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Why Social Dilemma’s Netflix rating wasn’t right for NZ

Posted on 15 September 2020 by David Shanks, Chief Censor

There’s a new documentary out on Netflix which is trending on social media and making headlines around the world.

Social Dilemma looks at how social media companies are exploiting human psychology and using surveillance and data mining to keep people addicted, all to make a huge profit. It explores impacts like the declining mental health of populations, the rise of fake news and conspiracies, and giving terrorists a platform to promote hate and livestream their crimes.

It was the part about livestreaming that brought it to my attention. We received a complaint from a member of the public last week – just after the documentary was released – saying that it contains excerpts from the Christchurch terrorist’s video which he livestreamed on Facebook on 15 March 2019.

I had banned that same video in New Zealand days after the attacks. I classified it as an unlawful (objectionable) publication in New Zealand for its promotion of terrorism and extreme violence.

So was it illegal for Netflix to stream this documentary in New Zealand?

The answer is no. As we detailed in guidance we issued at the time, classification of the livestream video in its entirety doesn’t mean that every excerpt from the livestream is unlawful, although we had urged media to demonstrate extreme care in the treatment of this material.

The clips that are used in Social Dilemma support the documentary’s narrative, yet it’s important to remember that they show a real-life atrocity in New Zealand, that happened only last year, and they show real people. The timing couldn’t be worse. Survivors and relatives of those who were subject to the attacks have only recently worked through the sentencing process.

I watched the documentary, and I was deeply concerned about this.

I asked Netflix to change their age rating for this documentary from 7+ to 13+ and to add a warning for “Violence, including brief images from the Christchurch terror attacks, suicide references and content that may disturb”. I also offered other options - to put up a warning screen at the start of the documentary or remove the footage of the attacks altogether but those options weren’t taken up.

Netflix has since updated their rating and warning, which I appreciate.

The good news is that this type of situation is less likely to come up in the future. A recent law change means that from late next year, Netflix and other streaming services will be required by law to display New Zealand age ratings and content warnings on all films, shows and documentaries.

If you plan to watch Social Dilemma, I recommend that you watch with care and consider those around you that may be triggered by the content.  

Learn more about the law changes that are coming for streaming services in New Zealand 

Concerned about what your kids are watching? Check out our advice and tools for parents 

Photo of a young person sitting cross-legged with a laptop on their lap

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