What Netflix’s New Documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ Has Taught Us About Our Technology Addiction

Netflix’s new documentary the Social Dilemma has raised concerns for viewers across the globe as we start to consider the detrimental harm our phones may be having on us. Whilst most people know that media companies such as Facebook and Google make their money through advertising, The Social Dilemma dives deep into the overall consequences for humanity that a data market creates.

Photo Credit: the Social Dilemma on Netflix


The Facebook Model

The Social Dilemma exposes the manipulative business model that tech companies use in order to make billions of dollars. Essentially, if you use an app or a service that does not sell you a product, you are the product.

Companies like Facebook use the plethora of information that they gather from their 2.6 billion users to make assumptions about you, that they can go on to then sell to advertisers. This means that everything that you click, like or share, gets filed away in a database that continues to grow. This database continues to have a more accurate idea of you as a customer as time goes on, making your image to advertisers increasingly clearer. This is referred to throughout the documentary as “surveillance capitalism”.

Roger MacNamee, an early investor in Facebook, explains this mechanism in that, “we have put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do”.

The problem with this model is that it has created a market for human data. Before the 2016 US election, Facebook embarked on “massive-scale contagion experiments” in order to see if their subliminal cues on Facebook pages could get more people to go vote in the midterm election. When they saw the success of these experiments, they unlocked the power of their data into real-world behaviour. All whilst their users had no idea.



Throughout the documentary, there is a real emphasis on the harmful impacts that our addiction to devices has created within our society. Interviewing multiple tech experts from across the board, each interviewee explains the intricate details that go into making an app addictive. Justin Rosteinstein, a former engineer at both Facebook and Google explains, “our attention is the product being sold to advertisers”, and therefore, there are whole teams devised within these companies to make sure we constantly crave a new notification.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google, describes this constant craving as a psychological term known as “positive intermittent reinforcement”. What this means is that when you constantly ‘refresh’ your newsfeed, you’re doing this in the hope that when you scroll down something new will come up. He equates this to how the slot machines work in Vegas. You constantly reach over to your phone to see if you’ve “got something”, whether that be a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok notification. And there is a dopamine rush when you do.

But what are the problems of this addiction? Besides the fact that maybe we’re wasting time. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from the NYU Stern School of Business, makes the point in the documentary that we are just beginning to see the impacts now of this addiction to technology. And the people its harming the most are Gen Z.

For anyone who was born after 1996, Haidt urges that due to an addiction to technology, “a whole generation is more anxious, more fragile and more depressed”.

The statistics are shocking. In the last decade self-harm amongst teenage girls has increased by 189%, and for suicide rates 151%. The fact is that as humans, we’re not evolved to be seeking a social approval dosage every minute of the day, and this is evident in the change to our mental health.

Rohingya man looking at his cellphone in Myanmar (2017). Photo Credit: Getty Images


One of the biggest problems that the Social Dilemma covers, is that of polarisation. At this point in time, personal and political polarisation is at a 20-year-high. The impact of technology, and its ability to pin us against each other, has real world effects.

The information that we receive on sites like Google and Facebook, is completely tailored to us personally. The Social Dilemma explains that if you type in “climate change is. . .” on Google, you will get a completely different result depending on your location and your previous search history.

Fake news on Twitter now spreads 6x faster than true news.

Harris explains, “we’ve created a system that biases towards false information”.

And the consequences of such false information are being seen all around the world. From people believing in the Pizzagate conspiracy in 2016 to Americans drinking bleach because they’ve heard it can cure COVID-19, real lives are at stake.

The most concerning example of this is what happened in Myanmar. In Myanmar, when you buy a phone from a retailer, a Facebook account is created and pre-loaded onto that phone for you. What this means is, Facebook is often one of the only apps people know how to use and therefore, becomes their primary news source.

In 2017, the military of Myanmar began to manipulate Facebook in order to incite violence and guide public opinion against the Rohingya Muslims. The ability of the military to manipulate and persuade via Facebook was so effective, that the results involved mass killings, mass rape, burning of entire villages and 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country. This event broadcast the immense power of these companies, and their abilities to act as “de facto governments” in terms of information regulation. What Mynanmar proved, was that when information is not checked and regulated, lies can spread like wildfire.

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo Credit: Getty Images


How can we stop this?

Whilst most of this information is incredibly bleak, there are some positive points towards the documentary’s conclusion. There are various ideas presented as lights out of this dark tunnel, and some of them present convincing arguments.

Joe Tascano, a former experience design consultant for Google, suggests that data collection and processing by these major companies should be taxed. He believes that in this way, there will be a fiscal reason for a company not to acquire as much data as they possibly can.

Harvard professor, Shoshana Zuboff takes it one step further. She believes that all data markets should be outlawed, stating, “this is not a radical proposal”. Her logic behind this, is that in the past we have outlawed other markets such as ones for human organs or for human slavery, “because they have inevitable destructive consequences”. It is clear to her that a human data market has had equally as horrific impacts on humanity, so why isn’t it being intervened with?

The Social Dilemma offers us as viewers both a range of problems as well as a range of solutions. It will be interesting to see what different governments decide to do in determining the future of these billion dollar corporations.

The Social Dilemma is now streaming on Netflix. If you want to read more about the future of Facebook and the data market click here.

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