The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma is a 2020 American docudrama film directed by Jeff Orlowski and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. The documentary examines how social media's design nurtures addiction to maximize profit and its ability to manipulate people's views, emotions, and behavior and spread conspiracy theories and disinformation. The film also examines social media's effect on mental health, in particular, the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates.

The Social Dilemma
Social dilemma xlg.jpg
Promotional poster
Directed byJeff Orlowski
Written by
Produced byLarissa Rhodes
  • John Behrens
  • Jonathan Pope
Edited byDavis Coombe
Music byMark A. Crawford
  • Exposure Labs
  • Argent Pictures
  • The Space Program
Distributed byNetflix
Release dates
  • January 26, 2020 (2020-01-26) (Sundance)
  • September 9, 2020 (2020-09-09) (United States)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States

The film features interviews with many former employees, executives, and other professionals from top tech companies like Google and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The interviewees draw on their primary experiences at the companies they respectively worked in to discuss how such companies and platforms have caused negative problematic social, political, and cultural consequences. Some of the interviewees qualify that social media platforms and big tech companies have provided some positive change for society as well. The interviewees discuss social media's role in political polarization in the United States and the influence that algorithmic advertising has had on political radicalization. The film also examines how social media platforms have impacted the spread of fake news and how governments have used social media as a tool for propaganda. These interviews are presented alongside scripted dramatizations of a teenager's social media addiction. These dramatizations draw attention to the rising concern of the radicalization of youth on the internet.


The film dives into the psychological underpinnings and the manipulation techniques by which, it claims, social media and technology companies addict users. People's online activity are watched, tracked, and measured by these companies, who then use this data to build artificial intelligence models that predict the actions of their users. Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, explains in the documentary that there are three main goals of tech companies:

  1. The engagement goal: to increase usage and to make sure users continue scrolling.
  2. The growth goal: to ensure users are coming back and inviting friends that invite even more friends.
  3. The advertisement goal: to make sure that while the above two goals are happening, the companies are also making as much money as possible from advertisements.

Harris likens the manipulation tactics used in technology to magic: how do you persuade people by manipulating what they see and how can this psychology be integrated into technology?

Another interviewee, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU Stern School of Business, brings up the concerns of mental health in relation to social media. There has been an increase in depression and suicide rates among teens and young adults since the early 2000s[1] and Haidt states that this pattern points to the year social media was made available on mobile phones.The dangers of fake news are also discussed in the documentary. Harris argues that this is a "disinformation-for-profit business model" and that companies make more money by allowing "unregulated messages to reach anyone for the best price". According to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news.[2] Wikipedia is mentioned as a neutral landscape that shows all users the exact same page without tailoring it for the individual or monetizing it.

Orlowski uses a cast of actors to portray this in the dramatization of the issues covered in the film. The narrative features a family of five, portraying various perspectives of social media usage and its influence on their daily lives. The main character, Ben, is a teenager who falls deeper into social media addiction under the manipulation of the Engagement, Growth, and Advertisement AIs. Cassandra, Ben's sister, believes that one can stay connected to the Internet without a cellphone and she represents individuals free from the manipulation of social media and technology, unlike other members of her family. Isla, the youngest daughter in the family, represents how teenage girls fall into depression and lose their sense of identity due to social media.[3]

One scene in the narrative shows the family at the dinner table. The mother proposes that everyone keep their cell phones locked in a Kitchen Safe prior to eating dinner but when a notification buzzes on someone's phone, Isla gets up from the table and tries to open the Kitchen Safe. She resorts to shattering the Kitchen Safe with a tool after a few failed attempts, retrieving her own phone but damaging Ben's phone screen in the process. In return for a new phone screen, Ben promises his mother that he will refrain from using the phone for a week. At the end of the scene, Cassandra is seen sitting alone at the dinner table.Halfway through the agreed time period, Ben breaks his promise, and progressively becomes addicted to social media. The AIs behind the screen previously analyzed that pushing "Extreme Center" political content on his social media page has a 62.3% chance of long-term engagement for Ben. Once Ben starts watching one video recommended by the AIs, he becomes so immersed in the content containing propaganda and conspiracy theories that it affects his daily life, leading him to skip soccer practice and disregard friends and family. Ultimately, towards the end of the film, Ben gets involved in an "Extreme Center" rally that escalates and becomes violent. He gets pinned down and detained by the police when he tries to make his way to Cassandra, who spots Ben in the crowd on her way to school.

