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“Social Dilemma” movement wants to force change at tech companies. Lawmakers do too.

Boulder director Jeff Orlowski hopes viewers of “The Social Dilemma” will fuel a campaign to force Facebook, Google, Twitter and others toward a more humane business model, or enlist lawmakers to better regulate the social media giants.

The Original Thinkers festival in Telluride is running virtually this year, with online shows debuting from Oct. 1 through Oct. 11. (Randy Burge, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Boulder director Jeff Orlowski hopes viewers of “The Social Dilemma” will fuel a campaign to force Facebook, Google, Twitter and others toward a more humane business model, or enlist lawmakers to better regulate the social media giants.

The hot new horror flick that simmered on Netflix’s Top 10 list for the past month features an insidious, unseen villain secretly swaying the minds of millions, perhaps billions, of people. 

“Hiding on the other side of our screens is code that is invisibly reshaping our society,” Boulder filmmaker Jeff Orlowski said during a discussion following the screening of his new movie, “The Social Dilemma,” last weekend at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride. “A group of programmers are actually reprogramming civilization.”

The film explores the unnoticed impacts of social media like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, with testimony from insider former programmers who built the code that is designed to monetize the attention of users. 

In the discussion with Original Thinkers festival ringleader David Holbrooke that followed the virtual screening, Orlowski explained how making the movie served as a “huge, huge wake-up call” that prodded him to delete all his social media accounts. That same clarion call has resonated across the country as “The Social Dilemma” storms Netflix, itself a tech titan with algorithms that harvest human attention. (And the film’s popularity coincides with efforts by federal lawmakers seeking to reform antitrust laws to check the power of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.)

For Orlowski, it’s America’s transition from industrial capitalism to what he calls “surveillance capitalism” that is the root of the problem in social media technology. For more than a century, industrialists have converted extracted raw resources into riches. Using that same model, social media companies are converting raw materials into dollars, only the natural resources are people. 

“They are rendering people into profitable revenue streams,” Orlowski said. 

David Holbrooke, the founder of the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride, speaks with Jeff Orlowski, the director of “The Social Dilemma,” in Telluride last weekend following the screening of the movie at this year’s virtual festival. (PJ Rockwood, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s taken almost 100 years to recognize how unbridled extraction and burning of fossil fuel impact the planet. That same acknowledgement of the implications of social media is happening now as the algorithms are seen in the light of day. Those complicated programs — designed to improve with every scroll and click — are constantly fighting for attention. And their battlegrounds are shredding social fabrics, consuming countless hours of young people’s lives while splitting once unified societies into divisive camps, Orlowski said. 

Orlowski calls it a “mutant form of advertising” that drives social media technology and it is much more dangerous than previous decades of marketing that vied for the attention of people. This isn’t an ad for a blanket in a magazine hoping to lure buyers into a store. It’s an individualized and customized process that is persistently pursuing people. 

It’s a platform and a process that “dehumanizes us,” Orlowski said, by elevating the primacy of online connections over personal interactions, monetizing attention and honing unconscious habits that keep people engaged with a manipulative, addictive technology. He said the fact that people are choosing to embrace “little mind control devices” in their pockets is preventing users from connecting with others who have different perspectives, experiences or opinions, which is slowly but surely killing the once American hallmark of civil discourse.

So, yes, “The Social Dilemma” is a horror movie. And, sadly, it leaves viewers with little hope. 

But reaction to the movie has spurred Orlowski’s team to launch a series of online meetings with viewers who can help nudge technology companies into developing a more human and humane business model, he said last weekend. 

A series of online meetings and panels that begins Oct. 15 can help galvanize viewers of “The Social Dilemma” in a push to get Goliath tech companies to elevate public interest above profits, Orlowski said. 

Orlowski, whose previous documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” outlined the ravaging impacts of climate change, feels optimistic — at least more optimistic than he does about shifting an entire world’s behavior to protect the planet and its inhabitants from global warming. 

“Tech problems are code that people can change,” he said, urging Original Thinkers viewers to not just cancel their social media accounts, but go to thesocialdilemma.com to suggest conversation topics, locations and speakers as well as offer ideas for solutions. 

Maybe the campaign that spins out of his movie can sway technology companies like Facebook and Twitter to adjust their algorithms, Orlowski said. Or maybe the effort will yield legislation “that will force them to change,” he said. 

Congress is not waiting. 

On Tuesday, House lawmakers released a 449-page report that concluded Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google had abused their monopolistic power in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade privacy and “undermine the vibrancy of a free and diverse press.”

“The result is less innovation, fewer choices for consumers and a weakened democracy,” reads the report, which urges a legislative overhaul of federal antitrust laws. “These firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in and subject to appropriate oversight and enforcement. Our economy and democracy are at stake.” 

“The Social Dilemma” spawned a movement calling for people to delete their Facebook and Instagram accounts. But the social media giants are not watching idly as the cancellations roll in. Facebook released a statement over the weekend, refuting the premises of “The Social Dilemma” in a step-by-step critique, saying ad revenue was the company’s economic driver so people are not the product. 

“The Social Dilemma,” the statement read, “buries the substance in sensationalism” and distorts the view of social media to create “a convenient scapegoat” for complex societal ills.

Changes to Facebook’s News Feed feature prioritized “meaningful social interactions” and deprioritized viral videos, which led to a decrease of 50 million hours a day on the platform, the statement said. Facebook said changes to how the social media giant collects and uses user data protect individual privacy and a reduction in polarizing content has reduced misinformation and helped protect the integrity of elections in the runup to the November contest.

“The film’s creators do not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts that take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film,” the statement reads, also noting that the movie’s platform, Netflix, uses an algorithm to recommend movies to viewers based on their previous behavior. “They also don’t acknowledge — critically or otherwise—the efforts already taken by companies to address many of the issues they raise.”

Watch “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix and check out director Jeff Orlowski’s conversation with Original Thinkers founder David Holbrooke at originalthinkers.com. The virtual festival runs through Oct. 11. 


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