Conversations about “The Social Dilemma”

Audience analysis agency Bigeye reflects on global conversations sparked by the responses to Netflix’s controversial docu-drama, The Social Dilemma.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Audience analysis agency Bigeye discusses Netflix’s controversial docu-drama, The Social Dilemma. Alexander Bryson, Content and Product Marketing Executive with Pulsar, a social listening platform, discusses global responses to the show. Guest Dwight Bain of LifeWorks Group explains what we can do to avoid becoming addicted to social media, and why The Social Dilemma presents an opportunity to have important conversations that restore fractured family relationships.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Spoiler alert! Today, we’re going to be discussing global reactions to the Netflix docu-drama, The Social Dilemma. If you haven’t yet watched it, you might want to do so before listening to this. Okay. Netflix describes The Social Dilemma as an exploration of quote – “the dangerous human impact of social networking with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations” – end quote. The show posits that technology originally designed to facilitate and foster human connection has, in fact, become a powerful form of manipulation and control reducing personal agency, which threatens to erode democracies around the world. The Social Dilemma features 21 contributors, including Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist turned co-founder and president of The Center for Humane Technology; Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook and former president of Pinterest; Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”; and Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and author of “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” First shown as a selection at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year, The Social Dilemma made its debut on Netflix on September 9th. Just this past week, Pew Research Center published the results of research it undertook among Americans in July, which found that about two-thirds – 64 percent – believe social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today. Americans are, it seems, increasingly concerned about misinformation appearing on the most popular platforms and social media’s role in stirring up partisanship and increasing polarization. It’s worth noting too, that people’s views on the positive and negative effects of social media vary widely by political affiliation and ideology – a sign, perhaps, of the very polarization that Americans attribute to these platforms. To talk about some of the issues raised by The Social Dilemma and how the docudrama has been received by viewers around the world, I’m joined today by two guests. First, Alexander Bryson joins us from London in the UK. Alex is a Content and Product Marketing Executive with Pulsar. Alex, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Alexander Bryson: Hi Adrian, and thanks for having me.

Adrian Tennant: First of all, could you tell us what Pulsar is?

Alexander Bryson: Pulsar is an Audience Intelligence company – we help organizations like NBC, Levis, Heineken, IMF and the UN to understand their audiences and create messages that will resonate with them. Our software is used by research, marketing, and comms teams at brands and agencies to take the pulse of topics of conversation, and the audiences behind them, as well as cultural and consumer trends. That breaks down into three solutions: so we offer TRENDS – Google trends for social media; CORE – which is the fitbit for your brand; and, finally, TRAC – which is an audience intelligence tool which blends social listening and audience segmentation. And that’s what we used here.

Adrian Tennant: Alex, what does your role at Pulsar entail?

Alexander Bryson: I’m part of the marketing team at Pulsar, and our approach to content marketing is very story-focused. We blend techniques from research and journalism to tell stories about the digital spaces we inhabit, and people’s collective behaviors in them.

In any given month, I’ll be writing and researching topics that range from how the conversation about “the future of work” has changed, to how gaming audiences are evolving, to taking the pulse of consumer preferences around alternative milks. So I’ve spent the past week knee-deep in oat lattes, so to speak. These days, big topics of conversation very often start on Netflix, and that’s how we came to do this study on The Social Dilemma. 

Adrian Tennant: So for listeners, a reminder that in late July of this year, chief executives of the four largest tech companies – so that’s Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook – faced over 200 questions from US lawmakers, during a five-hour hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. Alex, using data from Pulsar’s platform you wrote an article describing how The Social Dilemma impacted the conversation about big tech. Can you tell us what you found noteworthy about the way the conversations flowed – and which communities were the most engaged?

Alexander Bryson: Sure. What we noticed and what made us curious about looking into this was how many shades of opinion it attracted. Previously, we researched Cancel Netflix, where the conversation there was much more bilaterally split between saying ‘this is morally wrong’ or ‘this is artistic expression’. Here, all the different elements meant more scope for opinion. So someone can hold one internet giant more responsible than others, for instance, or else criticise the film’s artistic credentials while still agreeing with its overall message. Perhaps what separates The Social Dilemma from other, similar works, was the fact that this was a conversation that’s quite fixed on tech-heavy concepts, but it was largely conducted by an audience who did not identify as being technophiles, academics, or digital professionals. 

