This is a review for The Social Dilemma, a documentary that has been released by Netflix that purports to investigate the social issues created by social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Gmail and so on. While there is surely some valid criticism for how these social networks have allowed for many people to engage in bad, socially irresponsible behavior I believe the claims that the designs of these networks themselves expressly encourage bad behavior are wildly exaggerated by the film-makers and the film itself is as guilty of the so-called proliferation of fake news that the documentary purports to be critical about. This is because the documentary engages in many of the same kinds of manipulation tactics it criticizes others for using.

The primary claim of The Social Dilemma documentary is that social media companies intentionally try to make their users addicted to digital media in order to profit financially from the selling of ads. After repetitive usage of the word ‘addictive’ in this context to condition the viewer to associate social media with addiction, midway through the movie, the film-makers actually make direct comparisons to drug addictions and portray digital media companies as behaving similarly to street gangs that sell illicit drugs. This is grossly inaccurate and in this essay I will explain why.

Comparing the abuse of drugs such as meth and cocaine to using social media applications is absurd. Nobody ever lost their job and ended up homeless because they spent too much time browsing their friends’ Facebook feeds or watched too many YouTube videos. These services call their customers ‘users’ because they are a user of the service, not because they adopted drug slang that didn’t even exist when computers were first created and the term ‘user’ was developed.

While I can agree that many apps encourage people to invest time into using them by providing them good service, comparing social networks to drug usage is an exaggeration.

The documentary also claims that social networks are intentionally engaging in a variety of other bad conduct; such as promoting fake news sites, encouraging antisocial behavior (such as where teenagers ignore their parents) and encouraging narcissism in individuals. To convince the viewer of these sinister activities the film uses numerous dramatized and entirely fictional scenes where actors follow a script written by the documentary film-makers, in a way that suits the documentary creators’ argument while voice over narration from ex-technology industry employees explains how sinister all of this is. The usage of these dramatized scenes becomes wildly exaggerated, to the point they show fictional employees at Facebook in a futuristic sci-fi setting manipulating a 3D voodoo model of a teenager. These fictional Facebook employees have a conversation about manipulating the boy’s behavior by suggesting different images to him. This scene is meant to be a dramatization of how the practice of A and B split testing works, where different designs of user interfaces and methods of displaying information are tested to see which method will best provide the information a viewer is seeking. This comical sci-fi style scene is an extremely disingenuous misrepresentation on how A and B split testing on social networks actually works, and what the purpose of it is.

I find it ironic that a documentary criticizing how media companies engage in manipulation tactics is itself engaging in the same kinds of techniques they criticize in order to convince people of their own brand of ‘fake news’. The creators of The Social Dilemma are intentionally manipulating their audience by leaving out key details and making their conspiracy theories the only possible explanation for why things like A and B split testing are done by app developers. This means this film is not really a true documentary at all. It is instead a piece of propaganda not intended to educate the viewer with facts but instead to convince the audience to take the actions the creators of the documentary want them to do, which is seemingly to stop using these social network applications altogether.

At the beginning of the documentary several former employees of large social network companies are asked to describe what the problem is, and none of them can provide a single answer. This is the core issue with the documentary itself; it fixates on the symptoms of larger societal issues and acts as if these symptoms are inherent to the networks themselves. But the networks are merely tools; people ultimately are simply using them to carry out behavior which they already do in their daily lives. Humans have long been subjected to scams, yellow journalism and propaganda created by other humans; these things have existed since the dawn of civilization. To blame social networks for making these things more pervasive is to hold the individuals who produce and consume this media without responsibility for their own behavior. While I do think that programmatic advertising and platforms such as reddit make the world a darker place by giving financial incentives to bad online conduct (specifically, the spreading of fake news and propaganda) and that user-generated content networks are bad business models for this reason, the idea social networks are expressly sinister companies is disingenuous.

