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The Social Dilemma Syllabus

Netflix's recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, has sparked new and renewed interest in the role of social media in our lives, how we interact with and within these digital networks, and the behind-the-screen manipulations that frame—and often obscure—our relation to the world and each other via social media. This syllabus was developed by the faculty of CMS to give greater context for the materials covered in this film and to help audiences critically assess its claims.

In October 2020, the Communication and Media Studies Program at Washington College hosted a Netflix watch part of the film for students and faculty. While the film serves as a solid primer to the vicissitudes of the widespread adoption of social media in contemporary life, the film lacks much of the context and nuance necessary for an in-depth articulation of the complexities of social media’s integration in our lives. This syllabus works to close some of those gaps, providing accessible information in five key areas: 

  • Technological Determinism 
  • The Digital Utopia 
  • Racism and Gender Bias in Tech 
  • Labor and the Attention Economy 
  • Privacy and Surveillance 


What to Know About The Social Dilemma Syllabus 

We recommend that you watch the film before engaging with this syllabus. Once you are ready to dive in, here are some helpful things to know: 

  • This is not a comprehensive rejoinder to the film, but it is a great place to start filling in some gaps and learning more. 
  • The materials included on the syllabus are appropriate for all engagement levels – whether you know a lot, a little, or nothing about these issues, these materials will be beneficial for you.  
  • Syllabus materials are all available for the price of an internet connection. There is a list recommended readings and viewings at the end of the syllabus that may have associated costs. Wherever possible, we’ve linked to free or cost-effective resources.  
  • We expect to update the syllabus regularly. If you have suggestions for additions, email them to Dr. Meghan Grosse. 
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 The Social Dilemma Syllabus

Technological determinism is the idea that our social, cultural, and political life is entirely determined by the technology we use. A foundation of The Social Dilemma is that social media necessarily and singularly drives changes in our everyday lives, decisions, and behaviors. This idea is technologically deterministic. Contemporary communication and media scholars often resist these claims, and instead look for more complex correlations in place of this causal argument.  

“Technological Determinism and Social Media," Vorapilailuck Thitivesa, Medium  

The digital utopia, sometimes also called techno-utopia, is the idea that technology and its associated tools can help foster a new and better world for everyone. The digital utopia assumes first that technology is neutral, second that technology applied for good will always generate a good result, and third that these positive results are shared by all. While there is no denying that technology has improved some aspects of life, those improvements are neither universal nor solely positive. Two examples of this are the digital divide—the divide between those who has access to the internet and the technology and knowledge to use it and those who don’t — and the disproportionately negative impact technologization and automation has had on the poor in the United States.  


“Technology is Not Neutral – It’s Political, Ritse Erumi, The Ford Foundation  

“What Obligations do Social Media Platforms Have to the Greater Good?, Eli Pariser, TEDSummit  


 The Digital Divide 

"The Digital Divide: A Quarter of the Nation Is Without Broadband,” Karl Vick, Time 

“59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child may face digital obstacles in schoolwork,” Emily A. Vogels, Pew Research Center 


 Technology’s Impact on Poverty and the Poor 

“High-Tech Homelessness,” Virginia Eubanks, Scientific American  

“Algorithms Designed to Fight Poverty Can Actually Make It Worse,” Virginia Eubanks, Scientific American  

The Social Dilemma features interviews with industry insiders – former programmers, developers, and executives who worked for companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and many others. These interviewees provide insight into these companies while at the same time, they reflect the lack of diversity in the tech field. This lack of diversity extends into the content itself and into the algorithms that shape user engagement with technology.  


“The Social Dilemma Fails to Tackle the Real Issues in Tech,” Pranav Malhorta, Slate 

“Technology and Race with Ruha Benjamin” Factually! With Adam Conover podcast 

“How biased are our algorithms?” Dr Safiya Umoja Noble, TEDxUIUC 

“Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Discuss Misinformation with Silicon Valley's Biggest Critics” Eliana Dockterman  

“A New Jim Code? With Ruha Benjamin” Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University  

“How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil Rights Laws,” Virginia Eubanks, The American Prospect  

“Big Data is a Civil Rights Issue,” Wade Henderson and Rashad Robinson, Talking Points Memo 


In December 2020, Timnit Gebru, a woman of color who was the co-lead of Google's Ethical AI Team, was unceremoniously fired from Google for criticizing the company's lack of minority hiring and the underlying racial bias built into Google's AI systems - the exact thing she was hired to study. AI and social media are intimately intertwined. Learn more:

"The Impact of Artificial Intelligence On Social Media," Peyton Wang, Humans for AI

"Google Researcher Says She Was Fired Over Paper Highlighting Bias in A.I.," Cade Metz and Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times

"We read the paper that forced Timnit Gebru out of Google. Here’s what it says." Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review

Black in AI

This film reiterates an increasingly common axiom: if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. User attentionuser engagement, and data produced from those are fundamental to the profits of social media and search companiesBut also fundamental to this process is the invisible labor of many – you included.  


Who Watches the Internet? 

Social Media’s Silent Filter,” Sarah T. Roberts, The Atlantic 

“The Underworld of Online Content Moderation,” Isaac Chontier, The New Yorker 

“Why AI can’t fix content moderation,” Zachary Mack, The Verge 


User Labor and Control 

How to Make Your iPhone Black and White (And Why You Should),” Megan Holstein, BetterHumans 

7 Easy Ways to Detach Yourself from Social Media,Phoebe Avison and Mia Mercado, Bustle 

How I Reduced my Social Media Use with App Limits,” Gregory Ferenstein, Forbes 

“Why You Should Quit Social Media,” Cal Newport, TED x Tysons 

Social Media: The Biggest Threat to Your Brain,” Amber Quinney, TEDxYouth@Buffalo  

Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health?, Bailey Parnell, TEDxRyersonU 

“Go Rando,” Ben Grosser  

“Twitter Demetricator,” Ben Grosser  

Safebook,” Ben Grosser 

Digital technologies – social media, digital search, mobile apps, and so on – typically require users to agree to lengthy terms of service and often default to settings that give permissions to track your activity in a variety of ways. These issues are economic, and at the same time, issues of privacy speak to more fundamental questions about what it means to control information about oneself, what the impacts of surveillance are on an individual’s psychology and behaviors, and what repercussions may come from collecting and aggregating large amounts of user data.   


“Why Privacy Matters,” Glenn Greenwald, TEDGlobal 


Facebook and Privacy 

“Facebook’s new move isn't about privacy. It’s about domination,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Guardian 

“Dear Mr Zuckerberg: the problem isn't the internet, it's Facebook” Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Guardian 

“All the Ways Facebook Tracks You—and How to Limit It,” David Nield, Wired 



“Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have Nothing to Hide,” Daniel Solove, The Chronicle of Higher Education  

“Your Technology Is Tracking You. Take These Steps For Better Online Privacy,” Laurel Wamsley, NPR 

“You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” Shoshana Zuboff, The New York Times 

Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities,” Virginia Eubanks, The American Prospect 

Order of Magnitude,” Ben Grosser