The interviewees restate their fear about the role of artificial intelligence in social media and the influence these platforms have on society, arguing that "something needs to change." Aza Raskin, a former employee at Firefox and Mozilla and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, explains that the Silicon Valley started around the “idea of humane technology,” but companies have strayed away from the original intentions of technology.

In the ending credits of the documentary, the interviewees propose ways the audience can take action to fight back, such as turning off notifications, never accepting recommended videos on YouTube, using search engines that do not retain search history, and establishing rules in the house on cell phone usage.


The Social Dilemma centers on the social and cultural impact of social media usage on regular users, with a focus on algorithmically enabled forms of behavior modification and psychological manipulation. Additionally, the film depicts an array of related themes including but not limited political manipulation, technological addiction, echo chambers, fake news, depression and anxiety.[4] The clips throughout the documentary focus on one example of a family acted out by the cast to convey the vast consequences of social media usage impacting their daily lives.

One interviewee, Tim Kendall, the former director of Facebook, spoke up on the alarming goal of Facebook: updating the app with increased addictiveness for a consistent boost in engagement.[5] A former Google designer Tristan Harris compares the addiction level to a “Vegas slot machine” as users “check their phones hoping that they have a notification, as it’s like they are pulling the lever of a slot machine hoping they hit the jackpot.”[6] As the goal of social media compared to when platforms were first introduced has changed and skyrocketed in popularity amongst society during the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, social media, as Harris describes it, is no longer considered a tool.[6] Unlike tools used exclusively when needed by society, social media platforms strive to enhance advanced methods to gravitate users to click on the apps for additional content. The immersion of users in this app exposed to countless information, according to Kendall, could potentially lead to tension within society.[5] Misinformation and fake news are commonly spread, and users unable to distinguish between fake and real news results in differences in ideology and societal division.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author, highlighted the influence of social media on depression and anxiety, especially in younger adolescents. In the documentary, there was a share of the statistics of depression, self-harm, and suicide leading to hospitalization, specifically in American teen girls resulting from social media use. The number of hospitalizations remained stable until around 2011 and rose a significant 62 percent in older teen girls (ages 15–19) and up 189 percent in younger teen girls (ages 10–14) since 2009 in the United States. Additionally, the same pattern is shown in the rates of suicide, which increased 70 percent in older teen girls and 151 percent in younger teen girls compared now to 2001–2010. According to Haidt's interview, people born after 1996 have grown up in a society where social media usage is the norm, thus resulting in consistent exposure to overwhelming content from a young age. Early exposure to these platforms has been one reason for the exponential rise of depression and self-harm.             



Jeff Orlowski, who is mostly known for his work in Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, began production for this documentary in 2018 and concluded it in 2019. When asked where his inspiration came from during the film's panel at Deadline's Contenders Documentary event, Orlowski says that he has “always been curious about big systemic and societal challenges.” “One of the subjects of The Social Dilemma referenced this technology as a ‘climate change of culture’ and that sort of shattered my brain—that, invisibly, a handful of designers in Silicon Valley are writing code that is shaping the lives of billions of people around the planet.”[7] He then took it upon himself to make people aware of the effects that technology had on the people using it. Orlowski also stated, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”[7]

Via The Social Dilemma's website, Orlowski further explained:[8]

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. Harris 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 the "social dilemma” as a problem beneath all our other problems.

The film's graphics, animation, & visual effects were made by Mass FX Media and produced by Netflix.

The film's genre is science & natural docs.




Narrative casting by Jenny Jue[46]


All music is composed by Mark Crawford.

