from the and-there's-more-to-come dept
Some of today’s anxiety about social-media platforms is driven by the concern that Russian operatives somehow used Facebook and Twitter to affect our electoral process. Some of it’s due a general perception that big American social-media companies, amorally or immorally driven by the profit motive, are eroding our privacy and selling our data to other companies or turning it over to the government—or both. Some of it’s due to the perception that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms are bad for us—that maybe even Google’s or Microsoft’s search engines are bad for us—and that they make us worse people or debase public discourse. Taken together, it’s more than enough fodder for politicians or would-be pundits to stir up generalized anxiety about big tech.
But regardless of where this moral panic came from, the current wave of anxiety about internet intermediaries and social-media platforms has its own momentum now. So we can expect many more calls for regulation of these internet tools and platforms in the coming months and years. Which is why it’s a good idea to itemize the criticisms we’ve already seen, or are likely to see, in current and future public-policy debates about regulating the internet. We need to chart the kinds of arguments for new internet regulation that are going to confront us, so I’ve been compiling a list of them. It’s a work in progress, but here are three major claims that are driving recent expressions of concern about social media and internet companies generally.
(1) Social media are bad for you because they use algorithms to target you, based on the data they collect about you.
It’s well-understood now that Facebook and other platforms gather data about what interests you in order to shape what kinds of advertising you see and what kind of news stories you see in your news feed (if you’re using a service that provides one). Some part of the anxiety here is driven by the idea (more or less correct) that an internet company is gathering data about your likes, dislikes, interests, and usage patterns, which means it knows more about you in some ways than perhaps your friends (on social media and in what we now quaintly call “real life”) know about you. Possibly more worrying than that, the companies are using algorithms—computerized procedures aimed at analyzing and interpreting data—to decide what ads and topics to show you.
It’s worth noting, however, that commercial interests have been gathering data about you since long before the advent of the internet. In the 1980s and before in the United States, if you joined one book club or ordered one winter coat on Land’s End, you almost certainly ended up on mailing lists and received other offers and many, many mail-order catalogs. Your transactional information was marketed, packaged, and sold to other vendors (as was your payment and credit history). If false information was shared about you, you perhaps had some options ranging from writing remove-me-from-your-list letters to legal remedies under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. But the process was typically cumbersome, slow, and less-than-completely satisfactory (and still is when it comes to credit-bureau records). One advantage with some internet platforms is that (a) they give you options to quit seeing ads you don’t like (and often to say just why you don’t like them), and (b) the internet companies, anxious about regulation, don’t exactly want to piss you off. (In that sense, they may be more responsive than TiVo could be.)
Of course it’s fair—and, I think, prudent—to note that the combination of algorithms and “big data” may have real consequences for democracy and for freedom of speech. Yale’s Jack Balkin has recently written an excellent law-review article that targets these issues. At the same time, it seems possible for internet platforms to anonymize data they collect in ways that pre-internet commercial enterprises never could.
(2) Social Media are bad for you because they allow you to create a filter bubble where you see only (or mostly) opinions you agree with. (2)(a) Social media are bad for you because they foment heated arguments between you and those you disagree with.
To some extent, these two arguments run against each other—if you only hang out online with people who think like you, it seems unlikely that you’ll have quite so many fierce arguments, right? (But maybe the arguments between people who share most opinions and backgrounds are fiercer?) In any case, it seems clear that both “filter bubbles” and “flames” can occur. But when they do, statistical research suggests, it’s primarily because of user choice, not algorithms. In fact, as a study in Public Opinion Quarterly reported last year, the algorithmically driven social-media platforms may be both increasing polarization and increasing users’ exposures to opposing views. The authors summarize their conclusions this way:
“We find that social networks and search engines are associated with an increase in the mean ideological distance between individuals. However, somewhat counterintuitively, these same channels also are associated with an increase in an individual’s exposure to material from his or her less preferred side of the political spectrum.”
In contrast, the case that “filter bubbles” are a particular, polarizing problem relies to a large degree not on statistics but on anecdotal evidence. That is, the people who don’t like arguing or who can’t bear too different a set of political opinions tend to curate their social-media feeds accordingly, while people who don’t mind arguments (or even love them) have no difficulty encountering heterodox viewpoints on Facebook or Twitter. (At various times I’ve fallen into one or the other category on the internet, even before the invention of social media or the rise of Google’s search engine.)
The argument about “filter bubbles”—people self-segregating and self-isolating into like-minded online groups—is an argument that predates modern social media and the dominance of modern search engines. Law professor Cass Sunstein advanced it in his 2001 book, Republic.com and hosted a website forum to promote that book. I remember this well because I showed up in the forum to express my disagreement with his conclusions—hoping that my showing up as a dissenter would itself raise questions about Sunstein’s version of the “filter bubble” hypothesis. I didn’t imagine I’d change Sunstein’s mind, though, so I was unsurprised to see the professor has revised and refined his hypothesis, first in Republic.com 2.0 in 2007 and now in #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, published just this year.
(3) Social media are bad for you because they are profit-centered, mostly (including the social media that don’t generate profits).
“If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.” That’s a maxim with real memetic resonance, I have to admit. This argument is related to argument number 1 above, except that instead of focusing on one’s privacy concerns, it’s aimed at the even-more-disturbing idea that we’re being commodified and sold by the companies who give us free services. This necessarily includes Google and Facebook, which provide users with free access but which gather data that is used primarily to target ads. Both of those companies are profitable. Twitter, which also serves ads to its users, isn’t yet profitable, but of course aspires to be.
As a former employee of the Wikimedia Foundation—which is dedicated to providing Wikipedia and other informational resources to everyone in the world, for free—I don’t quite know what to make of this. Certainly the accounts of the early days of Google or of Facebook suggest that advertising as a mission typically arose after the founders realized that their new internet services needed to make money. But once any new company starts making money by the yacht-load, it’s easy to dismiss the whole enterprise as essentially mercenary.
(In Europe, much more ambivalent to commercial enterprises than the United States, it’s far more common to encounter this dismissiveness. This helps explain some the Europe’s greater willingness to regulate the online world. The fact that so many successful internet companies are American also helps explain that impulse.)
But Wikipedia has steadfastly resisted even the temptation to sell ads—even though it could have become an internet commercial success just as IMDB.com has—because the Wikipedia volunteers and the Wikimedia Foundation see value in providing something useful and fun to everyone regardless of whether one gets rich doing so. So do the creators of free and open-source software. If creating free products and services doesn’t always mean you’re out to sell other people into data slavery, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that social-media companies may really mean it when they declare their intentions to do well by doing good? (“Do Well By Doing Good” is a maxim commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin—who of course sold advertising, and even wrote advertising copy, for his Pennsylvania Gazette.) I think it’s a good idea to follow Mike Masnick’s advice to stop repeating this “you’re the product” slogan—unless you’re ready to condemn all traditional journals that subsidize giving their content to you through advertising.
So that’s the current top three chart-toppers for the Social Media-Are-Bad-For-You Greatest Hits. But this is a crowded field—only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trendy criticisms of social-media platforms, search engines, and unregulated mischievous speech on the internet–and we expect to see many other competing criticisms of Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. surface in the weeks and months to come. I’m already working on Part 2.
Mike Godwin (@sfmnemonic) is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute.