“The Social Dilemma” showcases the harmful impact social media has had on society, and for director Jeff Orlowski, he hadn’t always seen it that way. As an “avid, super-heavy user,” Orlowski “used it all the time.” “I describe myself as addicted and that has swung all the way to today where I don’t touch it at all,” he shares at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). “I don’t use it. I haven’t deleted the accounts because they still provide access to people and connectivity, but as I learned during this project, they don’t provide connection really. It’s a false sense of connection. But it has been such a huge shift for me personally to remove social media from my daily life.”
Orlowski started reexamining his relationship to social media in 2017 when some of his friends from Stanford who had gone into tech started to share “a very different perspective” on the technology that such companies as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google use. “I hadn’t heard someone criticize some of the fundamental design practices of Silicon Valley and tech,” he says. “One of our subjects referenced it as a ‘climate change of culture that is invisibly shaping and changing the way billions of people see and understand the world.'”
The Netflix film dissects the algorithms that these companies use to keep users engaged on their respective platforms and shows how misinformation and conspiracy theories rapidly spread. To illustrate these invisible practices at work, Orlowski incorporated a fictional storyline into the documentary that follows a family whose teenage kids cannot stay off their phones, resulting in one of them becoming radicalized.
“I really learned in that process just what’s going on and what is hidden on the other side of your phone. Why do you see the content that you see? Why and when are you receiving notifications? All of these things are being designed and optimized by algorithms that have intended to reverse-engineer you in particular,” Orlowski explains. “As we were learning that, we started coming up with these analogies in trying to understand how they operate and trying to figure out ways to communicate that to the public. So we were able to take those concepts and basically anthropomorphize and bring to life those algorithms and the intent that different algorithms have that aren’t necessarily aligned with your intent or your goals or your objectives.”
The filmmaker also tapped Vincent Kartheiser to play three AIs within one of the teen’s phones to further help viewers understand how the algorithms work. “I was really thrilled with our opportunity to really push and demonstrate, ‘Look, these aren’t humans.’ We’re using an actor to bring to life the concepts. We’re really trying to portray [that] algorithms don’t have morality. There is no moral frame,” he continues. “If an algorithm is debating to show you a really healthy food that you should consider eating or a hysterical, outrageous piece of news content that’s gonna get you to click on and engage with it, the algorithm is gonna figure out what’s gonna work for you, which may be different for someone else. The algorithm is not determining is it true, is it accurate, is this good information for you or for society. It’s just showing you whatever might be engaging for you at that particular moment.”
Orlowski, however, is hopeful for the future and “more optimistic than ever” about one day regulating social media. “We’re seeing massive movement in the United States and in Europe trying to move towards regulation — bipartisan interest in regulating big social and the tech industry,” he sttes. “I think the conversations from just a couple of years ago compared to the Senate hearings in March a couple of weeks ago, there’s a completely different tone from the United States Congress and Senate around what responsibility the tech companies hold, critiques of the business model, knowledgeable awareness of the impacts on youth and mental health.”
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