Social media has no incentive to fix what ails it

A closeup shot of a smartphone showing the apps for Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat
A closeup shot of a smartphone showing the apps for Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat
Image: REUTERS/Thomas White
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Despite its warts, social media has become a part of daily life for billions of people worldwide.

In the US, citizens of all stripes agree that platforms meant to bring us together are actually tearing us apart. According to a recent NBC poll, 66% of Americans use social media once daily, and every demographic group except Black users agree that social media is more divisive than unifying.

Social media companies have been slow to address the most pressing concerns facing their daily active users: False information, targeted harassment, and the unique dangers social media poses to children. Unfortunately for users, especially women of color and members of the LGBTQ community, the world’s biggest platforms appear unwilling to make substantive changes to how their respective online communities are policed.

But while the majority of Americans appear have serious problems with social media, it doesn’t appear they’re willing to do much about it. Only a tiny fraction are prepared to quit, according to survey by Reboot Online, a digital marketing research firm, and internet users in other nations are even less willing to abandon social media.

Not only are most Americans unwilling to leave social media, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and Rumble—a nascent video sharing platform that some believe steers its users away from the truth—have reported user growth over the past year, and most of them have reason to believe the growth will continue.

As long as users keep coming and Washington’s responses continue to languish, social media will have no reason to change the experience for its most vulnerable users.

Capitol Hill misses the point

Washington, for its part, has seemed to settle on Section 230 of the federal Communications Act—which guarantees that websites can’t be sued in American courts because of the false, filthy, or downright illegal things their users post—as an answer to the internet’s ills. US president Joe Biden, whose administration promised to review the law, called for its repeal as a candidate last year,  and Democrats and Republicans have filed dueling bills to reform it. Weeks before the end of his term, former president Donald Trump held up a defense spending bill out of ire for the law that allowed Twitter to place warnings on his tweets.

For all its prominence, however, Section 230 requires a bi-partisan act of congress to change, and the most successful efforts thus far have centered on sex crimes. The biggest blow to the law has ben the 2018 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which left companies liable for hosting content related to sex trafficking.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared in lockstep with Biden and Trump over his desire to see the law tweaked, he’s found little support amongst the other social media heads, and the moderate reforms he’s pushing to keep lawmakers from scrapping it altogether have managed to please neither side of the debate on Capitol Hill.

“Platforms should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection–that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day,” Zuckerberg told Congress in March, “but they should be required to have adequate systems in place to address unlawful content.”

It’s worth asking what adequacy would look like on each platform if Facebook sets the standard. Facebook’s banning of Donald Trump—and the subsequent mutiny by its review board, assembled to take the Trump problem off of Zuckerberg’s hands—and its role as a facilitator of false information during a pandemic, show a system with less-than-adequate safeguards in place.

Even modest attempts at moderation bring with it criticism and attempts to regulate the process, including a proposed Michigan law that would require internet fact checkers to register with the state and be subject to fines of a $1,000 a day for violating registry requirements.

A present danger

Instagram, owned by Facebook, has more than 500 million users on its platform viewing Instagram Stories each day. The app was widely criticized for a plan to introduce a separate user platform exclusively for children. While experts have rightfully pointed out that Instagram may not be the best platform for the developing psyche, research shows that 40% of children under 13 are already using it anyway.

While Snapchat founder and CEO Evan Spiegel has managed to stay largely silent on issues of moderation, Snap just announced it would stop integration of chat services LMK and Yolo over cyberbullying concerns. The decision  follows a lawsuit filed this week by Kristin Bride, the mother of a teenager who died by suicide in June after being bullied on the two apps.

According to research by Thorn, a nonprofit organization that builds technology to defend children from sexual abuse, Snapchat is the platform where most minors (26% and 15%) reported potential harm and stated they had an explicit sexual interaction with another user. While Twitter’s army of pro-China accounts signal-boost messages from Beijing with enthusiastic approval and its decision makers refuse to address the platform-wide harassment of Black women by troll accounts, it recently announced a new function that asks users to think again after drafting especially odious tweets.

While social media companies will continue to say some of the right things when confronted with these issues by a fresh news cycle (each responded to Thorn’s research with resolute, albeit hollow statements) issues will likely persist as their focus lay elsewhere, such as on ecommerce projects to cash in on user spending.

International efforts to curtail the negative impact of social media’s ubiquity have gained steam, spurring firms into action to maintain the status quo. While firms tend to outspend and out-litigate most of the more serious threats to their bottom lines, a few major victories elsewhere have led to substantive changes stateside. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation forced Facebook to offer European-style protections worldwide, albeit on a smaller scale. As social safety continues to run up against the billions in revenue commanded by social media firms, even international lawmakers won’t be able to offer users in the US much help.