Why Netflix Should Scare You More Than It Does

Facebook can influence elections, but Netflix can influence hearts and minds.
Netflix looking spooky in a dark room.
Thomas Trutschel via Getty Images
Netflix looking spooky in a dark room.

I’m a fan of Netflix. Many of my favorite shows and movies of the last year have come from the company. I find using the service to be intuitive and the design often to be beautiful.

But during my time covering the company over the last few years, I’ve noticed a troubling trend: Almost nobody has a bad thing to say about Netflix.

A company with well over 100 million paid subscribers worldwide and a share price well over $300 gets almost no mainstream criticism at all. Sure, sometimes people ― including myself ― will rag on the company’s habit of releasing terrible movies every once in awhile, but it’s all in good fun with a friend that we love.

Any damning criticism fails to stick. And when a controversy does happen, it’s not like we’re all just going to quit Netflix. The service has become a bona fide daily habit across the globe. Collectively, subscribers reportedly stream around 140 million hours of video a day. We’re not leaving anytime soon. All we can do is hope to reshape it into something that serves us better.

And so I’ve decided to bring your attention to a few reasons why I’ve fallen out of unconditional love with this incredibly successful corporation.

Earlier this year, Netflix co-founder, chairman and CEO Reed Hastings made a statement that I think should have rung more alarm bells than it did.

“‘13 Reasons Why’ has been enormously popular and successful,” Hastings said during a meeting with shareholders. “It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it.”

“It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it.”

- Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on "13 Reasons Why."

That quote sums of what appears to be the company’s ethos and the root of my growing problem. Regardless of whether a choice is problematic, as long as it’s popular ― as long as it makes the company more money ― then Netflix will go through with it.

Shows aimed at an impressionable teen audience like “13 Reasons Why” ― which glorifies suicide and other violent actions in a high school setting ― and “Insatiable” ― which fat-shames and trades in numerous offensive stereotypes ― prompted parents and culture critics to offer some of the only hard-hitting criticism of Netflix to date. Despite the flak those shows took, they still drew a massive audience, Netflix renewed both of them, and the news cycle seemed to move back to Netflix adulation.

It may be impossible to prove that a show like “13 Reasons Why” caused an increase in suicides, but a widely reported study from 2017 suggested that that fear isn’t unfounded. For its part, Netflix did retroactively include more warnings about the controversial content to accompany episodes of “13 Reasons Why.” You can still watch the episodes just as before, though.

Netflix has used its homepage to heavily promote these shows, as it does with many of its so-called Originals. Netflix makes it difficult to avoid these ads; I remember an autoplaying trailer for “Insatiable” being particularly annoying and inescapable.

It’s disingenuous to say “nobody has to watch.” Contrary to Hastings’ claim, Netflix has developed elaborate mechanisms to convince you to do so ― and in the case of the autoplaying trailers, to essentially force-feed them to you.

The second season of "13 Reasons Why" on Netflix.
Beth Dubber/Netflix
The second season of "13 Reasons Why" on Netflix.

Over the last few years, there has been a rising fear of giant tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and the Google-owned YouTube, for a whole host of reasons. The fear often boils down to this: These companies host problematic content and then have algorithms to push that to an unprecedentedly large audience. Although it’s not often thought of in the same way, Netflix has a similar model and scale.

If we believe that Facebook has entered the news business and should be making decisions based on journalistic ethics and standards, then it’s time we focus on Netflix in the same way.

Just because individual users don’t share so-called fake news or problematic content on Netflix as they do on other platforms, that doesn’t mean Netflix isn’t offering what can also be considered “fake news” and problematic content.

Look at the myriad documentaries and docuseries Netflix adds every month, many of which make dubious claims that wouldn’t withstand scrutiny from a fact-checker. (Often, Netflix will deem new documentaries and docuseries as Originals even if it didn’t have a major role in their creation, essentially putting its stamp of approval and ownership on these dubious pieces of journalism.)

Last year, The Ringer examined the various conspiracy documentaries Netflix and its competitors hosted, including multiple films that argued 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government. (Netflix has since removed the most troubling examples.) Earlier this year, Slate had a follow-up that examined the less overtly insidious conspiracies Netflix has peddled, such as those involving aliens and the pyramids or powerful cults that rule the world. Many of these documentaries can still be found on the service.

