A Review of "The Social Dilemma"

Note: The views expressed in this review are those of the archivist writing it only, and do not represent those of the Bibliotheca Anonoma or its administration. Contains spoilers.

The Social Dilemma is a film released on Netflix last month (September 2020) by Exposure Labs. It is a criticism of the current business model of social media companies. This review will now discuss the film from an anon perspective.

The film is a "docudrama"--a documentary which also contains a story. The documentary parts include interviews with many employees of social media corporations who later regretted what they did. Other "subjects"--what it calls interviewees--include Jaron Lanier, Shoshana Zuboff, Renee Diresta, and other activists who believe the present business model of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram should be changed. There is also some footage of news broadcasts and Senate subcommittee hearings.

The chief argument made by the film is that Facebook, Twitter, Google, and company monitor what their users post, like, and look at on their services. Their algorithms then use the data they thereby collect to show their users things the algorithms predict they may like. To make a profit, they sell advertising space on their services to companies, and targets the ads to users who, the algorithms predict, will be receptive to them. The problem with the model is that it does not care about mental health, "fake news", or "hate".

The dramatic part of the film is the story of two American children, the teenage Ben and the younger Isla (pronounced EYE-la, like "island" without the last two letters). Isla falls into a deep depression induced by social media. Her brother Ben, meanwhile, gets "radicalized" by a fictional ideology called the "Extreme Center" and ends up arrested. While the story is happening, three personified AIs are shown controlling their every move in real life simply by recommending content based on what they look at and auctioning ad space targeted to them as they scroll past off to advertisers.

The "dilemma" described by the film's title is that enjoying the technological benefits of the Internet has to come with allowing your life to be controlled and your actions to be influenced by the social media corporations, who are not driven by your interests, but rather, like all corporations, by the profit motive. As all anons know, this is a false dichotomy.

It is possible to enjoy the advantages of the Internet without selling off part of your soul to mega-corps. Forums exist. Imageboards exist. IRC exists. Even USENET exists. None of the four is mentioned in the film as a possible alternative.

One of the saddest things about being an anon has got to be having to defend Big Tech against laws intended to restrict their actions, because you know the laws will only be a minor regulatory annoyance for them, but will be devastating for the small, independent communities you frequent, because most ordinary people do not know that the Internet is more than Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, and the other big websites, or care, even if they did. The proper solution to this dilemma is simple, and because of its simplicity, has been suppressed: Don't use social media unless necessary. Instead socialize on small forums, IRC, and imageboards. Get as many people as you can to follow these rules, and "unless necessary" will disappear.

A "dilemma" is a choice between two equally undesirable options. The film is unclear about what these options actually are; it implies them, perhaps because if they were explicitly stated a third option could very easily be articulated. Instead, the official website subdivides the social dilemma into three separate dilemmas: "the mental health dilemma", "the democracy dilemma", and "the discrimination dilemma". None of these "dilemmas" fit the ordinary definition of the word.

The mental health dilemma is that the algorithms addict users to their phones. In doing so, it makes them less satisfied with life. Mental health is of course a serious issue. The solution is not taking the Internet too seriously and withdrawing from it once in a while, if it is needed, not trying to make it change to fit you.

The democracy dilemma is the idea that social media allows the spreading of misinformation which may be a threat to democracy. As evidence, it discusses how Bolsonaro's election and the idea that there is a sex slave ring among Washington elites were propagated on social media. More significant is what it does not mention: the Arab Spring utilized social media as well, and how it and its aftermath have caused more death and suffering than everything it cites combined. One is reminded of the expression "Democracy is good if my side wins." This is certainly a problem. But people who are not willing to think for themselves will regurgitate opinions from somewhere whatever they do.

The discrimination dilemma states that racist groups have recruited new members using social media. The meaning of "discriminate" is simply, to tell apart. It's synonyms with "differentiate" and "distinguish". Forming a racist group would not, per se, be discrimination. But banning racist groups, ironically, would be.

The evidence it offers in support of its contention is not sufficient to support it. It argues that social media has facilitated the Rohingya genocide. Its evidence is a man wearing a T-shirt with the words "kill muslims" written on it in red paint. This, obviously, has nothing to do with social media. Another piece of evidence is a screenshot stating that the Rohingya Muslims are not part of Burmese history, which it decries as hateful. Another lesson is needed here on why certain opinions cannot be hateful.

Opinions can be classified into two types: opinions of facts, opinions that a certain fact is true or false, and opinions on facts, opinions expressing feelings on facts. The screenshot expresses an opinion of a fact. Take the ordinary opinion of fact, "The Whopper is saltier than the Big Mac!" and see how many emotions this can express:

Happy, when one is in Burger King and likes salty burgers, or is in McDonald's and dislikes salty burgers.
Displeased, when one is in Burger King and dislikes salty burgers, or is in McDonald's and likes salty burgers.
Angry, when one asks for a Big Mac or a Whopper and is given the other.
Nostalgic, when one has not had either for a long time.

As you can see, the emotion expressed by this opinion of fact varies, not only based on the situation in response to which it is expressed, and also based on whether you like salty burgers.

Opinions on fact can certainly be hateful (I hate McDonald's!). Opinions of fact cannot. Better evidence may exist. But the film has not shown it.

The film focuses on describing the problem, not proposing a solution. The solution proposed by the official website, though, has cause for concern. It suggests supporting "stop hate for profit"--a movement consisting of companies who are not advertising on Facebook until it takes stronger action--their lingo for censoring--against "hate, bigotry, and discrimination." It recommends downloading a plugin that sends a group of researchers which ads you are viewing. And tellingly, it advises you, through its "Action Guide" posted on Google Drive, to discuss the film on social media.

The first solution proposed will only give companies more power, only this time there is popular support for their assumption of increased power. Hate is the opposite of love. Neither can exist without the other. One cannot love something or someone if one does not hate those who seek do that thing or person harm. That they have chosen hate for their label for certain opinions of fact is telling, for it gives them a blank check to do whatever is necessary to eradicate something too vague, indefinite, and omnipresent to ever be gone. And since it will never be gone, "whatever is necessary" will mean everything they have the ability to do.

The other solutions proposed are fundamentally based on the idea that got us into this mess. "Sit back and relax; someone will handle this for you." That is not how real life works and that's not how the Internet works either. At best, they will be ineffective, as they are intended to be. At worst, they will be positively harmful, as people who may otherwise be motivated to take action are talked out of it. What we need is action, not talk. And action is very possible.

As anons, we've always wanted to be the Internet's cool/weird big brother. We haven't always lived up to this ideal. We've been strange; we've pissed people off; we've pulled our fair share of pranks. But we've always come down on the side of freedom: the thing without which our culture, and the whole Internet, cannot flourish.

But we turned 17 this month, and we need to grow up. This is no time to be juvenile anymore. We need to put our old rivalries behind, and forge an alliance with forum users and others who have seen through Big Tech as what it is. We need to try to convince those who are ready and willing to listen about the third option of the "dilemma". If we unite, maybe we can make our voices heard.