Spoilers ahead for Black Mirror Season 5 episode "Smithereens." Black Mirror has always been interested in examining the power technology has over our lives, but its Season 5 episode "Smithereens" turns more directly to the source. Using Topher Grace’s character Billy Bauer, Black Mirror raises questions about how much accountability tech companies should have for the complicated, sometimes damaging ways their products affect their consumers. And though it doesn’t appear that Billy is explicitly based on a real person, he does feel like a pretty direct amalgam for two famous social media founders — both of whose power has come under increasing scrutiny IRL.
"Smithereens" is a tense, affecting episode that pits Billy against Chris Gillhaney (Andrew Scott), a distraught app user who is willing to kidnap a Smithereen employee just to get Billy on the phone. While Smithereen is a completely fictional company, we’re able to see a familiar-looking user interface and hear a reference to liking someone’s dog photo. It’s clear, then, that Smithereen is a not-so-subtle conflation of Facebook and Twitter, and that Billy is a stand-in for tech execs like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Interestingly, the most blatant connection to Zuckerberg isn’t in this particular Black Mirror episode; it’s actually buried in the show’s 2018 interactive film, Bandersnatch. In one of the endings, viewers are shown a UKN news segment talking about Stefan’s game. UKN has been featured repeatedly as the main news outlet in Black Mirror, and the headline crawl at the bottom often winks at past episodes. In Bandersnatch, however, the crawl references a future episode, reading "Senate committee grills Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer over Russian bots."
This is an obvious nod to Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony in April 2018, when he appeared before 100 lawmakers to answer questions about government regulation on Facebook, how the company has and will handle the increasing propagation of fake news, and how much of a role its platform played in Russia meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The hearings were called because it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by Donald Trump’s campaign team, harvested personal data from up to 87 million Facebook users in an attempt to create an "influence operation" that affected the election’s outcome. When questioned if the data breach and the proliferation of Russian-made propaganda pages helped Trump win, Zuckerberg became notorious for simply repeating "my team will get back to you."
The Bandersnatch headline crawl also references the follow-up September 2018 hearings of Twitter’s Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who were asked similar questions about how their platforms are dealing with conspiracy theories, hate campaigns, and Russian misinformation. (Google notably failed to send anyone.) Similar to the open, self-effacing way Grace portrays Billy, Dorsey’s candor was described by lawmakers as "refreshing" as he admitted that Twitter "found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems … abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, disinformation campaigns." At that time, Twitter was facing tremendous criticism for, among other things, not yet banning hateful conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
This is all built into a single reference in a completely separate episode, but it’s one that’s important because it highlights the core themes of "Smithereens." Questions of whether major tech company founders are too far removed from the damaging effects of their own product, and whether they should be held accountable for the ways their products are misused (especially when the results are innocent, everyday people suffering), are peppered throughout the episode. The woman unable to log into her deceased daughter’s account echoes a real-life case of Apple refusing to give the password to a man’s widow, while Smithereen listening in on Chris’ conversations is similar to Amazon Alexa’s issues around privacy.
Even the fact that the Smithereen employees are able to quickly dig up more information on Chris than the local law enforcement, and Billy later hangs up on the FBI agent so he can activate what he calls "god mode" and find Chris’ phone number himself, raises major questions about the incredible power these social media founders wield. Furthermore, the question of whether the CEOs actually care weighs heavy on the episode. When we’re finally introduced to Billy, we discover he’s on a silent meditation trip in the desert, channeling his zen in a remote, futuristic pod. This is also a real-life reference, as Dorsey took a trip back in 2018 to a remote location in Myanmar to unplug and meditate for 17 hours a day.
His trip, and subsequent encouragement that others travel there for their own digital detox, was met with backlash online, since Dorsey also failed to mention the human rights atrocities happening against the Muslim Rohingya there. (Zuckerberg has also faced similar criticism, as Facebook was accused by civil rights groups of being used to spread anti-Muslim rhetoric in Myanmar.) Dorsey apologized, reiterating that he knew about the issues but that it was "a purely personal trip for me focused on only one dimension: meditation practice."
It’s easy to see the echoes of both Dorsey and Zuckerberg in Grace’s character. Billy is presented as an affable young man who tells Chris he’s simply overwhelmed by running a company that he feels has grown far beyond him. Pacing outside his glass yurt, Billy seems like a tortured genius — someone who wants to reign in his own creation but doesn’t know how anymore. But this is Black Mirror, and we know that the commentary is not that simple.
Billy’s real-life inspirations complicate the reading that dealing with Smithereens’ issues is beyond his control, and in that, Black Mirror delivers its sharpest condemnation of the tech world yet. Zuckerberg holds 60% of the voting power of Facebook, meaning as both CEO and chairman, no company decision can pass without his OK. Recent attempts to make Zuckerberg step down as chairman failed. Meanwhile, despite many users complaining that Trump and his followers use inciting and violent rhetoric on Twitter, Dorsey had a closed-door meeting with Trump in April and came out reaffirming how important public dialogue was.
Twitter only recently announced it would finally start researching whether white supremacists should have a platform. "That’s wild," Becca Lewis, a researcher of alt-right influencers for the nonprofit Data & Society, told Motherboard. "It has a ring of being too little too late. People have been raising the alarm about this for literally years now."
Like many Black Mirror episodes, "Smithereens" does not have a happy ending. We’re left guessing what happens in the final moments, but it’s clear there’s no good outcome for Chris, and his kidnapped victim is undoubtedly traumatized by the entire situation. Meanwhile Billy, thousands of miles away, closes his eyes and goes back to meditating.
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