TLDR: We make the case that producing ambitious documentaries raising awareness of topics related to effective altruism could be impactful, and are looking for input on why this hasn’t been done or is not more discussed in the community.
Rigor: We don’t have any experience related to producing documentaries and feel very uncertain about pretty much everything in this post. The main aim is to try and induce discussion and get input for further exploration.
Context: We are currently in contact with a philanthropist in Sweden (where we are based) who has connections and experience from funding and producing documentaries, and who has expressed interest in funding documentaries on issues relevant for EA, e.g. biorisks and nuclear war/winter.
Should we produce more EA-related documentaries?
In a fireside chat at EAG London 2021 William MacAskill spoke briefly about “EA Media”, a topic that has come up at various times and places during the last years (See EA in media | Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Galef, AJ Jacobs, and William MacAskill, MacAskill Fireside Chat at EAG and Ezra Klein interview at EAG 2020). In this chat William says that he would like EA to produce more “high-depth, high-engagement media” such as podcasts, books and documentaries. He also says that a documentary funded at around 10 million dollars would be one of the top most well-funded documentaries in the world and that we could produce several of these per year on important EA topics.
We, the authors, think this seems like relatively low hanging fruit and that documentaries on EA topics could be of high expected values (albeit high risk high reward). Thus we ask ourselves, why is this not more actively discussed and why are we not seeing any EA documentaries? Is it that the potential upsides of documentaries are small, are we missing important downsides or has this simply been overlooked?
What we mean by documentary
In this post we are, for obvious reasons, interested in documentaries aiming to create some kind of positive change. And when it comes to creating change, we, inspired by BRITDOC, think of documentaries as able to fill four overlapping and interdependent, yet distinguishable functions:
- Changing minds: Spreading awareness and understanding with the aim of sparking societal interest and changing attitudes. E.g. introducing neglected existential risks to the public.
- Changing behaviors: Trying to get people to do something, not just think differently. E.g. getting people to take greater consideration of animal welfare when buying things or donating more and/or more effectively.
- Building communities: Providing a focal point around which people can organize.
- Changing structures: Directly trying to influence law or policy.
Further, documentaries can take many different forms, from a 10 minute homemade Youtube video to a feature length high budget motion picture.
In the following when we say documentary, we are mainly thinking about a high budget full length film with the purpose of raising awareness of important topics, bringing them to the attention of the media and wider society (something like An Inconvenient Truth in style). This is because we think this seems to be mostly missing at the moment, and could be of highest expected value. Also, in our interpretation, it seems like something others who have spoken about EA media are excited about (see EA in media | Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Galef, AJ Jacobs, and William MacAskill and MacAskill Fireside Chat at EAG).
We want to stress that we are very uncertain about what type of documentary, or other media content might be most impactful, which is part of the reason for writing this and we would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. However, it seems relevant to narrow our scope to be able to have some kind of vantage point to be working from, in this first exploratory post.
One further clarification that seems important is that we are not imagining documentaries that are explicitly about EA, but rather topics relevant to EA.
The case for EA documentaries
As implied above, the main case for EA documentaries as we see it is that they can create awareness of important issues, which in turn can make it easier to make progress on these issues. In the fireside chat William MacAskill mentions Armageddon and Deep Impact as helpful in building support for NASA's to detect asteroids and increased budget for asteroid x-risk mitigation. He also mentions Terminator as being good for raising awareness about AI risks. (These are not documentaries, but it seems to us the effect of documentaries could be similar.)
Further, without having done any deep investigations, we feel convinced by case studies looking at the impact of documentaries such as Citizenfour (raising awareness about surveillance), Gaslands (raising awareness about Fracking), Blackfish (raising awareness of Animal Welfare) and An Inconvenient Truth raising awareness about climate change. The most well studied documentary from the perspective of what change it made seems to be An Inconvenient Truth (AIT), so let’s turn to that for a moment.
One analysis of attitudes towards climate change found a significant relationship between mentions of AIT in the media and public perception of the urgency of climate change. A public survey found that in the months following the documentary’s release, the percentage of Americans attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41% to 50%. This does not say anything about causality, but several experimental studies suggest AIT changed peoples minds and sometimes behavior. One study found that showing clips from AIT made participants in the study more motivated to make lifestyle changes to fight climate change. Also, surveys of people watching the movie found that AIT increased knowledge of climate change and willingness to reduce greenhouse gasses. Importantly however, a follow-up survey one month later found little change in behavior. Another study found that two months after the film was released, the purchase of carbon offsets increased by 50% in suburbs near cinemas that screened it. Again however, the increased purchase of carbon offsets failed to translate into a repeated behavior as no notable changes could be observed in purchases one year later. (See summary and further links here.)
This suggests AIT was successful in raising awareness of climate change and sometimes in actually changing behavior. However, it seems the effect didn’t last long, which indicates that an EA documentary probably should be combined with further communication efforts (more on this in a later post). We also want to highlight that these studies investigate the direct effect on those who saw AIT. A potentially more significant impact was the film’s role in getting others to talk about climate change and bring it more into common wisdom, thus setting a wider change in motion. Such impact would obviously be very hard to measure, and we feel uneasy making any hard claims to this point, but our intuition is that this is where most of the value in creating EA documentaries could lie.
A potentially valuable bi effect we’d like to mention (which William Macaskill also seemed to agree to in the interview) is the possibility that the production of EA documentaries in and of itself could increase the diversity of the EA movement, by creating need and space for people with new perspectives and skills such as creatives and communicator types (our interpretation).
The case against EA documentaries
One clear case against documentaries is that, while being of positive impact in absolute terms, it might not be the best marginal use of funds. We do not think it is. However, currently there seems to be a lot of information value in trying it out. Further, we have not really seen this argument being made. And as there seems to be a case for documentaries sometimes creating significant change intended by the filmmakers, it seems like we should at the very least investigate the question further. Also, in our current circumstance with a philanthropist aimed at this sole objective, it is obviously less interesting to consider alternative costs.
Another issue is that, as alluded to above, most documentaries do not seem to have large effects. As we are interested in the expected value, this does not seem like a big problem if the upside of some is large enough. Especially since the EA movement should be able to make several documentaries, thus hopefully getting one or a few in the fat tail.
There is also a risk that a documentary might not be fleshed out/nuanced enough to communicate EA topics. We believe this is true in the sense that the role of documentaries should not be to give a deep understanding of the topic in question. But when it comes to raising awareness, we think this argument seems less convincing. Going against us here is the fact that oftentimes the most widely-spread documentaries are the most sensationalizing ones (media logic), so producing a very nuanced documentary might not be what sells the most. Can we avoid this while still producing content that people will want to see? We think so. As indicated by the high view counts of for example Youtube-channels like Veritasium and Kurzgesagt, many people seem interested in consuming fleshed out/nuanced content. And in this domain we think it is important to consider that we are not operating in a vacuum. Many areas relevant to EA have already been covered by documentaries and this will likely continue. Thus it seems like we can have a positive impact if we create something which is more nuanced than the alternative, while still appealing (though we think it is probably more valuable to do a documentary on a topic that others would be less likely to cover). As we pointed out earlier, one observation William MacAskill explicitly mentions in his fireside chat is Deep Impact as being good for raising awareness about asteroid X-risks. And our intuition is that this assessment is correct. It seems like Deep Impact made a lot of people (who otherwise would not have been) aware of asteroid X-risks. And even though it might not have given the most accurate picture of asteroid X-risks, we don’t see how this has affected further when it comes to actual in-depth research on these risks.
(Here again we want to stress that we are not talking about a documentary on EA, but EA relevant topics. When it comes to communicating the core ideas of EA we believe a format that allows for easier updating, more depth, nuance and interaction would be better.)
Another risk is information hazards, in the sense that a documentary could draw attention to an issue from actors who might act in a way that causes harm. We however have a rather hard time seeing how this could play out, given that the documentary is done responsibly. It could be a legitimate concern in some domains, e.g. biorisks. It however feels like a very small risk in other domains, e.g. risks stemming from nuclear winter, an unaligned artificial intelligence or extreme climate change.
Based on the case we have found for and against, we think that producing documentaries about EA topics could be impactful and that it, under the current circumstances that we have described (with a funder specifically interested in this), seems worth exploring.
There is so much interesting EA content out there, and a lot of the ideas that are talked about in EA circles could make for very good documentaries that could help make very abstract ideas seem more concrete and real to people outside of the EA community, and help bring awareness to these topics.
We would really appreciate you sharing any feedback or thoughts you may have with us on this. Specifically regarding these questions:
- Do you think documentaries could be effective? Why (not)? Are there important arguments for or against that we are missing?
- Do you think we should hire someone to do research on this? If so, is there anyone in particular who would be especially suitable for this role and what do you think they should focus on?
- What do you think should be the main aim of an EA-related documentary? Raise awareness, get people to take concrete action, trying to change structures or something else?
- What formats to choose? Youtube, feature films, podcast documentaries or TV-series?
- Do you have any suggestions on what would make for good EA-related documentary content? Please comment!
When it comes to long-termist causes we have a hard time seeing what concrete change in behavior could be promoted, but would be very keen to hear your ideas.
E.g. we could imagine documentaries aimed at changing behaviors to be (more) impactful. There have been studies that looked for a direct link between watching an environmental documentary and environmental donations. One study found that twice as many people donated to an environmental cause after watching a short environmental clip. Another found that after watching a full-length documentary about dolphins, almost everyone donated to a related cause. Similar findings seem to exist with regards to behaviors not related to donations. In the case of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a study found that two months after the film was released, the purchase of carbon offsets increased by 50% in suburbs near cinemas that screened it.
These studies might seem encouraging, but in the two first mentioned money was given to participants and they were asked to donate it to one of a predetermined list of charities. So this might mean that the behavior is unlikely to translate to the real world. Further, the effect of the documentaries simply don’t seem to hold for long. E.g. the increased purchase of carbon offsets failed and after one year no lasting change in behavior was observable.
We think this is true, and needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about documentaries aimed at creating awareness as well (more on this later). However, if we are mainly concerned with raising awareness of an issue, the hope is not for the documentary itself to sustain said awareness, but rather to ignite a conversation that could be sustainable.