The documentary relies heavily on narration from former employees who worked at social networks. These are specifically employees that have recently decided to capitalize on popular, albeit erroneous, technophobia rhetoric in order to position themselves as consultants and thought leaders in the tech industry. Many of the people interviewed have books, podcasts and other side hustles they are promoting in addition to their consulting. The participation of these former employees in this documentary is consequently largely financially motivated, as it benefits their individual branding efforts. Yet this is something not disclosed to the viewer of the documentary. Individuals such as Tristan Harris are a prime example of this, and it is noteworthy that the documentary creators at least acknowledged Tristan is a specialist in persuasive techniques based on psychological frameworks. His arguments to a layperson do seem very persuasive but they do not hold up under close scrutiny because what he is saying is fundamentally a dishonest portrayal of how these media companies work. Contrary to what people like Tristan claim in the documentary, companies like Facebook and Google give users a lot of control over what they see on their services. Users have the ability to remove ads they don’t want to see from their feeds, and even edit the interest categories that companies such as Facebook use to target them with advertising. Users have a lot more control over their browsing experiences than what Tristan Harris and others in this documentary claim. Whether individual users of these services actually employ these features to turn off notifications and change what kinds of advertising they see is a choice each user must decide themselves; like with all things, people must take personal responsibility for how they adjust the settings of these applications. Claiming people are at the mercy of the application developers (who are portrayed as cartoonish super villains in many scenes) is dishonest.

At one point in the film some former employees of technology companies compare a common app feature, such as scrolling down a news feed on Facebook, to using a slot machine at a casino. The problem with this analogy is that users are not rewarded with money for browsing news stories, and the reason Facebook and YouTube have designed their user interfaces to scroll down is because this is a basic navigation hand gesture feature created by Apple engineers for how smart phones and tablets work. The feature is designed to replicate how people turn the pages of a book. The finger flicking of a page was not invented by social media companies and has been used for centuries by human beings to access information in books. It has only been adopted by tech companies in the design of their digital books — which is what these applications we use on our phones and computers actually are– to make it easier for people to navigate digital devices without the usage of other supplemental devices, such as keyboards.

To criticize something like a finger page flick and compare it to pulling a lever at a casino is to also be critical about how books work, as you also do not know what information will be on the next page of a book until you read it. Indeed, the behavior of this feature is modeled on how people read books, not how people operate slot machines. This claim The Social Dilemma film makes is therefore highly manipulative and disingenuous. They have fixated on the worst sounding analogy they can think of, instead of showing the history behind the page flick feature and why it was developed to begin with. This is one of the many pieces of manipulative propaganda in the The Social Dilemma but it is not the only example. The movie consists almost entirely of these distorted half truths.

The film goes on to discuss the field of growth hacking, which is a practice where special kinds of marketing techniques are used. These techniques do not rely on traditional paid advertising and public relations in order to grow a userbase for a service, instead seeking simple very cost effective methods that can scale easily. An excellent example of a growth hacking technique is from when Hotmail put a link to invite the person who received an email to make an account on Hotmail at the bottom of every email sent by the service. Some of the ex employees in this documentary make the claim that growth hacking is a field where human psychology is manipulated for sinister reasons, but in truth real growth hacking relies on providing value to a person to encourage them to do something that is also valuable to the owner of the service; using the example with Hotmail again, placing the link at the bottom of emails helped Hotmail organically gain new users with every email a user of their service sent, but this also provided value to the new signup users because Hotmail at the time was the most feature rich email service. Unlike pop3 email software installed onto home computers, online based Hotmail could be accessed from any computer which meant people could check their mail at school, work or their friends’ houses instead of specifically needing to be at their home computer to read an email.

Growth hacking is only possible because someone has deemed the service valuable and it is impossible to build an audience for a service that is useless to the customer. So in my opinion claiming that growth hacking is only about psychological manipulation and people are lemmings that have no input in whether the techniques are effective or not, is misleading the audience. The interviewees also select labels to describe mundane things that sound sinister in tone, such as “manipulation”, to describe such mundane things as putting links at the bottom of an email to invite someone to use a new email service. Using sinister sounding terms for mundane things is disingenuous and a deeply manipulative action in its own right.

