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The Court of Public Opinion: The Social Dilemma and Criminal Cases



This weekend I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix for the second time. (I was one of the 38 million people who watched it when it first came out in September 2020.) This time I watched it with the true crime community in mind–wondering what lessons I could apply from the documentary to my own research. Here’s what made the top of the list.


Algorithms Influence Your Perception of Crime

As I listened to the various people with various connections to the most popular social media platforms, I realized that an algorithm is very likely to influence how we perceive individual crimes and the criminal justice system.


The stories we click on lead to seeing more versions and updates of the same story. Similarly, our political affiliations and other interests will inevitably ensure we see content we “want” to see. This reinforces our opinion of crime at a higher level.


The Power of Groups on Social Media Should Be Harnessed

If social media groups are how extremists rally followers, can’t the same design be leveraged for good in crime prevention and investigations? Perhaps the fundamental element of what attracts people to extremist groups is needed for social media groups to gain intense commitment from members.


But I can’t help but wonder what could happen if we got people equally committed to crime prevention and supporting investigations.


How much do the platforms and group design affect their members’ actions? And can the power of social media groups be harnessed for good?


It’s Important to Have the Tough Conversations

I don’t know what “tough conversations” are for each of us, but I believe they vary. It might be parents talking to their kids about limiting screen time. It might be an adult talking to their friend about what they’re posting and the potential damage it’s causing. An employee might be talking to their boss about their organization’s digital marketing practices. It might be talking to each other about the true crime stories we see in our feeds and how they make us feel.


Whatever that tough conversation is, watching The Social Dilemma made me realize how important it is today to stand firm when we experience something that we know isn’t right. And, more importantly, to invite others to talk about a solution.


Criticism of The Social Dilemma

I was sure that the most popular film on Netflix for September 2020 that targeted social media platforms would generate response pieces. From a variety of businesses looking to respond to the criticism and individuals looking to gain attention by engaging in a widespread discussion. The content in the film made sense to me, so I wanted to hear someone say differently to see if they could poke holes in the research or approach.

I did find quite a few resources, but the succinct and mostly professional response from Facebook was the one that I found most interesting. The design was excellent; easy to follow with straightforward responses to the most salient points in the documentary.


The tone was a little off, in my opinion–it sounded like the whine of someone who knows they’re wrong and will try to convince you that you’re the one who has no case…just by using a condescending tone. But it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t focus on the content (and I did understand why they’d respond that way). Here’s what I found interesting about each of the points they made.

  1. Facebook builds its products to create value, not to be addictive. To me, this is a point that may be true (it could also be a lie), but does intention matter more than the results? I would rather see evidence from Facebook that their product isn’t addictive, not that they don’t mean it to be addictive.

  2. You are not the product. A big, unpleasant point of The Social Dilemma was that platforms learn about us so they can more effectively sell our engagement to advertisers. I appreciate that Facebook addressed this point, but their response confirmed what the documentary introduced. Again, I think their goal was to explain their approach with the hope of justifying their actions. Still, I would rather see data that somehow demonstrates users aren’t being farmed for advertising dollars.

  3. Privacy and polarization. I think they addressed the accusations made in the documentary at this point, and I was glad to see it. They didn’t say they made mistakes, but they didn’t claim to have fixed everything. They landed in a more honest place than I expected. I hope they continue closely examining privacy and polarization. But I suspect public scrutiny will continue to be their greatest motivator. After all, gaining data (privacy) and committed users (polarization) is tremendously tempting.

As I said, I thought Facebook did a nice job responding overall, especially considering there was only so much they could say. It’s impossible to deny the adverse effects social media has had, but they can certainly continue to share what work they are doing to make things better.


Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

The most obvious resource is the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. If you haven’t watched it, find the time to watch it soon. And watch it with criminal investigations in mind. I think you’ll be surprised by the connections you make to your own thoughts and feelings about cases you were exposed to in the media.


The Social Dilemma has its own website and is on social media! On the site, multiple links to additional content and statistics are great conversation starters. But before you judge them, I encourage you to read why.


And I don’t like to recommend books I haven’t read, but the author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy was featured in The Social Dilemma. Plus, the name won me over. It is so hard to name a book, and she nailed it. It just feels like I will learn a lot from reading her book.


And, of course, search for opposing opinions like I did!

If you saw The Social Dilemma, please let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

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