Can social media be fixed?


The Times-Gazette printed an editorial from the Akron Beacon Journal not too long ago titled: “School kids who want to learn deserve better,” in which superintendent Christine Fowler Mack “sent a message to parents early last month that vandalism and conflicts between students have grown because of ‘inappropriate and disrespectful’ goading on social media.”

The superintendent’s message wasn’t an oblique attempt by the school leader to ask for help from parents, it was a direct admonishment that if parents don’t get more involved with their kids use or misuse of social media, things could go from bad to worse.

But it’s a mistake to make this problem with social media a problem that lands directly on the shoulders of parents and impressionable young students. Last month, the Wall Street Journal (WJS) devoted four full pages to the question of how to fix social media with a range of opinions from 12 different experts including two U.S. Senators, three leading university professors, and a Facebook executive. Francis Haugen, a former executive at Facebook, recently blew the whistle on the company for putting sensational content into its site to engage users for the purpose of enhancing profits.

I’m old enough to remember that as I began to watch a TV program, my parents and I were informed if the program met the standards to warrant the Seal of Good Practice, established by the National Association of Broadcasters, and also known as the “Television Code.” It had evolved from a code of ethics adopted for radio in the 1930s.

According to notes about the seal in Wikipedia: “The code prohibited the use of profanity, the negative portrayal of family life, irreverence for God and religion, illicit sex, drunkenness and biochemical addiction, presentation of cruelty, detailed techniques of crime, the use of horror for its own sake, and the negative portrayal of law enforcement officials, among others. The code regulated how performers should dress and move to be within the “bounds of decency.” Further, news reporting was to be “factual, fair and without bias” and commentary and analysis should be “clearly defined as such.”

It should be noted that these ethical guidelines were adopted to forestall congressional action, and to be clear, this was self-regulation by the broadcast industry, which eventually met its demise in court cases that determined its regulatory guidelines to violate First Amendment rights.

Times have changed and digital media adds new challenges that required new solutions, but as a general proposition I think social media should be treated like the broadcast industry of yesteryear, where the use of a public utility, the Internet, like the broadcast airways, should be regulated for norms of propriety.

Nick Clegg, vice president for global affairs at Facebook (aka “Meta”), one of the contributors for the article in the WSJ concluded, “If one good thing comes out of this, I hope it is that lawmakers take this opportunity to act. Congress should act by creating a new digital regulator. It could write a comprehensive federal privacy law. It could reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and require large companies like Meta to show that they comply with best practices for countering illegal content.”

The word “decency” is compelling and I for one would like to see it interpreted broadly. It’s been said that America is having trouble living up to its ideals and that statement is manifest in what’s broadcast on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp, Reddit and Instagram. It’s a fact beyond dispute that teen suicides are up along with anxiety and depression because of the bullying, outcasting, hatred and disinformation that oftentimes spews from these digital spigots.

There’s also the additional profit before ethics algorithms associated with these platforms. Francis Haugen recently brought these issues to congressional hearings, accusing the company of putting sensational content online to capture users and enhance profits. In a Scott Pelley interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Haugen was explicit, accusing the company of prioritizing sensational content it knew would effect engagements over public welfare and “paying for its profits with our safety.”

Author and computer scientist Jason Lanier put the issue more colorfully in the same WJS set of articles: “The current incentives are to engage people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain’ and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst in us.”

Chris Hughes, another contributor to the WSJ exposé and a co-founder of Facebook, argued in sympathy with my feelings when he said, “We structure many of our most essential industries — banking and finance, air transportation, and increasingly health care — to ensure that they meet both public and private ends. We must do the same with social media… we cannot expect Facebook or any other private corporate actor to just do the right thing.” Especially, I might add, when their North Star points brightly to investors and shareholders.

And then there’s the whole problem of the effects of misinformation and disinformation that flourish on these popular digital platforms.

It’s time for grown-up, parental intervention to deal with this emergent “Wild West” of digital-media. If the bipartisan reaction for action to Francis Haugen’s testimony in the congressional hearings last month is any indication, we may have a glimmer of hope for something finally to be done.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist

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