Technology’s Golden Days of unlimited optimism, promising to fix everything that’s broken, and to connect the world so integrally that our differences erode away, are over. If you pay any attention to mainstream media, all you hear now if that social media is making us less social by turning us into addicts of our screens, more polarized through fake content and fake news, and more racist by letting us hide behind avatars of ourselves that are never how we could be in a physical-only world.
While many of these accusations are half-truths, and others don’t hold up to scrutiny, there is an undeniable feeling that every new milestone that technology hits is looked upon with suspicion more than the unbridled hope a decade ago. A decade of the headlines about data breaches, about foreign governments influencing elections, and about the incredible wealth generated by a few individuals will do that to you.
And while not everything is bad, social media has grown so big that the problems that it creates can no longer be treated as bugs in a platform but as structural issues in the very fabric of society.
So what are the biggest issues facing social media? Are there recourses to fix them? Is everything hopeless and should you sell your car to go live in a bunker with your Uncle Larry?
This is probably the biggest issue since it encompasses problems like Fake News and Fake Profiles, two of the biggest scourges in the social age. As we all know, Fake News derailed the American 2016 Presidential Election and has since established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Not only a weapon of foreign governments, the First Amendment has been weaponized to let anyone defend anything that they say, whether it’s true or not.
And when you think that science can confront these lies, you are wrong. People can just choose to think that any scientific report is in itself “fake news” and thus go on blissfully believing that the world is round or that vaccines cause autism or that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US.
Fake profiles are not automated profiles. Things like business profiles, Twitterbots, and curation profiles all provided real values to the people that followed them. Fake profiles are a relatively new occurence in the evolutionary track of social media where people pretend to be celebrities. The New York Times ran a startling piece about a country music star who had fans coming up to him claiming that they left their husbands to be with him. When he denied ever having contact with them, they showed him the messages from a fake account with the exact same name. Scammers be scamming, and scammers who can take advantage of the naivity of people who are new to social platforms pose a threat to believing anything that we see or anyone that we interact with.
Both of these problems are symptoms of the business models that drive social networks. Any obstacle that is put between a person and letting them create an account would slow down the meteoric growth that these companies rely on for their astronomical valuations. Any obstacle put between a person and a piece of content that they want to post would pose the existential question of what moral authority a platform has to decide what should be allowed to be posted or not.
Fake profiles are easier to deal with. Either you are a celebrity or you are not that person. There is no middle ground. Each major platform can take rapid action against a profile and delete it forever. But the content line is much, much harder to establish.
For certain content like terrorist videos and child pornography, there is no real argument. But considering that these major platforms are American, there is that pesky First Amendment to take into account. If it’s my opinion that allowing abortion degrades our morality to the point that we are all going to hell, I should be able to say that. A social network should not be able to decide that that statement is false or even harmful. It is not a company’s job to tell us if that statement is true, let alone if there is something called morality or if hell exists. If millenia of philosophy and science can’t give us a definitive answer, why should we place our trust in Zuck?
It should be easier to control content that is false, but even that can be ontologically countered and rendered null. For example you could say that the statement “Smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer” is objectively true. But technically it is a statistical causation. You could smoke your entire life and not get lung cancer. In that case smoking cigarettes did not cause lung cancer. That statement, in that case, is then false.
If there is such a thing as truth, it would be much less of a bitch.
So how do we control fake news and misinformation? I think that the easiest answer it to use the libel and slander laws that are already on the books. When you falsely accuse someone of a crime – like saying that Hillary Clinton embezzled money from the DNC – you should be liable for the damages that that phrase causes to the character of the person you are falsely accusing. Instead of trying to make platforms create a layer of control before content is allowed to be posted, make penalties for posting libelous or slanderous content as stiff as they are for other media.
The problem with that leads us to the next major thing that is wrong with social media:
In the real world, consequences for actions are immediate. If you shout something horrible at someone, they can see who you are, so most people think twice about how they act around other people.
The Internet, of course, has erased the nature of accountability of one’s actions. Hiding behind an avatar enables people to lash out and assume the true nature of their characters, without any possibility of consequences. Take one look at a YouTube video’s comments section and you get the impression that people are horrible beings bent solely on venting their anger at others in the most poisonous ways possible.
Anonymity gives people the freedom to say whatever they want regardless of its veracity. Anonymity is the oxygen that feuls the fire of fake news. Without anonymity, perpetrators of public manipulation could be easily prosecuted under existing harassment and libel laws.
It’s too time-consuming and difficult to go after people who put up fake websites, or the trolls who make other people’s lives miserable. At least the major social networks have options to block or flag people who abuse the system, but this is a feature that deals with a sympton without addressing the root cause: should there be a stronger connection between a person’s real identity and the accounts that they can create online?
If you’re scratching your head while reading this, you are not alone. There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and in many cases people do not abuse the law or norms of society so why should they have to enter more information in order to make their actions traceable? And should we trust these tech companies with our personal information in the first place?
What’s certain is that anonymity online has created loopholes in our legal systems that are causing real harm, be it cyber-bullying, public manipulation, or election meddling. How we address these issues will determine much of the fate of the future of social media.
Conflict of Business vs. Civic duty
As I’ve argued, tech companies are not able to act as moral arbitors. They are businesses, and that means there is an inherent conflict of interest. Nothing can be done to address these fundamental problems without unwinding the profit driving these businesses, and businesses are focused on profits, not the wellbeing of society.
But Facebook now could be considered a public utility, and it’s position as the world’s social network puts it in uncharted territory. It’s getting much too big for anyone – even Zuck himself – to control. Its acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp put it in a monopolistic position that should be questioned by the world’s lawmakers. There is a strong case to be made about breaking up the major tech companies in order to rekindle the conditions for innovation that they were founded in.
But breaking up the big tech companies would not resolve the issues of uncontrolled content and anonymity. It would take a heroic effort on the part of Google and Facebook to purge fake accounts (as Twitter is doing now) and put in place automated ways for law enforcement to ascertain the real identities of the people on the platforms. Any system put in place could be abused, but it would be a step in the right direction.
If people understand that there are real consequences for their virtual actions, it might start to make the web a better place.