Neither of these critiques argues that Netflix should remove the content entirely. The problem lies in the algorithm, marketing and classification. And to be fair, Netflix also offers some incredible documentaries, including “Icarus,” a film on Russia’s sports doping program that won the Academy Award for best documentary feature this year.

But you can easily stumble upon one of these conspiracy-touting projects in the seemingly innocuous documentaries section, listed right next to films like “Icarus.” From there, Netflix will try to convince you to watch the sketchy project with an engaging photo and autoplaying trailer.

If you do click, the company will start recommending you other, similar projects on your homepage. Quickly, your homepage fills with conspiratorial nonsense, all of which looks credible given how Netflix markets the content to you.

Netflix has countless documentaries of dubious quality.
Netflix has countless documentaries of dubious quality.

It’s even harder to avoid the more subtly dangerous content baked into the company’s business model. By adding documentaries at a relentless pace, the company has become host to many likely well-meaning, but ultimately discredited projects.

A recent example: The company had a hit with the Netflix Original docuseries “Afflicted,” a project that focused on people who have chronic, but unexplained illnesses. Shortly after “Afflicted” debuted, many of the project’s subjects wrote on Medium to say the filmmakers had tricked them into participating in the series and that the portrayal of their lives dramatically bent the truth.

“Afflicted” essentially became suffering porn and sensationalized the subjects to make them seem as deluded as possible. Of course, journalistic subjects are often disappointed in the end result, and a subject’s displeasure doesn’t by itself constitute wrongdoing.

But follow-up reports by HuffPost and other publications concluded that “Afflicted” really did get its story wrong. As the HuffPost piece concluded:

When it comes to serialized content, Netflix’s streaming strategy lends itself to marathon binge sessions, encouraging subscribers to devour entire series in one sitting. To incentivize this kind of behavior, Netflix storytellers typically rely on well-edited episodes that end with mouth-watering cliffhangers.

“Afflicted” adopted this format by repeatedly casting doubt on whether or not its subjects were even truly ill, its participants claim. The show’s underlying question, according to [the subjects], ultimately became an exploitative one: “Are these illnesses real, or are they in the subjects’ heads?”

It’s a loaded question that the massive entertainment platform might not have been equipped to answer.

Netflix continues to promote “Afflicted” with an unflattering photo that sells out one of the subjects. I’m sure it keeps getting clicks. But again: Shouldn’t this bother us?

"Afflicted," advertised using an unflattering shot of a documentary subject alongside shows like "I Am a Killer" and "Inside the Criminal Mind."
"Afflicted," advertised using an unflattering shot of a documentary subject alongside shows like "I Am a Killer" and "Inside the Criminal Mind."

Meanwhile, Netflix continues its rapid expansion around the world. The company has announced multiple new hubs across the globe in 2018 alone. The subscriber total keeps growing, and those subscribers keep expressing immense satisfaction with the service.

As a huge and powerful company, similar in scale to the Facebooks of the world, the mistakes that Netflix makes have global implications. Through the stories Netflix decides to tell and promote, this company shapes how we decide to be. A show, movie or documentary can change our beliefs about life itself.

That said, it’s a fool’s errand to decide whether a show or movie is moral or immoral, and Netflix’s goal shouldn’t be complete inoffensiveness. I’d argue other content companies have gone too far in trying not to offend: Network television tends to be bland thanks to FCC rules, and Apple’s new streaming project has apparently more-or-less banned “gratuitous sex, profanity or violence.”

Still, Netflix pushes content based on whether the company’s algorithm thinks it will make us click and not necessarily whether that content will be good or bad for us. With autoplaying trailers on the homepage, we have even less of a choice in whether we consume what Netflix gives us.

This company has immense power. With that power, Netflix has already made troubling missteps. And if that won’t make you quit your subscription, it should at least put some actual chill in your bones.

If you want updates and criticism about Netflix on a weekly basis, make sure to subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.

Ji Sub Jeong/HP

Streamline makes recommendations for streaming shows and movies. Every Saturday, Streamline highlights the best shows to watch online, with a focus on Netflix.

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