The popular documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ by Netflix has invited swift criticism from Facebook. The social networking giant says it is “distorted and has buried the substance in sensationalism”. The documentary focusses on how social-media platforms treats users as “products” and apparently spreads “misinformation”. The film is an Exposure Labs production in association with Argent Pictures.

‘The Social Dilemma’ has created waves globally for exploring the impact of social networking on humans, with technology experts raising concerns about their own creations. Facebook has come down heavily on the documentary, saying it presents a distorted view of how “dangerous” social-media platforms can be and how they work to create a “convenient victim” for complex societal problems.

Jeff Orlowski, Director, The Social Dilemma

In a seven-point counter sent late last week to the Netflix film director Jeff Orlowski, Facebook says: “We should have conversations about the impact of social media on our lives. But ‘The Social Dilemma’ buries the substance in sensationalism. Rather than offer a nuanced look at technology, it gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems.”

The 93-minute documentary features interviews with former executives of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other tech companies. ‘The Social Dilemma’ looks at issues, such as addiction to technology, spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, election manipulation, and the algorithms social-media and tech companies employ to suggest content and target ads. The documentary shows a fictitious family enacted by actors to demonstrate the “negative effects of social media addiction”.

Dennis Harvey, commentator and critic at Variety, in his review, writes: “This potent documentary by Jeff Orlowski lends a podium to various experts who are certain the pervasive influence of under-regulated social media is destroying civilization from within.” 

“Rather than offer a nuanced look at technology, it gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems…” says Facebook on The Social Dilemma.

Urging the film’s creators to “not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film,” Facebook says, “‘The Social Dilemma’ does not acknowledge — critically or otherwise — the efforts already taken by companies to address many of the issues they raise. Instead, they rely on commentary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years.”

In its rebuttal, Facebook says:

  • That its News Feed product teams are not incentivized to build features to induce users to spend more time spent on Facebook products.
  • That “we acknowledged that we made mistakes in 2016 (US elections). Yet the film leaves out what we have done since 2016 to build strong defences to stop people from using Facebook to interfere in elections. We’ve improved our security and now have some of the most sophisticated teams and systems in the world to prevent attacks.”
  • That the “idea that we allow misinformation to fester on our platform, or that we somehow benefit from this content, is wrong.” (The social-media giant claims it has a global network of more than 70 fact-checking partners.)
  • That contrary to what the film suggests, the company has policies that strictly prevent businesses from sending sensitive data on people, such as users’ health information or Social Security numbers.
  • That it has “made significant changes” to how it manages user data as part of the agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, under which it paid a record $5-billion fine. “We’ve created new safeguards for how data is used, given people new controls on how to manage their data and now have thousands of people working on privacy-related projects so that we can continue to meet our privacy commitments and keep people’s information safe.”
  • That, “This model allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to grow and compete with bigger brands by more easily finding new customers. But even when businesses purchase ads on Facebook, they don’t know who you are. We don’t sell your information to anyone. You can always see the ‘interests’ assigned to you in your ad preferences, and if you want, remove them”.

Further, Facebook says that it uses algorithms to improve the experience for people using its apps a just like any dating app, Amazon, Uber, and several other consumer-facing apps that people interact with every day. “Portraying algorithms as ‘mad’ may make good fodder for conspiracy documentaries, but the reality is a lot less entertaining.”

“That also includes Netflix, which uses an algorithm to determine who it thinks should watch The Social Dilemma’ film, and then recommends it to them. This happens with every piece of content that appears on the service,” Facebook argues.

‘The Social Dilemma’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020.