Adrian Tennant: How does Pulsar enable researchers to identify different groups of people or segments from within social data?

Alexander Bryson: So what’s really cool about Pulsar is you can set the conversation you want to listen to, and then incredibly seamlessly – in a matter of minutes, really – auto-segment the audience that’s participating in that conversation. This displays a granular, real-time view of what different communities are saying, and how that changes over time. So, for instance, a segment we labelled ‘American Film and TV Fans’ were onto the topic a week before the world at large started hammering ‘The Social Dilemma’ into Google search and we can track that on the platform. Their interest cooled off, but now they’re engaging with a lot of content that says ‘Ok, you’ve seen the Social Dilemma, here’s what should be on your reading list’. So we can really dial in to these different segments and see where they’re entering the conversation and what they’re talking about. We always say “different people talk about the same topic differently” – which is the guiding principle behind how we structure both our tools and research. 

Adrian Tennant: So a few of the comments that I saw: “So the scariest part of The Social Dilemma is that it’s not an episode of Black Mirror. It’s a current reality.” @T-bone design tweeted, “Anyone else checked out The Social Dilemma on Netflix? More importantly, is anyone else as disturbed as I am?” But there were some more thoughtful comments. Frances Kong: “Netflix has a drama documentary, The Social Dilemma. Good to understand the effects of technology and how it influences the way we think and manipulate the way we behave.” So, since the House Judiciary Committee hearings in July, the US attorney general has announced that the Justice Department plans to bring an antitrust case against at least one of the big four: Google. Alex, your analysis of the comments around The Social Dilemma also reveals which of the tech giants attracted the most focus. The audience doesn’t perceive Google to be the worst offender, right?

Alexander Bryson: No, not at all. In fact it seems like Google pretty much escaped, and largely protected its reputation, certainly when compared to Twitter or Facebook. This runs counter to the kind of take you’ll read from people like Shoshana Zuboff, you mentioned earlier, who was a talking head in the film. But – as our data gets updated in real time, and is in fact continuing to run – I can tell you that the US’s apparent intention to open an antitrust case against Google, along with talk around Twitter and Facebook subsiding a little, means that it’s now seeing comparable volumes for all three. 

Adrian Tennant: UK voters’ decision to leave the European Economic Union – better known as “Brexit” – also brought with it more attention on social media and how it can be used to influence an electorate. Cambridge Analytica’s role, described by whistleblower Christopher Wylie and later by Brittany Kaiser – who was a contributor to the 2019 Netflix documentary, The Great Hack which is about Cambridge Analytica’s use of social media – revealed the many ways in which the company used commonplace data science techniques to predict voters’ political views and target them with ads on Facebook. In your analysis, how did audiences in different countries around the world respond to The Social Dilemma?

Alexander Bryson: Yeah, so that was something else that really stood out, actually. In the not so distant past, if you’d mapped the early-adopters of a film made by Americans, about American companies, and released via an American distribution company, you might have expected the conversation to gradually issue out from the US. But when you’re talking about a topic as universal as social media, distributed by a body as global as Netflix, it’s probably unsurprising to see such segments emerge as socially engaged South Africans and Indonesian music fans. On our platform, we can actually detect 70 languages, which allows us to view conversations as they’re playing out across the world. In this study, perhaps the most significant of these, within early-stage conversation, was that which took place in India. And the reason I say that is not only down to the size of that conversation, that was comparatively quite large, but also because the individuals having it shared a lot of common online affinities with their US counterparts. So that means that they followed a lot of the same pages. They shared a lot of the same tweets. Which meant the information could flow quite freely between the two.

Adrian Tennant: What were audiences’ responses to the acted scenes – so the drama part of the docu-drama – between the on-camera interviews? Did they help or hinder the narrative?

Alexander Bryson: So looking at the overall conversation and isolating any terms relating to the fictional subplot, and there are two things we see here. Number one, almost any direct reference is strongly negative. People describe it as corny, manipulative, or a wasted opportunity. Or if they did enjoy it, what they enjoyed was the utter strangeness of Pete from Mad Men playing the human embodiment of AI. But then, the second point is that this actually makes up a very small percentage of total conversation. If the two things that distinguished The Social Dilemma were its docu-drama elements but also its access to leading voices.

Adrian Tennant: In your analysis, who did you identify was most likely to be skeptical of the issues?

Alexander Bryson: We found the greatest degree of skepticism within the communities who are more tech-literate, many of whom won’t be coming across this information for the first time. So amongst the group, who we’ve labeled as ‘Digital Marketers’, but in particular the group we’ve dubbed ‘Tech Followers.’ This latter community tends to engage with and amplify the voices of skeptics like the author Michael Shermer. But the single most damning thing verdict this group presented was its apathy. 

Adrian Tennant: Michael Shermer tweeted, “I watched Netflix doc, The Social Dilemma. So many self-important people pronouncing such nonsense about their power to rule the world through social media, with our algorithms that control us helpless automata. Yet another existential threat to humanity. Be skeptical!” he tweets.

Alexander Bryson: So after about a week, the interest of this group just drops off a cliff, suggesting they don’t view it as the kind of red pill cultural event, the wider audience did. They saw it, they thought, “Okay, interesting points.” Or maybe they thought “Hmm, a bit of exaggeration,” and then they just stopped talking about it really.

Adrian Tennant: Alex, I’m guessing that you grew up with smartphones and that social media was well established when you were in school and college. Do the issues reflected in The Social Dilemma resonate with you, personally?

Alexander Bryson: I’m of an age where, when I went to high school it was all flip phones and very basic social media, and by the time I graduated university, people were very engaged with Snapchat, Instagram and all these social media accounts linked to the mechanics and possibilities of smartphones. So I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough really to socialize both with and without. And doing that, it becomes clear what a great means of connection social media can be, so long as we’re careful it doesn’t become a crutch for other issues.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about your analysis and the audience intelligence platform Pulsar, where can they find you? 

Alexander Bryson: Sure! So our website is, where you can check out more of our research. You can explore some of our tools. And you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. And you can also find us across LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. And for each of those, it’s Pulsar Platform. 

Adrian Tennant: Alex, thank you so much indeed for joining us today to discuss The Social Dilemma.

Alexander Bryson: No, thank you. Thanks again for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. To continue our discussion about The Social Dilemma, we’ll be joined by Dwight Bain of Life Works Group, right after this message.

Karen Hidalgo: I’m Karen Hidalgo, Associate Account Manager at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising account professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our clients’ prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with your audience. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re discussing the Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma. Our next guest is no stranger to this podcast. Having first joined us right at the very start of the coronavirus pandemic, Dwight Bain is founder of the LifeWorks Group based in Winter Park, Florida. Dwight has guided thousands of people through challenging times as an author, nationally certified counselor and licensed mental health counselor in clinical practice since 1984. A trusted media source, Dwight has been quoted by and featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, Orlando Sentinel, and radio and television stations across the major networks. Welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Dwight!

Dwight Bain: I’m glad to be here and I’m especially glad, Adrian, on this topic, because I think people don’t realize the dangers that are happening right around them, that we can talk about today and open up some conversations. That’s our goal.

Adrian Tennant: Now The Social Dilemma features a scene in which the family gathers at the table for meal time. The mom springs a surprise on everyone by requiring them to put their smartphones in a cookie jar that has a lockable lid. She’s on a mission to create some family interaction, but we see the tension on everyone’s faces as their devices ping away in the jar. But the first to crack quite literally in this case is the tween-aged Generation Z daughter. So let’s start there. Do you think that the combination of pocket-sized computers, aka smartphones, and the accessibility of social media that they enable have changed the ways that families interact with one another, either at mealtimes or in other situations?

Dwight Bain: It absolutely has because what’s happened is that before families would sit together, there were not these distractions. And now every person at the table has a small device that can pull their attention away. There’s an old saying that “multitasking is distracting.” And so all of these different things are capturing our attention. One of the things that we know is that right now, there is a battle for attention. Who can capture the attention? And if I give my attention to a screen, now I don’t have that same attention to give to my family.

Adrian Tennant: Now, social media is not the first to challenge family mealtimes. In the 1950s, Swanson’s frozen meals became known as TV dinners because they enabled consumers to eat while watching the tube or “the goggle box,” as my great aunt called it. But at least the family was watching the same media in a shared experience rather than in their own individual bubbles. Is that part of the problem do you think – these personal echo chambers that limit a plurality of opinions or experiences?

