Skip to main content

Culture Documentary

Data monsters



Data monsters

Former social media execs decry Big Data

Former social media company executives tell all in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. The practices that have made Facebook, Google, and other platforms wealthy and powerful are “bringing out the worst in society,” former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris alleges. 

Social media services record “every single [online] action” and run them through complex algorithms, according to former Twitter exec Jeff Seibert. The better these formulas predict people’s internet habits, the more advertisers pay.

The harm exceeds annoying pop-up ads. These companies employ “manipulative” psychological techniques to keep users generating more data. Former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya explains that users then conflate “likes” with value and truth. The result: a “brittle popularity that leaves you more vacant and empty.” Some interviewees fault their former employers for the past decade’s spike in suicide among girls.

But viewers must also sit through evolution malarkey, six expletives, and an intermittent fictional story about a family wrestling with online routines. The docudrama (rated PG-13) doesn’t consider that users share in the responsibility for their own choices. Three modest (and obvious) suggestions for parents conveyed during the end credits don’t include Romans 12:2.