Big Tech, Big Consequences

Social media started this fire- it won’t be the one to put it out

Jack Ververis, Opinions Editor

   There’s often very little difference between a tool and a weapon. Social media crossed that line a long time ago, but this January’s Capitol riots definitively prove that threats on social media have real-life consequences.

   According to ProPublica, the riots were planned weeks in advance, spreading through online communities that called themselves to action. Politicians on both sides have blamed the Trump administration. However, ignoring how the fundamental structure of social media has caused these conspiracies to spread is like ignoring the seed at the center of America’s moral rot. The hidden systems of social media, subtly proliferating and profiting off of our divisiveness, is what has caused this to happen.

   Social media has exploded in the modern era. Pew Research Center reports that active usage has risen from 5% of American adults in 2005 to over 72% in 2019. While the platform was initially used to connect and share, it has transformed from a social networking tool into a weapon of social manipulation. As the Council on Foreign Relations reports, hate speech, xenophobia and fake news have all found a home in social media, and Columbia Journalism Review finds that the sites have directly contributed to growing political polarization.

   Social media’s destructive tendencies must be stopped. But allowing social media companies to regulate themselves would be neither effective nor responsible. Manipulation and misinformation are baked into the fabric of these services, and controversies are key to maintaining their bottom lines.

   As The Guardian reports, social media’s advertising systems are built around maximizing engagement, incentivizing the promotion of clickbait-worthy conspiracies in order to maximize profit. This promotion of cheap speech over free speech creates “bubbles’’ of users who reinforce each other’s existing beliefs and radicalize existing ones. For example, if an algorithm identifies that a user views a QAnon theory, those beliefs will be supplied by the service itself, willingly providing misinformation in the name of advertising revenue.

   This cannot be fixed by corporations trying to act ethically.  As Columbia University explains, social media companies have grown without oversight, meaning they are unfamiliar with regulations and are unlikely to self-regulate as long as their business models remain unchanged. 

   “The only language Facebook understands is public embarrassment,” former content moderators, mostly anonymous, told The New Yorker last year.

   The workers outlined the ways in which the company disregards ethical limitations in content moderation and places huge amounts of pressure, red-tape and even abuse on its workers while falsely pledging to change.

   However necessary outside regulation is, it must ensure the protection of freedom of speech. Recent bannings of Donald Trump’s social media accounts are a necessary stopgap against further violence. However, they also highlighted the fine line free speech can tread between posting and provocations.

   Recent attacks on free speech by the government — including the attempted repeal of Section 230 — have been met with overwhelming public criticism. Rather than targeting specific speech, regulations must target the algorithms that govern social media.

   The main target is the collection of “microdata.” This is specific, always active monitoring that companies use to maximize a user’s screen time by linking their data to the posts most likely to keep them scrolling. As the Congressional Research Service reports, regulating the collection of this data can help prevent the spread of conspiracies online without actually harming users’ free speech.

   “We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead,” author Cathy O’Neil said in “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.” “Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.”

   Social media is not a problem that will fix itself. Polarization, misinformation and controversy are all enhanced by the platforms, whose very cores are built around controversies and whose momentary actions cannot save their wholes. But through smart government regulations on micro-targeted content, we can stop misinformation and put ethics first.

  As the Biden administration takes office, the future of Big Tech is in question. Google has been charged with a monumental antitrust suit, and progressives gaining ground in the Federal Trade Commission might promise more aggressive actions over the next four years. However, guidelines and reports cannot take the place of real, definite regulation. And prevention doesn’t work when the wildfire’s already burning — especially when the kindling is the Capitol itself.