In my opinion this entire documentary is manipulative because it shotguns the audience with nothing but one-sided perspectives that manipulate facts in order to persuade the viewer to embrace the documentary creators’ points of view on these issues.

To re-iterate, the creators of this documentary are using half–truths and describing benign things like the design of a website page scrolling feature with words such as “implant” and “program”, in order to manipulate the audience. They are leveraging disgruntled former employees of technology companies to establish a perception of reliability and expertise. Yet these former employees are motivated to participate in the documentary because they seek new opportunities for themselves as consultants who advocate for “ethical technology”, which necessitates the construction of a narrative that the current way these companies operate is not ethical. It’s difficult to be an ‘ethical technology consultant’ unless people believe there is unethical technology usage. So this perception must be engineered and this is seemingly the objective of the documentary.

However the arguments made by these former employees in this movie are ridiculous when examined critically by someone who is actually knowledgeable about the development of these kinds of applications. As these former employees are all academically and professionally trained persuaders by their own admittance in their interviews, a viewer who does not scrutinize their statements will be easily manipulated by their creative story-telling into believing their exaggerations are facts. That the documentary also splices in dramatic, fictionalized scenes of people having bad experiences with social media is the biggest tell that the documentary creators are expressly intending to manipulate their audience using emotionally charged story-telling. If I had to rank the creators of this documentary on a scale of 1 to 10 of how much expertise they have in using media to manipulate people, I would say they are among the best manipulators I have seen in many years. as they have used some of the most deceptive techniques in the video editing tool box in the production of this so-called “documentary”. They are a solid ’10’ on the manipulation scale.

The editors do not even place a subtitle notice on these dramatized, fictional scenes with actors that clearly inform the audience they are fictional scenes. Instead the creators of The Social Dilemma intentionally insert these fictional scenes side by side with documentary footage using the same film graining and coloring; when this is done in a documentary many audiences cannot tell the difference between dramatized events and real ones when they are placed side by side in a documentary. Presenting fictionalized scenes in this manner is one of the most unethical things a documentary creator can do, and in my opinion doing so is one of the most manipulative and socially irresponsible things an unethical documentary creator does. They may as well be pushing lemmings into the sea.

(If you do not get the reference to lemmings, the reason that it is widely believed that lemmings jump into the sea is because a film-maker working for the Disney company producing nature documentaries intentionally chased a group of lemmings to a cliff to make them jump over it, and then presented this scene as ‘natural’ and common behavior for lemmings.

Lemmings do not actually commit suicide as a normal part of their life cycle.

The film makers of The Social Dilemma are engaging in a similar kind of deception with their “documentary”, which is why I mentioned pushing lemmings into the sea. Those who are unfamiliar with the production of documentaries may not get the reference which is why I have taken the time to explain it.)

People as a product?

The documentary creators claim that the product of social networks is people’s data. They expressly claim that “people are the product”, because data about their online activities is used to form the basis of their advertising systems. Yet this is a great distortion of the facts of how social networks operate.

The core product of a social network like Facebook is the service being provided to the users of that service. Features such as being able to upload photos to share with friends and family, and using its communication features as an alternative to phone calls, and so on. The fee that is paid by users of for these services is that they agree to allow the social network to use their data to help advertisers display targeted advertising to them. This is a more accurate and fair representation of how social networks operate than the creators of The Social Dilemma have claimed in this non-documentary; people cannot be the “product” as this movie claims, because social networks are not in the business of slavery. What social networks are actually in the business of, is providing an online publishing and communication platform where users pay for the service by allowing targeted ads to be shown to them.

The people who use Facebook as a service do not spend any money to create the features of Facebook which they use whenever they login to the application and consequently do not own any of the data which Facebook’s analytics track about them while using the application. Unless a law restricts otherwise, such as that which limits medical records, a record about a person is the property of who has made the record; for example, if I write a biography about Donald Trump then Donald Trump does not get to claim ownership of that book I wrote just because it includes facts about him. So the argument that people should “own their data” created by these companies is not only legally incorrect, it’s also rather narcissistic and entitled. As a user of products like Facebook and Gmail, you agree to allow your behavior to be tracked so that targeted advertising can be shown to you. That is your payment to the platform for access to the service. That some people do not like that this business model is very lucrative is irrelevant.

