World

Fake views: the problem with Netflix documentaries

7 March 2021

6:02 PM

7 March 2021

6:02 PM

Netflix gets a lot of stick for being woke these days – and not just from this parish. And when you look at the network’s recent signings, it’s not hard to see why. From hiring Michelle Obama to present kids’ shows to splashing out on the Sussexes, Netflix executives don’t exactly hide their worldview.

But for all the gripes levied against the media empire, there is one section of its content that gets off rather lightly. And that’s a bit of a shame. As not only do Netflix’s current affairs documentaries come with a strong agenda, they’re also terrible examples of factual filmmaking. And the latter is the really unforgivable part.

If you’re not familiar with Netflix’s documentary output, here’s a quick rundown of some recent hits. There’s Knocking Down the House (an audiovisual victory lap of AOC’s election campaign); The Great Hack (Brexit bad; Facebook culpable); a celebration of lefty economist Thomas Picketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century); Nobody Speak (aka Chomsky for dummies); and The Social Dilemma (or how social media ruined the world).

Taken at face value, all five sound like perfectly viable documentary material. But the problem is how Netflix goes about its task. Rather than an intelligent and enlightening probe of the subject matter, the house style is to find the most simplistic line possible and then ram it down the viewers’ throats for the next 90 minutes.

Take the much-praised Great Hack. Watch just five minutes of the film (be warned: it stars Carole Cadwalladr) and it’s pretty clear what we’re expected to think that if it weren’t for the great Satans of Silicon Valley, British and American voters would have never backed Brexit and Trump respectively. By documentary standards, it makes Michael Moore resemble Ken Burns. But that hasn’t stopped it going viral across the world.


How does Netflix get away with publishing such partisan material under the guise of journalism? Largely by deploying smart narrative tricks to disguise its ideological slant.

One clever trick, for example, is to forgo having a central narrator (which might come across a tad propagandistic) and instead cram the film with carefully chosen talking heads all of whom make the same argument. It’s a new incarnation of the old Trotskyist ploy of filling panels with people who agree with each other.

In The Social Dilemma, for example, we’re treated to a constant procession of anti-tech types – including former Silicon Valley employees turned social media skeptics – who constantly reinforce each other’s arguments about how Facebook is controlling our lives and minds.

The ideological onslaught is ramped up even further by the fact that – only on the rarest occasion – are the talking heads given any pushback. It’s as if the very idea of asking questions – something which, as any documentary fan knows, is a crucial part of engaging your audience – will dilute the argument. Better just to listen and learn.

There are other cinematic tactics at play too. Watching Reversing Roe, Netflix’s broadside against the anti-abortion lobby in America, I realised how interviewees sympathetic to abortion were given the chance to narrate archive footage about political history – about the rise of the religious right, for example – thereby presenting their view as the logical, historically accurate one. Anti-choice speakers, by contrast, were typically denied the privilege. Painting one stance out as the voice of history leaves little space for the viewer to make up their own mind.

It’s a technique that echoes that old Orwell quote; he who controls the past also controls the future. By letting their chosen speakers set the record straight on the past, Netflix inevitably makes us more susceptible to their arguments elsewhere. It’s a trick as old as film-making itself: and one particularly beloved by conspiracy theorist films such as the Loose Change series about 9/11.

But even that isn’t the end of Netflix’s manipulation. One other effect I’ve noticed is what I call – with apologies to Eckhart Tolle – the ‘power of now’. The aim is to interweave various historical arguments to convince viewers that – at the time of watching – the world stands at some great turning point between good and evil. And if they don’t act immediately, the bad guys will win.

The Social Dilemma, for example, ends with a stirring call to action in which various stars from the film offer patronising tips about reducing your social media usage. It’s the same story with Reversing Roe, which tries to convince its audience that a re-elected Donald Trump will somehow lead to the criminalisation of birth control. It stops short of telling viewers how and when to vote; but only just.

For all the crudeness of their tactics, Netflix clearly knows how to win an audience. But while this kind of emotional trickery might be well suited for, say, charity fundraising appeals or political campaign ads, there’s something fundamentally manipulative about trying to disguise it as objective journalism. Particularly for an organisation which clearly regards itself as on the ethical side of the media landscape.

Now that the Trump era has drawn to a close,  will Netflix tone things down a bit? Here’s hoping. Nevertheless, we can probably expect the inevitable Capitol Hill documentary before the end of summer.

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