Jeff Orlowski’s documentary “The Social Dilemma,” which was released on Netflix last month, lays out a compelling case that social media platforms are irresponsibly wielding their power, dividing society with addictive misinformation, and contributing to everything from genocide to suicide. Now, one of the companies in the film’s crosshairs, Facebook, is firing back, arguing that the movie unfairly scapegoats Facebook for problems that already exist in society and relies on sensationalism to prove its points.
“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 Facebook rebuttal reads. “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. They also don’t 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.”
The one-page response, released by Facebook on Friday, focuses on seven topics raised by Orlowski and his subjects: addiction, “You Are Not the Product,” algorithms, data, polarization, elections, and misinformation.
“The Social Dilemma” debuted at Sundance in January to raves. In his B+ review, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich offers this: “While the film covers — and somehow manages to contain — a staggering breadth of topics and ramifications, one little sentence is all it takes to lay out the means and ends of the crisis at hand: Russia didn’t hack Facebook, Russia used Facebook.”
Since that writing, the crisis presented by social media has gotten worse, as navigating misinformation about Covid-19 has become part of life during the pandemic. Orlowski has added to his film accordingly.
One of the key points made in Orlowski’s film, using interviews from former tech executives, is that social media platforms’ business model is to essentially keep users’ attention for as long as possible and then sell those eyeballs to advertisers. Interview subject Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, puts a finer point on it.
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that it is product,” he said. “There’s nothing else on the table that could possibly be called the product. That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
This is among the points that Facebook pushes back against.
“Facebook is an ads-supported platform, which means that selling ads allows us to offer everyone else the ability to connect for free. 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 provide advertisers with reports about the kinds of people who are seeing their ads and how their ads are performing, but we don’t share information that personally identifies you unless you give us permission. 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,” the rebuttal reads.
Read Facebook’s complete rebuttal here.