The documentary also puts forth the argument that social networks are designed to alter user behavior for sinister reasons. This is a wild exaggeration. The design of graphical user interfaces is an art designed to train users how to navigate the application to access the features the user is seeking to use. No matter how interactive it is, there is no mechanism by which a social network creator can brainwash people by developing a navigation menu. Comparing it to a Pavlovian models of reward responses is disingenuous, because this model of psychology depends on rewards far more tangible and meaningful than simply seeing a funny cat video or a news story you approve of. Pavlov’s reward system model requires tangible rewards, not hypothetical ones. While the number of likes and comments a person receives to a popular post could be seen as encouraging more usage of the social network, this is not expressly unique to social networks. People have been socially interacting on the internet since the 1980s. Many people have built very successful businesses by being able to post highly engaging content to internet forums and employ themselves as writers of content. This is not a negative thing, and social media influencers are just a new generation of radio host, newspaper columnist and other kinds of local celebrities who make their living by distributing their ideas. Social networks did not invent this, in fact they improved it by making it more accessible to more people.

The documentary seems to suggest that social networks are designed to brainwash their users into behavior that is negative for themselves. Yet true brainwashing requires negative reinforcement, such as psychological abuse after isolating that individual from all other kinds of social interactions except that from the abuser, in order to alter a person’s behavior and ways of thinking. We see this in kidnapping cases where victims develop Stockholm Syndrome, where victims are forced into a vulnerable state where cooperation with the abuser is deemed necessary for survival. Such a state is impossible to create with an application on your cellphone, as applications such as Facebook have no ability to isolate you from other human beings. They actually do the opposite and put you into direct contact with other people. So the claims of brainwashing people through the design of graphical user interfaces, such as the way notifications are designed on applications, are enormous exaggerations of truth. These claims are, quite frankly, extremely dishonest.

Applications such as Facebook are blamed for encouraging people to be more antisocial. Yet the reason that people will behave antisocially when in the company of others, such as browsing Facebook while having dinner with other people, is not because the person is “addicted”. Rather it is because the person is rude; the same rudeness that used to have people read newspapers and books at dinner tables, or watch the television. These individuals have existed long before Facebook, and they typically engage in other kinds of rude behavior, too. It is not specifically the usage of social networks that are the only rude things these people do.

On the other hand, sometimes it is the person trying to gain the attention of someone else who is on their phone that is being rude; I’ve had people be frustrated that I do not immediately stop what I am doing to focus on them, even when I am working from home. As a writer I tune out my surroundings to focus on my writing, as it requires listening to the inner voice and thinking about how others will respond to the words that I type. These require the brain’s communication functions and most people cannot engage in two very different conversations at the same time; and when creatively writing a person is having an inner conversation with themselves. So a parent who is upset that their child does not immediately stop talking to a friend on Facebook when the parent bursts into the room on them is the one behaving rudely, not the child, as the parent is the one who interrupted a conversation. A person who is trying to talk to someone who is on social media should be more understanding and accept that it takes time for a person in a conversation to get to a break in that conversation to have the mental faculty to respond to a new interaction.

In a society that values the freedom of speech, it must be an individual’s responsibility to learn to employ logic and reason to distinguish unreliable sources of information from reliable ones. And while it is unfortunate that courses in critical thinking are not taught in the public education system to children in the United States. It is also true that people are very prone to emotional based reasoning due to the popularity of religious institutions in the US which discourage people from using logic to approach their problems in the world in favor of magical ways of thinking. Yet the fact remains that social networks are merely a tool for publishing media. They are not inherently good nor evil.

