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What ‘The Social Dilemma’ Gets Wrong

Its conclusion about what's really causing mass unrest is a myopic cop-out.

About two years ago, my uncle started going on conspiracist rants when he talked to me. He would talk about the “migrant caravan” (which one, he did not specify) that was traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border, bankrolled by none other than George Soros. It was the first time I witnessed someone I knew so clearly adopt and parrot white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

At the time I had been following and reporting on immigration as a beat for a little over a year, but even then I didn’t know how to express to him just how horrified I was at how wrong he was. He was neither immediate family nor a stranger, so I didn’t feel like I could yell at him in the ways reserved for either company. And so I think I hemmed and hawed and told him plainly, well, that’s a conspiracy theory, and I failed to push back any further. I remember texting my sibling that our uncle had gone off the deep end.

In hindsight, it was always there — every year through college, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, there were fights, the kind you get with a big Catholic, conservative family when you’ve raised a generation of liberal young people who are old enough to have their own spouses and children and talk back at you. When I was a recent grad looking for work, he and his wife would refer me to “journalism” job listings at right-wing publications like the Laura Ingraham-founded “LifeZette” — it happened as recently as my layoff one year ago, too. And through the years of gifts of innocuously religious mementos, I recall being gifted a book by a regretful Cosmopolitan writer who claimed she wrote propaganda for the sexual revolution.

But it’s gotten worse. In May, I shared a spreadsheet on Facebook of Texas bail and mutual aid funds that my friend had put together, and my uncle commented that the post was “pathetic,” and that I was helping “people destroy our community.” In June, I posted something else about UT Austin athletes demanding that the Confederate-rooted school song “The Eyes of Texas” be changed, to which he commented calling the demands “Stalinist” and that my comments about white people were completely racist, and “Go Trump BTW.”

That month, he pissed off an entire 12-person family group message by sending us a letter written by a pro-Trump Catholic archbishop written to Trump, warning him that the protests following George Floyd’s murder were being orchestrated by the deep state and globalism. Two people told him he was spreading disinformation, to which he said it was his “responsibility as patriarch” to share this information with the family because the “perverted news” won’t.

Several people, including one wrong number, asked to be removed from the text group. This was clearly a fight for people closer to him, so I stayed out of it, and asked to be removed as well: “This is Samantha Grasso, please remove me as well.”

He texted back: “I know you would be against this. Appreciate being born in America. You won the lottery.”

My uncle is a white man with a mixed-race family. Even now, I read this text message and wonder if I’m just being sensitive, or if he would have also said this to another white person.

My uncle said he’d delete the group, but he kept sending us links through July. One link was to a now-deleted WordPress blog on “nutritional pharmacology.” Another link was a YouTube video on “Combatting Covid with Quercetin and Zinc,” which has been removed for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines. The third was a link from Glenn Beck’s website, about surviving the “Marxist revolution,” which was just a prepper guide on steroids and hallucinogens (“6. Start a Victory Garden”).

I’ve deleted him as a friend on Facebook, and I’ve actively avoided him when he comes around or acted as a stranger would to someone they only know of by association, for the sake of my dad. It is exhausting trying to defend your humanity and the humanity of other people to someone who is so deeply entrenched in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that they begin thinking you’re an agent of the conspiracy, too.

Part of me thinks I have a moral responsibility to “teach” him the harmful implications of his ideologies. If I’m not going to show up for Black people and other people of color in this way, then who will? But the part of me that’s already begun to cut away from my already loose tethers to my extended family is tired. This is the kind of fighting I’ve reserved for my immediate family, for the people who I love enough to wear myself down while explaining to them why I write about what I do, and who I’m writing for. The people whose opinions I value enough to want to change.

I hadn’t given this summer’s exchanges with my uncle much thought since they happened. But I recently watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, a docudrama about the dangers of social media, and the whole mess came back to me. The documentary has garnered a lot of buzz—as well as outrage from the Facebooks of the world—because of its bleak summation of the effects social media is having on our lives. Yet, watching it, I couldn’t help but realize how little the film’s edu-torial narrative about social media and extremism reflected my own.

Throughout the film, spliced between interviews from regretful former tech VPs and programmers and investors, we watch fictional scenes of a regular schmegular mixed-race family being slowly torn apart by social media addiction.

The youngest daughter of three becomes fixated on the way she looks, while the son, the second-eldest child, becomes sucked into the world of political extremism on a Facebook-like app. The eldest daughter warns her parents and siblings that they shouldn’t be plugged in all the time, but when she chases after her brother, who’s run off to attend an outraged rally of local protesters called “Extreme Center” (lol…. lol), they both get arrested by a Black female cop (both of the older kids are white) in the mess of things.

In the narrative of the film, social media will continue to push people to political extremes, all but assuring mutual political destruction all because we’re not “talking” to each other. The documentary references Pizzagate and shows footage from Charlottesville, but otherwise conflates all political movements as equally toxic, the result of social media’s rampage on the weak, easily-manipulated minds of its consumers instead of a result of anything else that might inspire someone to fight for material change. There are clips of Democrats saying bad things about Republicans, and Republicans saying bad things about Democrats, and ominous references to “far-right and far-left populism.”

It’s clear in the scenes of the teen son scrolling through vague political posts, like Black Lives Matter-esque fist illustrations and messages telling readers not to vote. In choosing not to identify this flavor of extremism as it exists in real life, the documentary shows that everything goes. There are both sides to the problem here, The Social Dilemma says. Right-wing white supremacist extremism predicated on active social media disinformation campaigns and left-wing Black Lives Matter protests for the liberation of people are both the result of the products we’ve created.

It’s simple and reductive, and insultingly wrong to insist that people are rioting because they don’t know the facts, and have been manipulated into thinking they do. The misinformation my uncle has absorbed to make him believe in anti-Semitic tropes and miracle cures is not the same thing as the objective fact that police kill with impunity, time and again, and to dismiss the validity of both in order to dismiss the validity of one is propaganda in itself.

The film’s misguided thesis is reinforced in its solutions — at the end, we’re presented with clips from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, as people who are, I don’t know, leading the revolution for bipartisanship. The irony is that the clip of Rubio saying people should talk to each other more was pulled from the CNN town hall after the Parkland shooting, during which Rubio was acting as a propagandist for the NRA, a group founded on hyperpartisan lies. Yes, these are our saviors in the posting wars.

As “content creators,” every choice we make communicates something, including what we leave out. When you actively tell your audience that “both sides” are suffering from massive misinformation campaigns, you undo any goodwill you had in getting former tech ghouls on camera to lament about their regrets in creating tools that are fracturing families like mine. It’s not that the narrative set out by the film isn’t true because it’s not like mine, but more because it’s not based in reality. Ultimately, its conclusion about what’s really causing mass unrest feels like nothing more than a myopic cop-out.

Photo of Skyler Gisondo as Ben in The Social Dilemma via Exposure Labs/Netflix