About the film
Filming for The Social Dilemma took place between 2018-2019. After our premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, we made revisions in March-April 2020, and were able to incorporate additional materials as COVID-19 started to hit.
We were drawn to tell the stories of our changing glaciers and changing coral reefs because they were powerful signs of a huge global issue facing humanity: climate change. When we started talking with Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology, we saw a direct parallel between the threat posed by the fossil fuel industry and the threat posed by our technology platforms. Tristan calls this “the climate change of culture,” an invisible force that is shaping how the world gets its information and understands truth. Our hope has always been to work on big issues, and we now see this as a problem beneath all our other problems.
While interviewing tech insiders over the past two years, we kept learning about what actually drives the algorithms on the other side of our screens. Many of these conversations revealed a highly technical, nearly invisible force. As we did with Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, our hope was to reveal the invisible, to bring the hidden story to the surface. We wanted to bring the algorithms to life, and to give viewers a new way to see and understand these tech platforms. Additionally, by following the family in the film we are able to see the different ways these platforms cause real-world harm, from Isla’s mental health struggle, Ben’s political polarization and the overall family’s ability to connect with one another.
All of the big tech platforms–Facebook, Google, Twitter, Youtube, etc–have a digital model of you. All of the information they collect is gathered into the model, and their programs are constantly testing those models to see what works on you. In the film, we bring this to life through a virtual avatar to represent the vast data that is being collected on each and every one of us. As they collect more data, the model becomes more and more and more accurate. For example, a 2016 ProPublica report found some 29,000 different criteria for each individual Facebook user–those models are only getting better and better.
We wanted to focus on the root causes of the problem as told by the people who contributed to its creation. That led us to focus on the former employees from the tech giants. However we can’t rely on the people who created the problem to be the ones to solve it. Our impact campaign will pass the mic to the activists, organizations and survivors of exploitative technology whose work and experiences will be instrumental in growing the humane tech movement.
There are countless positive things that have come from social media, and many more positive things will continue to come from it. But our point in the film is less about any one issue or campaign, but about the system as a whole. Regardless of whatever issue you personally care about, there is another countering perspective that is also being algorithmically pushed on these platforms.
For years, we have only been hearing the positive aspects as broadcast by the platforms themselves. The promise to keep us all connected has given rise to many unintended consequences that we are now seeing on a global scale. By focusing the film on how these technologies prey upon human weaknesses, we can shine a light on the devil’s bargain we’re forced to make when using these platforms and create the collective will to change them.
Many of the film subjects continue to do work advancing our understanding of the problem or accelerating momentum around solutions. We plan to amplify their work as part of our impact campaign and encourage you to follow along at TheSocialDilemma.com. You can reference a list of the initiatives that they are involved in on The Film page.
Yes, absolutely. We are each on our own individual journey, but having worked on this issue now for nearly 3 years, the team has spent a lot of time reflecting on this. Some of us have stopped using social media entirely while others have embraced new norms around more mindful use. We encourage you to check out the resources on our site for more information about how you can reboot your relationship with social media and extractive tech as well.
In The Social Dilemma there is a clip of Hong Kong anti-surveillance protesters taking down a “smart” lamp pole in protest of facial recognition and surveillance technology. Many months later, this clip was repurposed online with a misleading caption stating 5G is connected to the spread of COVID-19, inaccurately spreading a story that the clip was showing the take down of a 5G tower. As some have asked about the usage of this shot, we wanted to clarify that it was intentionally chosen as one of many examples of misinformation, to reinforce Tristan Harris’ point during that moment in the film that “we are being bombarded with rumors.” We invite you to watch the full film to see this in context and understand the many ways misinformation can spread and context can be skewed.
- Twitter Blog, Information operations directed at Hong Kong, Link
- Facebook, Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From China, Link
- Google, Maintaining the Integrity of Our Platforms, Link
- Vox, How China used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests, Link
- Tech Crunch, Twitter says accounts linked to China tried to ‘sow political discord’ in Hong Kong, Link
About the dilemma
In the broadest sense, an algorithm is simply a set of calculations to be carried out, often to perform a mathematical function. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a very broad term that applies to the many different advanced uses of algorithms to mimic and/or replace the need for human intelligence. Unlike a simple fixed algorithm, AI uses a system of algorithms and can create or modify algorithms without human intervention through the process of continually optimizing for better and better results – often referred to as machine learning.
As the surplus of data generated by our digital life grows, corporations are increasingly building AI algorithms that draw upon this data to model our behavior, target us, and make complex business decisions. The promise of an algorithm’s objectivity has engendered our trust in these data-driven approaches, however when used outside of a purely mathematical context, algorithms reflect an instance of logic programmed by a human – logic that frequently reflects the individual bias or the interests of the company they represent.
The attention extraction economy refers to technology platforms that profit from the monetization of human attention and engagement. This includes, but is not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and companies like Google (which owns Youtube) that include this as their main revenue stream.
Surveillance capitalism is a term popularized by film subject Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It refers to the mass surveillance of our online activity, in ways that we are often unaware, and the commodification of this data for further commercial purposes. The unprecedented scale of the data collected by these online companies and its use to predict and influence our purchases, behaviors, and thoughts has made them the richest in this history of the world.
Major tech companies have been using targeted advertising since the early 2000s, but things changed a lot with the advent of the smartphone. Now, instead of a shared family computer, the surveillance capabilities are tied directly to the individual user, allowing for much more data to be collected. Platforms are not just collecting basic demographic information that we willingly provide upon signup; they are tracking every click, every like, every photo, whether we end our post with an exclamation or question mark, and then combining this knowledge with powerful AI. The bigger problem is how the data feeding the underlying algorithms is being used to model and predict all of human behavior – giving the highest bidder the ability to influence us at scale like we’ve never seen before from determining elections to sparking revolutions.
We believe deeply in free speech: that people are entitled to hold and express their own opinions. But, as subject Aza Raskin and Reneé Diresta have noted, “there’s a difference between “freedom of speech and freedom of reach.
Hosting an event
You can access the film on Netflix beginning September 9th at 12:00am PST.
If you don’t have a Netflix account, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial at Netflix.com.
There is no cost to screen the film, outside of a Netflix subscription. However, for group screenings, a one-time grant of permission is required. You can obtain a grant of permission by registering your event and agreeing to our terms.
Groups are free to promote their event in conjunction with our Social Dilemma Virtual Tour as a way to engage others in conversation about the issues featured in the film. We ask that these events are virtual or kept to small groups with strict social distancing protocols in place. To curb the spread of COVID-19 we are not supporting large scale in-person events at this time.
For those who register with us we are offering a series of planning and discussion guides as well as exclusive bonus clips that dive deeper into the different dilemmas examined in the film. We also plan to promote events on our Tour page for those interested in making their event details public.
A shortened version of the film will be available eventually, but in the meantime we’re thrilled to offer exclusive bonus clips that dive deeper into the different dilemmas examined in the film. Bonus clips run between 3-4 mins and can be used as supplemental content.
If you have access to an iPad you can download the film to your iPad from Netflix. Once downloaded, you can connect your iPad to either a TV or projector using an HDMI cable, which will allow you to share the film without internet connection or worry of streaming interruptions.
Yes, Netflix offers several language options for subtitles, including. You Netflix offers numerous language options for dubbing and subtitles, and displays several language options to viewers while streaming. To change your audio or subtitles to an alternate language on Netflix, instructions can be found here.
Due to COVID-19 we are not able to participate in any in-person festivals until further notice. We are participating in a limited number of virtual festivals, however to protect the intellectual property of the film we are focusing on screening clips and/or participating in festival panels.