Instead, by blaming the networks and making an argument that there should be gatekeepers again, the documentary creators advocate for a return to a world where the general public is more easily propagandized to. The current violence we see in society related to the so-called anti fascists movement and Black Lives Matters did not spring up overnight because of social networks; the groundwork for these ideologies was fostered within the academic sphere for many decades until there was enough people who suspended critical thinking about problems and issues in society, and instead believed that emotional outbursts and intimidation are the best way to force the changes they wish to see in society. While networks like Facebook can assist in recruitment and propaganda spreading, they are not the cause. We instead merely see the results of these organizations efforts more easily due to the published media they put on Facebook.

The reason social networks like Facebook are so successful is because they provide highly tailored information to the viewer’s interests that is free to access. Information such as news stories, micro blogs by friends and family, and updates from websites they follow. It also is a free alternative to phone calls and cellphone text messaging systems which can be accessed on multiple devices. This is why these services are popular; they provide value. It’s not because they are designed to create addiction from dopamine releases and anyone claiming otherwise is either ignorant about the actual biological science behind how dopamine is released by the body and how it impacts the body, or they are intentionally being manipulative in order to make their argument sound more persuasive than it really is. Most of the people in the technology industry who talk about dopamine have no idea how dopamine actually works and are treating it as a trendy buzzword, with a collection of other buzzwords borrowed from the sciences to make themselves sound more authoritative and knowledgeable than they actually are. To summarize their arguments, they are baffling you with bullshit to make what they do seem more important and complicated than it actually is.

Facebook’s AI algorithms for suggesting content and ads is not a faceless Lovecraftian entity with tentacles wrapped around people’s brains; it does not, as one former disgruntled employee claims, have its own goals and motives in using your psychology against you. Facebook’s AI doesn’t even know what human beings are.

Facebook is just an evolution of printed newspapers, that is designed to personalize its recommendations of stories that it thinks will interest you while displaying advertisements for products and services it thinks will interest you. It uses the data it collects about your online browsing behavior to make these recommendations. That is all Facebook is, and that is all these other social networks are, too. It is not as complicated and nowhere near as sinister as this documentary claims it to be.

While there is certainly a kind of art and science to making a fun game that people will want to spend a lot of time playing and many of these gamification theories have also been applied to the development of social networks, to compare the impact of these things to the effect that actually inhaling, ingesting or injecting chemicals into your blood stream that distort your body’s chemistry and create patterns of true addiction is to belittle what real addiction is. Real addiction is not something so petty that merely being obsessed with World of Warcraft or Facebook can replicate.

An argument is made that social networks make people isolated and more depressed, leading to suicidal behavior. However people don’t kill themselves because they’re on the internet. People who spend heavy amounts of time on social networks that become suicidal do so because they had pre-existing psychological disorders which led them to live an insular life-style on the internet in the first place. These insular lifestyles where they do not receive treatment for their problems inevitably lead these people to developing a deeper depression, because human beings are extremely social creatures that become depressed when in isolation, even if it is self imposed. So making judgments about cause and effect in regards to suicidal internet users without having a complete understanding of how depression develops is what leads to these erroneous narratives about music, comic books, video games, movies and other kinds of media being blamed for creating depression. It’s not the media that is making someone depressed; rather it is the circumstances of the person who is consuming the media and their unique set of problems they had before they ever got involved with that media in the first place. Using social media and video games as escapism to avoid dealing with psychological issues is no different than other kinds of escapism to avoid these issues. They all lead to the same self-destructive endings.

I actively played massively multiplayer online games starting in the late 90s, when these kinds of video games first came about. I have also worked briefly on the development side of a long running online game. These games do not create psychological issues in the players. Rather they simply allow people with those problems to express them in an environment where their behavior is easily recorded with screenshots and screen capture software where others can now see them through sharing on the internet. This makes the behavior more noticeable to more people. Likewise the problem with social networks is not that it is a tool for publishing media but rather that so many people do not know how to employ critical thinking skills to assess the reliability of the author and examine the narratives. This is due primarily to the fact logic and debate are not mandatory courses in public education at the middle and high school level, and secondly because the popularity of religion continues to encourage people to use magical, emotional types of thinking to approach their problems instead of employing logic and reason. So when you have a platform where yellow journalism click bait provides much higher return on investment for publishers than accurate, fact checked news reporting you end up with a very gullible population that is misinformed, and even those who believe they can differentiate between “good” and “bad” information actually cannot because again, they predominantly think magically instead of logically.