Dwight Bain: I think it really is a good point, Adrian, because a shared experience like watching a film together, you’re still a family. There’s still connection, but when a family is going in multiple directions, they’re not just tied into one story, they’re tied into multiple storylines. It seems odd that something called social media creates so much loneliness. It creates so much isolation. It creates so much distance from other people. And so instead of a family being together watching a film, everybody’s alone and it’s that loneliness and the isolation that leads to catastrophic problems inside of a relationship. For some, they feel like my parents don’t understand me, my partner is not listening, but in reality it’s because everybody feels so isolated and so alone. And lonely people do not make good decisions.

Adrian Tennant: The Social Dilemma also highlights an increase in depression and anxiety among American teenagers. We learn from the show that the number of girls who were admitted to hospitals because they cut themselves or harm themselves in other ways, was stable until around 2011 or 2012. Then it started to go up. The show says for older girls, the hospitalizations are up 62 percent compared to just a decade ago and up 189 percent for the pre-teen girls. Dwight, it does seem that the most affected individuals belong to Gen Z – the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school. In what other ways, do you see the influence of social media on young people’s lives?

Dwight Bain: Remember one of the things we know for these pre-teens and the 10, 11, 12, even 13 year-olds, the brain hasn’t fully developed. And we know that social media digs deep into the brainstem by design. And what happens is now that girl’s sense of identity, her sense of worth is affected by these images. As you pointed out, psychiatric admissions have gone up dramatically since the advent of Snapchat, of Instagram in 2010, 2011.,But completed suicide rates have gone up 70 percent for teenage girls, 15 to 19. And for preteens completed suicides have gone up 151 percent. And we think what is happening when a person is measuring themselves against perfection, it sets them up to fail. And for a percentage of teen girls, it sets them up to feel like life is not worth living. Particularly if somebody bullies them, harasses them on social media. And we’ve seen that “well, you’ll never be as beautiful as Taylor Swift. You’ll never look like, and you may as well kill yourself.” And sometimes impulsive teenagers because that brain’s not fully developed, they will completely give up on life. It’s important for your listeners to know Adrian, that social media is a drug. Social media can become addictive because of how the brain processes this data and processes this information. And while watching The Social Dilemma, it was troubling for me to see that the people who designed it openly talked about, we wanted to psychologically figure out how to manipulate that person’s attention to be only on our screen, only at all times, to only be on Facebook or only be on Twitter, only be on Pinterest. Because it was designed that way. Now that was troubling to me. But the thing I appreciate The Social Dilemma opened up conversations for families or for people like you and me to say, “wait a minute, what is going on and how is it affecting me? How is it affecting my family?” I’ll tell you Adrian, since I’ve watched The Social Dilemma with my wife, Sheila, we both have put our phones face down, we both have made sure that half an hour before bedtime, it’s face down. And instead of using the phone as an alarm clock in the morning, we did something old-fashioned. We went to Target and we got a wind-up little clock and we said, “it’ll ring, and we’re not going to be distracted to go to our phone in the middle of the night because something pings or dings or blinks to capture and pull attention back out.” That’s the addictive piece. That’s that dopamine hit, as you start to understand brain functioning, dopamine is the same part of the brain is like with a cocaine addiction. It’s very exciting. And when that programmer who’s at social media saying “we’re keeping them moving their finger. So they’re being programmed at the very deepest level.” And what we’re seeing is that particularly for brains that are not fully developed, that would be somebody under the age of 20, 25, their brain’s not developed. So they’re going to be hurt the most. They’re going to have the tendency toward addiction at the highest level.

Adrian Tennant: One of the featured experts in The Social Dilemma is Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist who is chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, and a specialist in the opioid epidemic. Her view, expressed in the show, is that as human beings, we all have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people. She says that we’re wired to connect, to come together and live in communities, find mates and propagate the species. So in her view, social media, because it optimizes the connections between people has this potential for addiction. Do you agree with Anna Lembke’s assertion about social media’s potential for really destructive addiction?

Dwight Bain: Yes. I absolutely agree with her conclusions because when we start to look at what does a, what are basic human needs? Well, we need connection. We’re not designed to be isolated. We’re not designed to be alone. And when you start to look at the processing of the brain, it’s important to remember that when you start to look at the processing of the brain, it’s important to remember that we want to, and we long to belong. We want to be part of something. Sometimes people after a relationship change, they feel very hurt and isolated so they’ll go toward a virtual screen, looking for a way to connect. And while that may feel on a surface level, like “I’ve got 217 friends on Facebook,” in reality, what may be happening is I’ve got 217 places where I feel isolated. Real relationship, instead of virtual; real connection, instead of virtual – that’s what we want to build because we want to be able to reclaim that part of our life back. And we don’t want to give it up to the virtual piece. We want to be able to plug in and that’s what’s going to make our brains healthier. So it’s gonna make our lives healthier, and our relationships healthier. Real conversations over a cup of coffee, sitting down with someone and saying, “Hey, let’s talk about what’s going on.” Sharing a meal. Those connection points create mental wellness isolation for some people leads to mental illness.

