The Problem Is Not Social Media per Se

I’ve been writing and speaking about the downsides of social media for a while and am working on a book that deals with this subject. Still, even I was taken aback by the cover of this week’s The Economist:

This image is representative of a narrative currently playing out in the media that suggests social networks — especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are to blame for allowing foreign actors to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and — more generally — eroding our ability to hold civic discussions.

That these networks have enabled these things is undeniable. However, I sense too much focus is being placed on these particular companies and not enough on the underlying cause of the problem: the fact we’ve moved considerable parts of our social and civic interactions to environments run for profit by companies whose business models monetize our attention. The problem is not social media: it’s advertising.

Advertising exists to influence people’s opinions. This incontrovertible statement makes no claims about the directions they’re being influenced towards; the same mechanisms used to push Old Spice can also be used to push conspiracy theories and misinformation. The model has no moral imperatives and no incentives other than profit. Attention — and public opinion — will go to the highest bidder.

I know people who work at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To a fault, they are decent folks, not malicious actors out to destroy society. Mark Zuckerberg (who I don’t know) appears to have good intentions and seems contrite about his company’s role in what’s happened. That said, these problems will not go away as long as these companies remain beholden to a business model that values engagement over elucidation. The markets demand they continue generating profits, and as long as their money comes from advertising, they will be pushed in directions that are at odds with the needs of an informed populace.

Social media can serve as incredibly powerful venues for understanding and growth. Facebook allows us to stay in touch with remote family members, rekindle old friendships, and discover new ones. Twitter serves as a virtual water cooler, an intimate conduit to the powerful and famous, and venue for public kvetching. YouTube videos entertain, enrich, and open up new possibilities. These environments can be great enablers for good. However, their potential will remain hobbled as long as they’re reliant on selling our attention.