And while it is true that some video games can definitely encourage antisocial and self-destructive behavior if not used in moderation, the problem is not so much the games but that that individual has no proper mentorship in their life in the first place. There are as many griefers in MMOs as there are people who behave in a noble altruistic way, becoming heroes to those whose lives they impacted even in a virtual world. The problem is less the design of the games themselves, as these games are designed to encourage teamwork and cooperation in order to overcome obstacles. Rather the reason many people behave like internet trolls is a consequence of the breakdown in society of good mentorship of youth who grow up to become internet trolls in the first place. People tend to want to abuse others because they have been abused themselves, and online environments are a largely consequence free environment to abuse others. This is the true problem in society — that many people are being produced who are taught abuse is part of normal social interaction, and so then go on to abuse others. The internet does not create these people; it instead only allows us to see these people easier by broadcasting incidents of their abuse — that without the games and social networks would be done in their private lives, with no audience to witness them. The world had bullies long before the internet ever existed because bullies are a product of their upbringing. So long as we have bad parents we will always have bullies.

In conclusion, perhaps Netflix, the content streaming platform where the majority of its so-called “documentaries” are cheaply produced films that make claims about the existence of aliens, ghosts, and promote other wild conspiracy theories, may not be the most reliable platform for you to get high quality and reliable information about social issues from — especially as this pseudo-documentary, The Social Dilemma, is very critical of Netflix’s main competitors in the market.

Society certainly has many pressing social issues that manifest themselves very publicly on social networks, but these networks are simply publishing channels for media that people create. The solutions to these social issues must begin at the bottom level of society, not by placing restrictions on tools such as social networks, as the documentary film-makers erroneously believe.

  • If you want to reduce depression in the world then you need to favor better mental healthcare treatment for the mentally ill, as well as stricter regulation of fake medical gurus who dispense bad advice that discourages people from seeking real, scientifically based treatment for their mental illnesses.
  • If you want people to be less rude to others on the internet, then you need to encourage the proper mentorship and teaching of traditional virtues and values to children before they go onto the internet, so they will instead behave with courtesy toward others.
  • If you want people to live less sedentary lifestyles than you need to abandon the toxic, misleadingly labeled ideologies of the ‘body positivity movement’ that encourages people to overindulge while denying the results of numerous medical studies that show obesity is a health hazard. You instead must encourage people to stop over-consuming food and exercise more.
  • If you want more people to be able to spot fake news and not be manipulated so easily then you should encourage making the teaching of logic, debate and rhetoric a mandatory part of middle and high school public education curriculum. This will result in more of the population able to recognize logical fallacies and manipulative rhetoric. This is long overdue. We will only see an end to clickbait and yellow journalism when people learn how to identify it so they stop reading publishers who make it.

People need to take personal responsibility and stop blaming others for their own mistakes. The Social Dilemma may be popular to some people because it gives them someone else to blame for their bad behavior, but it is not a socially responsible film.


Carey Martell is the President of Martell Broadcasting Systems, Inc. He is also the founder of the Power Up TV multi-channel network (acquired by Thunder Digital Media in January 2015). Carey formerly served as the Vice President of Thunder TV, the internet television division of Thunder Digital Media. In the past he has also been the Director of Alumni Membership for Tech Ranch Austin as well as the event organizer for the Austin YouTube Partner monthly meetups. Prior to his role at MBS, Inc. and his career as a video game developer and journalist, Carey served in the US Army for 5 years, including one tour of duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Carey is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Carey also moonlights as the host of The RPG Fanatic Show, an internet television show on YouTube which has accumulated over 3.7 million views.