Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ Review: Decoding the addictive design of social media

Group: 9 || Student: Leanne Nguyen (lngu6283) || Tutor: Vanessa Paech

Netflix’s explosive 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, by director Jeff Orlowski acts as an exposé for the social media industry and its influence on society. With commentary from former employees, executives and whistle-blowers, from Facebook to Pinterest, demonstrating a fictional narrative of how the consequences of these platforms impact a family and as an individual. It unveils the sinister nature of the industry and how its design has reprogrammed its user’s perception of the wider world.

Trailer of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0

This is proved and discussed through the increased utilisation of social media for monetary gain over integrity towards the tech industry. Secondly, the design features of social media encourage problematic behaviour for younger generations. Lastly, the application of the user’s digital algorithms is purposefully fueling polarization within the political field.

“Money over Morals” mindset

The social media industry is built on capitalist ideals of the Silicon Valley (2016, Skitterphoto from Pexels) CC by 2.0
The social media industry is built on capitalist ideals of the Silicon Valley
(2016, Skitterphoto from Pexels) CC by 2.0

The social media industry has grown a “money-hungry” work culture that prioritises monetization over ethics within the digital algorithms. As discussed in the documentary, the industry’s connection to Silicon Valley runs deep within its history, saturated by white, rich, middle-aged men. These corporations have ideals that mainly concern gaining and sustaining the wealth and power of these platforms. 

Furthermore, the topic of surveillance capitalism which relies on mining excessive data from users of social media platforms is addressed in the documentary. Surveillance capitalism revolves around having a business model that takes a user’s digital footprint that has been carefully analysed and monitored. This ensures an environment ‘that advertisers are as successful as possible to sell to online users. A review of the topic understands that data is a key feature to gain money for the platform but hoarding highly personal data from individuals has not been fully thought through by either consumers or policymakers (Evans, p.389, 2008). 

“Advertisers are the customers. We’re the thing being sold. – Aza Raskin”

A dystopian view of how tech industries gain money off one’s private data Screencap of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0

Furthermore, the documentary speaks about one of the main goals of most technology companies is to make ‘as much money as possible from advertising’ for the benefit of having power and control. It is an industry that trades exclusively in ‘human futures’ and has ‘produced trillions of dollars’ which has ‘made internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity’. A study article describes that the industry has breached beyond the privacy of its users, to the degree it puts their fundamental human rights of freedom and dignity at stake (Wohnhas, n.d.).   

The monetisation of private data  Screencap of Netflix's The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0CC by 2.0
The monetisation of private data Screencap of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0



However, the same tech insiders that have cooperated in the documentary have also actively participated in creating these issues. That is not to say they haven’t experienced the downsides of their industry, but they should acknowledge there is fault on their part for not foreseeing how their materialistic attitude has been reflected in the design of the platform. Exemplified by The Verge, which describes how Facebook’s moderators have become severely depressed and started to ’embrace the fringe viewpoints of the videos and memes that they are supposed to moderate’, despite the ‘lavish perks’ of the workplace (Newton, 2019). 

Hence, the industry disguises social media under the notion of being a user-orientated space, but profits off their attention span by puppeteering their behaviour over time. 

Designed for creating compulsive behaviour for younger generations

Younger generation viewing social media and its impact on self-perception Screencap of Netflix's The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0
Younger generation viewing social media and its impact on self-perception
Screencap of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski) CC by 2.0

The current generations glorification of social media’s design features has produced newfound addictions that risk their mental and physical health. These features include likes, commenting, tagging, hashtagging, etc. which have now become closely tied to one’s self-worth and identity. 

Having a social media presence, mainly in first world countries, is depicted as a necessity amongst young people for interaction on a global scale. This is exhibited throughout the documentary, by short-term reward systems like ‘hearts, likes or thumbs-up’ which have been ‘[conflated] with value and [conflated] with truth’. A research study found that Instagram addiction amongst Japanese university students is associated with having a lack of emotional connection and approval with others (Isada & Isada 2019). The ability to gain an instant hit of validation associates the activity with positive reinforcement, inducing the brain to rewire itself to desire these rewards (Hilliard, 2021). This action produces addiction-like behaviour, acting as a drug to keep young people hooked on the platforms.


