dangers of social media to their children.
“We have countless partners, school organizations that have reached out to us and our team, wanting to engage, wanting to get the film out there, and just make it 100-percent as accessible as possible,” he says. “We’re eager for groups to sign up for screenings and to engage with the conversation. That’s been, in some ways, the most fulfilling part of the whole process.”
He’s not shy about articulating the hope his documentary motivates policy makers too.
“I think this is really where the conversation comes back to legislation and regulation,” Orlowski tells Deadline, “and what the opportunities are to rein back in what these tech platforms have done to our government and our democracy.”