Anne Devlin: “The Social Dilemma” by Jeff Orlowski

This documentary is structured around interviews of tech experts who were pioneers at leading social media platforms and who came to realise that something important went wrong at some point. These views are expressed through a fictitious drama showing the impact of social media on the different members of a family. It is easily accessible to non-social media aficionados and articulates issues that most of us have intuitively perceived without being able to find the common thread running through them.

This Netflix documentary opens on a sombre note with an ominous quote from Sophocles, “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse”, which is somewhat disconcerting. Unlike Greek tragedies, The Social Dilemma finishes on a carefully hopeful note whereby with greater awareness of the problem and willingness to discuss the issues, it can be fixed. But what exactly is the problem?

The realisation that the tech industry lost its way, making no room for ethical design or even questioning the moral implications, is clearly linked to the monetisation of the social media platforms. Their business model is unveiled and brought back to its essence: if you’re not paying for the product then you are the product. As Jaron Lanier, the American computer philosophy writer, puts it: “It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product.” And the more you are using the platform, the more data feeds the system and therefore the better the prediction of your action. The picture starts getting really scary when you realise that cognitive psychology, especially how to persuade people, is built into the technology itself, deliberately exploiting vulnerability in human psychology. Tristan Harris puts it powerfully when he highlights that people usually recognise the danger when technology will overwhelm the human intelligence. An earlier moment is, however, perhaps more dangerous, namely when technology overwhelms human weaknesses, overpowering human nature and breeding among other things addiction, polarisation, and radicalisation.

Algorithms are originally programmed to a certain definition of success. If it is to maximise revenue, computer learning will improve and optimise towards that goal with no ethical constraints or concerns. Maximising engagement, growth and advertising targets will make algorithms ruthlessly manipulate our emotions and behaviours without us even being aware of it. As fake news travels six times faster on Twitter than the truth, the system has a bias towards disinformation as it makes more money for the company. A systematically individually customised information flow, designed by algorithms to maximise your engagement or watch time, sows division in society: people cannot hear a different opinion since they are being fed the one side of the story which their profile establishes they want to hear. Polarisation, going down rabbit holes, conspiracy theories, and radicalisation are all common manifestations of technology’s ability to destabilise the fabric of society. While we witness a technology-led assault on democracy, we should also worry about the use of technology by totalitarian regimes.

To conclude, this documentary highlights the fundamental issue that systems of algorithms are void of ethical consideration. Their ultimate goal is to maximise profit. AI cannot know what Truth is but people need to have a common perception of reality in order to live together. The positive note comes from the realisation by the tech experts, spearheaded by Tristan Harris, that they do have a moral responsibility to fix it. That starts with a conversation about what the problem is, which is exactly what this documentary succinctly achieves. It will be a difficult journey since any reform of the system will chart a collision course with the current business model of the powerful social media giants. Technology is a great force for good, but the moral dilemmas raised by the social media platforms need to be addressed transparently.


The Social Dilemma is directed by Jeff Orlowski and was first released on Netflix on 9th September 2020.

Anne Devlin is a director of Terra Solar II, a former oil trader with BP and a member of the Board of CEME.