Through the use of "human-produced" and mechanical sounds, as Mark Crawford described in The Social Dilemma interview, he displayed the alarming impacts of social media through this soundtrack.[47] There was an overall emphasis on the concept of "dilemma" pertaining to the documentary throughout each song.[47]

2."A Totally Normal World"2:31
3."Am I Really That Bad"0:49
4."Server Room"3:45
5."A Call to Arms"2:00
7."Magic Tricks"1:49
8."Hooked in the Classroom"1:09
9."Growth Hacking"1:44
10."Programmed at a Deeper Level"1:29
12."Kitchen Safe"0:53
13."Family Dinner"0:57
14."The Kids are Not Alright"0:34
15."The Bet"1:12
16."Perceptions of Beauty"2:22
17."Theremin Lullaby"1:30
18."Time Offline"0:53
19."Hominid Brains"2:12
20."The AI's Are Losing"0:39
21."Machine Learning"1:33
22."Late Night Snack"0:52
23."Checkmate Humanity"1:49
24."The Sliding Scale"2:51
25."Exponential Hearsay"3:54
27."Caught in the Crowd"4:37
28."Rapid Degration of Society"3:16
29."Senate Hearing"5:00
30."Justin Drops the Mic"4:02
31."Shut it Down"3:09
32."Welcome to the Drum Machine"2:02
33."I Put a Spell on You"2:53
Total length:60:10


The Social Dilemma premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020, and was released worldwide on Netflix on September 9, 2020.[48] The documentary went on to be viewed in 38,000,000 homes within the first 28 days of release.[49] It won two awards out of seven nominations at the 73rd Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards in 2021.[50]

The film is approximately 94 minutes long and can only be accessed through having a Netflix subscription. However, a free 40 minute version of the film can be accessed by requesting it through the official page of The Social Dilemma.[8]


Critical responseEdit

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 85% based on 66 reviews, with an average rating of 7.2/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Clear-eyed and comprehensive, The Social Dilemma presents a sobering analysis of our data-mined present."[51] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 78 out of 100, based on nine critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[52]

ABC News's Mark Kennedy called the film "an eye-opening look into the way social media is designed to create addiction and manipulate our behavior, told by some of the very people who supervised the systems at places like Facebook, Google, and Twitter".[53]

Nell Minow of offered a more mixed review, giving the film three stars out of four. She noted that the film "asks fundamental and existential questions" of humanity's potential self-destruction through its own use of computer technology, and praised its "exceptional" use of confessions from leaders and key players in the social media industry, but criticized the "poorly-conceived dramatic re-enactment of some of the perils of social media." She stated that "even the wonderfully talented Skyler Gisondo cannot make a sequence work where he plays a teenager seduced by extremist disinformation, and the scenes with Vincent Kartheiser embodying the formulas that fight our efforts to pay attention to anything outside of the online world are just silly."[54]

The film was also criticized for being simplistic, for its unhelpful or unnecessary dramatizations, and for failing to include many longstanding and diverse critics of social media. Adi Robertson of The Verge noted the film offered a "familiar and simplistic assessment of how the internet has changed our lives."[55] Casey Newton of The Verge argued that the film "is ridiculous[.] The dramatized segments include a fictional trio of sociopaths working inside an unnamed social network to design bespoke push notifications to distract their users. They show an anguished family struggling to get the children to put their phones away during dinner. And the ominous piano score that pervades every scene, rather than ratcheting up the tension, gives it all the feeling of camp."[56]

Pranav Malhotra of Slate stated that the film "plays up well-worn dystopian narratives surrounding technology," and "depend[s] on tired (and not helpful) tropes about technology as the sole cause of harm, especially to children." He also criticized the film for failing to acknowledge activists and commentators who have long-criticized social media, saying that "it could have also given space to critical internet and media scholars like Safiya Noble, Sarah T. Roberts, and Siva Vaidhyanathan, just to name a few, who continue to write about how broader structural inequalities are reflected in and often amplified by the practices of big technology companies."[57]

Kevin Crust of the Orlando Sentinel analogizes The Social Dilemma’s warning of technology corporations’ encroachment on civilians’ personal data to climate-crisis documentaries’ call to action on preserving the planet earth. Crust discloses he has “been muttering [the information presented in The Social Dilemma] to [him]self [for] the last five years”[58] and that The Social Dilemma does a great job inviting “smarter, better informed people” to expose social media platforms and search engines. Crust ends his review by commenting that The Social Dilemma's exposé on search engines and social media platforms terrified him, rating the documentary three and a half stars out of four stars.

