There’s no point fearing the singularity – a future point in time when technology outstrips humans – because we’re already living in it. So goes the message of The Social Dilemma, dubbed the most important documentary of the age thanks to its exposés of the techniques used by Big Data. Companies such as Facebook, Google and YouTube, its whistleblowing talking heads revealed, have designed algorithms over which they have little control. Created by sinister tech boffins to encourage screen addiction, the apps are subliminally manipulating us to change our opinions and behaviour for the benefit of the paying advertiser.
According to the Netflix documentary, fake news now spreads six times faster than real news, so keen are social media’s algorithms to take advantage of the appetite for scandal and conspiracy. The battle for supremacy between man and machine might still be ahead of us, but right there in our pockets, the AIs already have control of our hearts and minds.
It’s a powerful and timely investigation, but you are left wishing that the film hadn’t fallen foul of its own demons. There’s blunt and blatant emotional manipulation aplenty within its 90-odd minutes, in the form of scenes of scripted drama. As figures from the chief tech giants, including those who helped design these systems, warn of the dangers to our mental health, relationships, identities and democracies, they’re interspersed with scenes of a fictional family who descend from an inability to eat dinner together without thumbing themselves dysfunctional into selfie-comment depression, Facebook ex-stalking and all-out right-wing rebellion.
You can see the justification. The documentary’s primary targets, the people it really wants to wake from their social media stupor, are the ones who are generally more susceptible to suggestion, advertising and thought control. So why not play Facebook at its own game, pulling the easily-led viewer’s emotional strings with scenes of illustrative drama?
It’s a technique commonplace in low-rent true crime shows, and has been used to critical acclaim by directors such as Errol Morris and Bart Layton, whose recreations of events in the story of Frédéric Bourdin – a Frenchman who posed as a missing Spanish boy in 1997 – helped bring his 2012 documentary The Imposter to vivid life. 2010’s The Arbor merged documentary and drama brilliantly, with actors miming along to recorded interviews telling the life story of playwright Andrea Dunbar. It has a renowned history too: what’s considered to be the first ever longform documentary, 1922’s Nanook Of The North, included staged scenes.
But in a genre where straying from the facts can be the death of a doc, such films generally only dramatise documented real-life events. By going one step further and inventing an entirely fictional plot line to illustrate its key points, The Social Dilemma ventures into the world of docufiction and undermines its own authority.
We’re all too aware of how loosely films can be ‘based on real events’ today – anybody who’s ever complained about scratching noises in the attic of their squirrel-feeder factory risks having the makers of The Conjuring franchise chucking a plague of demonic nuns at their story. And scripted reality, as it’s become known, is characterised by its unbelievability; the main appeal of shows like Made In Chelsea or The Only Way Is Essex is in their staged soap opera plot points.
The Social Dilemma gets even more ridiculous, scripting scenes wherein Pete Campbell from Mad Men (Vincent Kartheiser) plays three different elements of an AI, methodically controlling and directing the attention and thought processes of an ‘average’ user. Yes, it’s helpful in laying out the methods the various AIs use to keep us constantly engaged – nudge us with a fish-hook photo notification of an ex looking loved up in the Bahamas, then line us up a personally tailored click-through route map of self-loathing and regret, liberally peppered with ads. But by making it all look like a lost ‘future overlords’ scene from the new Bill & Ted, it distances us from the stark reality of the situation the film sets out to highlight.
And while there’s an abundance of hard-hitting, real-life footage of riots stoked by YouTube conspiracy rabbit holes to pick from – and the film selects a few truly shocking examples – The Social Dilemma’s staged protest only serves to suggest that the filmmakers need to exaggerate, or even fabricate, a problem. A film which lives or dies on the conviction that it’s presenting us with the truth behind a complex web of deceptions would have done better by steering well clear of anything that made it look even remotely like a mockumentary.
The runaway success of Tiger King, with its maulings and murder plots, has perhaps led Netflix to believe that the facts are no longer enough. The viewer craves a side-order of drama, and if the documentary crews can’t deliver it directly, a scriptwriter can. And so, just as the fabric of society is unpicked strand by strand by the falsehoods peddled by social media algorithms, the line between fact and fiction – and the assumptions we must make of impartiality and reliability in documentary making – is muddied too. Underestimating the user is the AI’s job; come on Netflix, we really can handle the truth.