Is Social Media the New Smoking?

Mar 15, 2018


BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Facebook—all social media, really—has had a really bad few weeks. Public and political sentiment is peaking against its outsized power in driving news agendas, if not elections, for instance. And a woefully inadequate regimen for policing bad actors and misinformation continues to leak despite early attempts by platforms to clean up their acts. But there are also some dire metrics around actual usage patterns and overall trustworthiness with which to contend.

For instance, it turns out that fake news is good news for social media platforms whose businesses rely on scale and activity. MIT Media Lab researchers published findings from an enormous study of over 126,000 rumors on Twitter distributed across over 3 million people between 2007 and 2017. The researchers concluded “False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth.”

Of course, all of us are more titillated by creative falsehood than cold, often boring, fact, and so the results are not shocking. And the research says as much about our own crappy impulses as humans than it does about the social platforms. But it does underscore how an economy of shares and likes accelerates and legitimizes the worst rather than the best of our own humanity.

Likewise, the content analytics company NewsWhip published its rundown of the top ten most engaging news reporters on Facebook to find that almost all represented partisan sources like Truth Examiner, Daily Wire, Breitbart, et. al. To be sure, there was a smattering of scribes from funny animal sources (which somehow now seem like the least bothersome part of social media), lifestyle brands (Today) and satire (The Onion).

Scholar, social media critic and New York Times contributor Zynep Tufekei recently argued that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms seem to aim users towards evermore radicalized versions of the content they have already viewed. She likens this to restaurants and food manufacturers who cater to our natural love of salt, fat, and sugar with food containing heightened levels of each.

And, of course, there has been no shortage of critics discussing social media in terms of “addiction.” Former and early Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya charges that the social network has been optimized to create “dopamine-driven feedback loops” that in fact drive an irrational attachment to social check-ins.

In the face of all these revelations, rancorous content and plummeting trust, who can blame users for feeling depressed when they scroll. The studies are starting to pour in pretty much on cue. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology no less pronounced “Our results showed that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.” In other words, it makes you sad.

We know what is coming from all of this, so I might as well say it outright. Social media is quickly becoming the same sort of pariah as drunk driving or hydrogenated oils. It may be on its way to being the new smoking – an addiction widely considered to have negative effects and practiced with a little bit of guilt and shame.

I am arguing to excess, of course. But some of the current rhetoric critiquing social media does indulge our troubling tendency of late to pathologize trends we find simply distasteful. Critics of emerging and unfamiliar media – from the telegraph to film, comic books to rock and roll, TV to video games – have tried such failing tactics. Each of these media has been accused of negatively changing behaviors and threatening permanent damage to America’s social-political structure.

In the case of the social media platforms, a better approach is an old-fashioned one. Shame them. Call out the fact that again and again their much-vaunted technologies and algorithms create leakages in the system that allows bad actors to exploit them and us. And call attention to the hypocrisy of advertisers who publically claim to want cleaner, higher quality media that is “brand safe,” while they continue to pour budgets into poorly monitored content so long as their performance metrics stay firm.

That is until they are caught.

Over at Google’s YouTube, major advertisers like Nike, Paramount Network, and even The Mormon Church were shocked – shocked – to discover their ads running against the conspiracy theory Petrie dish that is the InfoWars channel, led by chief bacillus Alex Jones. This was even after advertisers were using new tools put in place last year to prevent such ugly adjacencies for advertisers.

Oops.

These are the kinds of gross errors that never would have been tolerated in TV and print media but somehow get a pass now. Because these platforms still won’t own up to being media companies, they try to pass themselves off as content-neutral tech companies. These persistent problems get elided as glitches, algorithm lapses that just require patches and tweaks.

The platforms are being underwritten by advertisers large and small that have no intention of pulling back their growing investment despite the hazards around adjacencies. We can’t expect to stem the money flow. Regulation seems pretty unlikely given the current paralysis in Washington, let alone little support for government intervention.

All that’s left is public shaming. While I reject the easy associations of social media use with addiction, I think the business models and design practices of these companies should be held accountable, again and again, and again and again, until the chief executives of these concerns lay out clear, accountable plans for cleaning up the mess they helped make.


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