After providing a brief synopsis of the documentary's main points, Anna Volk from Cherwell praises Orloski's deliberate choice in intensifying the music, rather than focusing on the contributions of the creators of Facebook and Google to the discourse surrounding technology companies’ capitalization on personal data as distasteful. Volk contrasts the documentary style of The Social Dilemma with Orlowski's award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice, noting that "[Orlowski] didn’t seem quite ready to let the power of facts and narrative speak for themselves [...] this forced dramatisation took away the impact of the testimonials themselves.” Further, Volk writes that the film should have further explored solutions to the unregulated psychological tactics of major social networking company.[59]

Girish Devika from The New York Times draws a comparison between this documentary and Orlowski's Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice since among the three documentaries, Orlowski “takes a reality that can seem too colossal and abstract for a layperson to grasp, let alone care about, and scales it down to a human level.”[60]

Devika points out that the fictional narrative Orlowski implemented to illustrate the documentary's main points about social media's influence on one's psychology reads hyperbolic because the documentary's message suffers at the expense of a dramatized screenplay. Devika ends her review remarking one can stream the documentary on Netflix, “where it’ll become another node in the service’s data-based algorithm.”

Industry responseEdit

Facebook released a statement on its about page that the film “gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a convenient scapegoat for what are difficult and complex societal problems".[61]

Mozilla employees Ashley Boyd and Audrey Hingle note that while the "making, release and popularity of The Social Dilemma represents a major milestone towards [the goal of] building a movement of internet users who understand social media’s impact and who demand better from platforms", the film would have benefited from featuring more diverse voices.[62]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
ACE Eddie Awards April 17, 2021 Best Edited Documentary (Feature) Davis Coombe Nominated [63]
ASCAP Screen Music Awards May 17, 2021 TV Documentary Score of the Year Mark A. Crawford Nominated [64]
British Academy Film Awards April 11, 2021 Best Documentary Jeff Orlowski and Larissa Rhodes Nominated [65]
BFE Cut Above Awards March 5, 2021 Best Edited Single Documentary or Non-Fiction Programme Davis Coombe Won [66]
Boulder International Film Festival March 8, 2020 Best Social Impact Film The Social Dilemma Won [67][68]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards December 21, 2020 Best Documentary The Social Dilemma Nominated [69]
Cinema Audio Society Awards April 17, 2021 Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Motion Picture – Documentary Mark A. Crawford, Scott R. Lewis, Mark Venezia, and Jason Butler Nominated [70]
Cinema Eye Honors Awards March 9, 2021 Audience Choice Prize The Social Dilemma Nominated [71]
Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation Simon Barker, Matthew Poliquin, Matt Schultz, and Shawna Schultz Nominated
Critics' Choice Documentary Awards November 16, 2020 Best Documentary Feature The Social Dilemma Nominated [72]
Best Political Documentary The Social Dilemma Nominated
Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards April 16, 2021 Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Feature Documentary Richard Gould, James Spencer, and Andrea Gard Nominated [73]
Primetime Emmy Awards September 12, 2021 Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special Larissa Rhodes, Daniel Wright, and Stacey Piculell Nominated [50]
Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program Jeff Orlowski Nominated
Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program Vickie Curtis, Davis Coombe, and Jeff Orlowski Won
Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program John Behrens and Jonathan Pope Nominated
Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special (Original Dramatic Score) Mark A. Crawford Nominated
Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program Davis Coombe Won
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction or Reality Program (Single or Multi-Camera) Richard Gould, James Spencer, and Andrea Gard Nominated
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards January 11, 2021 Best Documentary The Social Dilemma Runner-up [74]
St. Louis Film Critics Association Awards January 18, 2021 Best Documentary Film The Social Dilemma Nominated [75]
Webby Awards May 18, 2021 Advertising, Media & PR – Branded Content – Politics & Advocacy Exposure Labs Won [76]

See alsoEdit


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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit