why social media is a cesspool, and how regulation could make it worse

Social media is changing the world for the worse, which has some people wondering if it’s time to start regulating it. But regulation could be a much worse cure than the disease.
social media burnout

When social media was first conceived, it was meant as a utopian project. Now, I’m not talking about Facebook and Twitter, or even MySpace and Friendster. I’m talking about the concepts they commercialized, like chat rooms, ICQ, and user groups. Back when they were developed, the dream was that by interacting with one another, humans would learn that no matter where we lived and what language we spoke, at our core, the vast majority of us were pretty much the same, and that common ground would let us reach a common understanding informed by the same set of facts from trustworthy news sources, which would also be widely available on the web. It was truly a beautiful dream until it all came crashing down.

Instead of a civil forum with the occasional troll easily ejected from the conversation, we’ve ended up with the equivalent of an exploded sewer where hate and conspiracy theories are amplified alongside cute puppy pictures and mind-numbing updates no one could possibly care about. Rather than foster a sense of global community, social platforms pay token lip service to the notion in their rare ads while exploiting users’ attention so they can mine data from their every click and then promise advertisers they can use that data to more effectively plaster ads all over timelines. Building bridges is out. Relentlessly monetizing attention through cognitive bias is in, and we’re all worse off for it.

So, with Facebook hemming and hawing before taking down pages on which neo-Nazis and white supremacists openly plan armed confrontations with Black Lives Matter protesters all while pining for a fascist ethno-state — very much against the rules the platform listed on its own terms of service — and calls its inability to react in a timely manner “a tactical error” in company-wide meetings, a lot of people are wondering whether the law should step in and take control if those platforms refuse to do what’s right. Unfortunately, giving governments control of social networks could result in even worse outcomes than just letting them ignore the radioactive dumpster fires raging across their sites and apps.

who enforces the law matters as much as the law itself

Here’s the main problem with social media regulation. Most of the people calling for it assume that said regulation would be done by a liberal democracy which prizes freedom of speech and will crack down hard on groups with an affinity for racism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and harmful conspiracies like Plandemic and QAnon. Unfortunately, that’s not always going to be the case, and in fact, when the U.S. government tried to dip its toes into the debate, it was furious GOP demagogues demanding to know why social media platforms allowed criticism of them and why it wasn’t shoving their favorite conspiracy theories down users’ throats, threatening to audit their recommendation algorithms.

Even worse, President Trump tried to sign an executive order that would force the FCC to step in and review moderation decisions by these platforms, which, to be fair, would likely not have passed legal muster. In short, given the power to muzzle Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and any other platform used for communication and news dissemination, and turn them into obedient mouthpieces, a lot of less than noble minded governments will eagerly use it. The result will be an even more balkanized, angry internet in which users are assaulted with a relentless barrage of state propaganda just like in the bad old days the inventors of the web as we know it today sought to avoid.

And as a final insult to injury, social platforms under government control could be used to both snoop on citizens and make them much more vulnerable to hackers. Now, you could be living in a country where those in power wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that and only worried about shutting down the vast reach of fascists, aspiring terrorists, scammers, and conspiracy theorists, and thinking that you’ll be fine. This may be a nice thought, but those high-minded, moral leaders won’t be in charge forever, and the laws that allow them to clean up the web in your nation could be abused by their successors to silence critics or alter news coverage across tens of millions of timelines.

so, how do we clean up social media?

One of the biggest things we need to realize before treating the problem in question is that the technology is not to blame all by itself. We’re responsible for abusing it into its current state. Sure, the social web can help angry incels or would-be violent radicals to easily find enablers and resources to speed up radicalization much faster than hunting through thousands of hard to find and even harder to navigate message boards, but all those people existing and trying to organize to make the world a worse place have to exist. Similarly, social media helps you down the rabbit hole of cognitive bias in airtight echo chambers, but a lot of people lack the desire or willpower to break through them.

In short, this is a human and societal problem writ large, and the blunt, easily abused tools of regulation aren’t going to solve it. What would help is by addressing its human roots with very persistent and deliberate media literacy programs, like ones currently deployed in Finland with great success. People may hate to admit that they’re mistaken or change their minds, but what they hate even more is being taken advantage of by shysters. Telling them that they’re wrong and obstinate will backfire, but explaining to them how they’re being lied to, used, and abused by bad faith actors, grifters, and liars for money and political power may very well get enough heads to turn and pay attention.

Of course, none of this means that laws have no role to play here. In fact, a law restricting data mining and sale of social profiling data to advertisers could very well change the incentives for how social media will operate. No longer able to just boast engagement and interaction stats, be they reflective of joy or hate-clicks, friendly jokes with fellow users or bitter debates over a racist tirade, they’ll now need to find a new way to make money. This may not change much overnight — other than protecting people’s basic digital privacy, which is also very important — but it could give social media and its shareholders pause to consider whether selling immersive cognitive bias is still the business strategy they want to, and can afford, to pursue.

# tech // law / regulation / social media


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