Adrian Tennant: That being the case, what can we do as consumers to avoid addiction to social media in our own lives?

Dwight Bain: That’s a great question. One of the quotes from The Social Dilemma, a programmer said, “If you’re not paying for a product, remember you are the product.” And so what can we do is number one, be aware. There’s a concept that I teach called, “Face It, Feel It, Grieve It, Grow.” And the “Face It” part is to be aware this is happening. Certain social media sites are designed to be habit-forming. They’re not doing it because they’re evil or terrible or trying to take over the world. They’re trying to capture 100 percent of your attention, 100 percent of the time. You and I have a responsibility to step back and say, let me face this. This is now something that’s real. And this is not something that, you know, just one or two people are saying. Researchers at Harvard, at Yale, at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta at John Hopkin University, Stanford are saying, “this is happening.” This is how to respond: just as we saw in the 1950s and 60s, there was an awareness about the dangers of tobacco, because it was common in society. And then there was research and conversations and people started understanding this is going to lead to lung cancer. And what happened is a complete reversal. It took 50, 60 years, but society went from smoking as a norm to smoking tobacco as being viewed as an unhealthy high risk behavior. Right now, we’re still in the part where everyone is using – even small children who have access to iPads or tablets – everyone is connected to a screen. And what we want folks to understand is not only this can be addictive, but “how much of my time am I giving up? How much of my life am I giving away? How much of my life can I reclaim in talking with individuals to say, let’s look at some behavior management on every smartphone is a device that tells you how much screen time you were using. And to be able to see what would happen if you could get back six hours a week? What could we do if we could take those six hours a week and look at getting back one month of time, what would you do with one month of usable time every month, reclaiming life and not losing it to a distraction? That’s what we want to draw attention to, to face it and to feel maybe some regret look how much time I’ve lost, but my kids are growing up, but to manage those emotions and to grow, and we grow by having conversations like this, and then moving from the talking level to the doing level, what can we do about it? Just as we saw on The Social Dilemma, what did the mom do? How can we open up the conversation to lead toward positive and healthy and healing behaviors?

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. Well, as you know, Facebook was sufficiently rattled by the content of The Social Dilemma that they fely it necessary to issue a rebuttal. 

Dwight Bain: When I saw the Facebook rebuttal and I was paying attention to it because for Facebook to be able to say, “no, no, no, no, no, that’s not us. We’re talking about somebody else.” I thought isn’t that really interesting? Now understand I’m not against Facebook, I’m on Facebook. Understanding when one group says this is happening and another group says, no, it’s not. Think of children’s cereal on the aisle that has a lot of sugar or high fructose corn syrup. It’s interesting that mom groups will say all of that sugar and all that high fructose corn syrup are not healthy. And then you’ll see commercials that will say, “Oh, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are healthy.” Now I’m not going to sign up on one side of the debate or the other. I’m not a farmer, but I am going to do this. I’m going to look at the research. I’m going to make conclusions for my family and we’re going to move forward and in a different direction. But for Facebook to issue a rebuttal, it not only touched a nerve, my hope is it will add to conversations just like this one, where we’re able to come together and for them to say, “it’s not dangerous.”And for this other group to say at Netflix to say “it is dangerous”, we need to come to some conclusions. I think that best happens with moms and dads, sit down with their kids just as we saw in the documentary to be able to sit down and say, “what’s happening to our family. Does this media make our life better? Does this media make our life worse?” When we’re able to sit down and have those conversations, I think we can see some real lasting change and the hope of a real restoration in family relationships.

Adrian Tennant: Great insights. Thank you as always, Dwight Bain, for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Dwight Bain: Glad to spend the time.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to both our guests this week, Dwight Bain, founder of Life Works Group, and Alexander Bryson, Content and Product Marketing Executive at Pulsar Platform, based in London. You’ll find links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights”. Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player, and remember, if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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