US director Jeff Orlowski faced heated questions over his hit Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma on a panel at CPH:DOX, where he was confronted with the “limitations” of the film.
The Bafta-nominated film was the subject of a discussion on the first day of the international documentary festival’s Conference.
Orlowski’s film excoriates companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter. The director describes them as part of “a toxic landscape” that manipulates social media users, culls their data and prevent the free flow of transparent information. The Social Dilemma was seen by 38 million viewers in the first two months that it was available on Netflix.
However, Orlwoski’s fellow panellist and human rights lawyer Nani Jansen Reventlow was not reticent about describing what she felt to be the shortcomings in the film.
“The positive side of [the film] to me is the accessible way that it helped sound the alarm bell with a wider audience about some of the problematic aspects that we are seeing with social media,” said Reventlow, a founding director at the Netherlands’ Digital Freedom Fund. However, she also pointed to the film’s “limitations”.
“It is very Silicon Valley focused,” Reventlow suggested. “It offers a very white and privileged perspective and one that is very much focused on the global north.”
She added that Orlowski’s doc “leaves out some significant problems that we see when it comes to platforms: online harassment, bullying, opaque content regulation… and also how some governments actually weaponize platforms against movements that are pursuing human rights.”
In her remarks about the film, Reventlow pointed to “an under-representation [in the film] of the positive sides of social media. In spite of all the problems we have, it has also been a tool which has given a platform to many voices that historically have been marginalised.”
She talked of social media as “a very powerful tool for change,” referring to its role in “galvanising and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in the US” and its importance in the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.
Orlowski took the criticisms on the chin. As a Stanford University graduate, he acknowledged his documentary was “an insider’s perspective” on Silicon Valley. He said that other “great” films, among them Ramona S Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts, offered a broader perspective on social media disinformation and manipulation.
“If you add them together, I think they provide a great insight into the full landscape of the issue.”
The Social Dilemma director also said he would have drawn on the work of Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms Of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, had he been aware of it before he made his documentary.
When The Social Dilemma was being made and released, an accompanying “action page” was set up to “spark conversation about the harms of exploitative tech and what to do about it.”
“When you release these films, you very quickly know that more conversation is needed,” Orlowski explained of the idea behind the ongoing online lobbying and campaigning by the filmmakers for a “more humane internet”.
“Film inherently can only do so much…the need is there for nuance and conversation, something which social media doesn’t allow.”
Orlowski’s company Exposure Labs is involved in both production and in impact campaigns. He told the CPH:DOX audience about his attempts to engage with ’Gen Z’ and young audiences amid disturbing reports about teenage suicide linked to social media. “We have heard countless stories from youth from all around the world that have reached out to our teams. One of the big things we’ve been trying to do is help to provide the resources for those conversations…”
The Social Dilemma director also called for filmmakers to “build those relationships and partnerships that can take their work further.”
“I think that countless filmmakers and especially documentary makers are looking for impact through their work,” Orlowski said. “Often, what filmmakers don’t have access to is resources or teams to be able to do campaigns with their films.”