With the popularisation of using social media, it has become a place of social comparison and self-esteem. Specifically, young girls have become the most vulnerable victims of these digital designs. Experimental research affirmed that exposure to Instagram leads to greater body dissatisfaction and negative mood among young girls (Fardouly, Willburger & Vartanian, 2018). These platforms have become global ambassadors for promoting unattainable standards of beauty that develops into lowered self-esteem: which can include the BBL effect, thinspo, fox eyes, etc. 

“They come home from school, and they’re on their devices. A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.” – Johnathan 

Ultimately, making these social platforms become a breeding ground for mental wellness concerns among the younger generation and potentially to the future generations.

Polarizing and controlling the political field

Social media platforms have created a digital algorithm to deliberately divide the users of the internet. Amplifying controversial political and social issues to trigger the users into engaging with their screens for longer.

The spread of fake news by unregulated social bots and politicians through algorithms has created a polarised reality. User’s become stuck in an echo chamber of false information and conspiracy theories, like anti-vax or Flat Earth theory, into ‘believing lies’. It is expressed in the documentary that these platforms act as a “tool of persuasion”. However, when placed into the hands of an oppressor it becomes a way of mass control. In 2016’s presidential election, a notable conspiracy theory, called Pizzagate, circled false allegations that Hilary Clinton’s campaign had involvement with human trafficking to child exploitative rings (Nelson 2020). This fake theory spread via different social media platforms from the right-wing party, possibly influencing voters during the presidential election. This type of manipulation has impacted individuals who seek confirmation bias, selective exposure and lack of analytical thinking to the news they receive (Tandoc,2019).


 Fake News, Pizza, and the Trump TeamYouTube, (2016, Sky News)


“People are more prone to accept false information and ignore dissenting information. We are just looking for what we want to hear.”- Quattrociocchi

These platforms promote radicalisation in impressionable individuals, hijacking their minds to join extreme political or social groups. The weaponization of social media platforms has manipulated users to resort to ‘offline harm’. As explained by incels, an extreme Men’s Rights Movement is known to radicalize frustrated young men to shift to drastic misogynistic and racist views (Attwell, Sian Tomkinson & Tauel Harper, 2020). A well-known incel terrorist case, Elliot Roger, released youtube videos and a 141-page online document that preaches incel ideologies. This manifesto has been mass shared on Reddit and Youtube, users of the platforms declaring him as a ‘saint’ and believe taking away ‘women’s rights and adopting a system of equal redistribution of women’ is a solution to their problems (Branson-Potts & Winton, 2018). An article looked into social media radicalisation and shows a trend of ‘online entrenchment’ that intensifies a users’ ideas and feelings, pushing towards violent actions.

In conclusion…

The ‘Social Dilemma’ shows the plethora of issues that have been created by the tech industry through social media. Learning that social media is a tool that is misused for excessive user engagement and money, rather than as a communicative and well-informed platform. Proposing reformation to these platforms so as a society become free from these ‘manipulation engines’. 

Overall, it is not the social media platforms that should take accountability for these problems, but the tech industries that have created them. 




The Social Dilemma (2020, dir. Jeff Orlowski)

Skitterphoto 2016, 50 Euro Banknote Folding on Top of Piled Coins · Free Stock Photo, <>.

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Wohnhas, L. (n.d.). Surveillance Capitalism and Privacy: Exploring Explanations for the Failure of Privacy to Contest Surveillance Capitalism and the Implications for Democracy. Retrieved from

Newton, C 2019, The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America, The Verge, The Verge,  <>.

Jena Hilliard, Social Media Addiction 2021, Addiction Center, <>.

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‌ Tandoc, EC 2019, ‘The facts of fake news: A research review’, Sociology Compass, vol. 13, no. 9, <>.

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Attwell, K, Sian Tomkinson & Tauel Harper 2020, ‘Incel’ violence is a form of extremism. It’s time we treated it as a security threat, The Conversation, <>.

‌Branson-Potts, H & Winton, R 2018, How Elliot Rodger went from misfit mass murderer to ‘saint’ for group of misogynists — and suspected Toronto, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, <>.