What is wrong with social media today? So in The Federalist Stories Number 2 we scratched the surface of what is wrong with news media organizations, aka legacy media. Remember those abounding books, podcasts, exposes, and more on that topic? Well buckle up because there are just as many related to social media and social media has only been around a fraction of the time! Again, this article will obviously only scratch the surface of the question, but scratch we must (again) because as we discussed in The Federalist Stories Number 3, there is a real hunger for nonpartisan, comprehensive, and trustworthy sources of political information. The answers to “why hasn’t social media been able to fill in that gap?” are basically the same answers to the question posed at the beginning of this article.
The key answer to which most of the other answers are connected is trust, or lack thereof, just like with legacy media. Social media companies have lost the trust of the American people when it comes to people getting addicted to social media, their personal information being used inappropriately, the spreading of hate, and singling out people for censorship. And you may be thinking “wait, America is the land of capitalism. If these social media companies are that bad, others will just replace them, like they’ve come to replace legacy media organizations.” While there are some examples of alternative social media platforms popping up as we speak, creating a high-quality social media platform from scratch takes a lot of resources. Even for people who have those resources, almost none of them want to take on the existing social media companies because of one characteristic all of them have perfected by now: addiction.
Even if someone released an amazing new social media platform today, it would never be worth anything if people never use it. Why are people going to use that new platform when everyone is so addicted to the existing social media platforms? Addiction, or “maximizing user engagement” for the corporate executives out there, to these social media platforms is seen as a “bug” or a “feature” depending on who you ask. Some people say companies refining their products to make them better or refining their marketing to be more efficient at selling the products are standard business practices going back centuries. Other people say social media companies have taken these business practices to whole new levels with armies of developers and engineers using every technical and psychological trick in the book to trick people into using their platforms as much as possible.
The reason why is very clear to anyone who has heard the phrase “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” When people are using social media platforms they can be served ads and when they’re not online they can’t. Note, we’re not pretending to be the judges of the “bug” or “feature” debate, we’re just pointing out that addiction to social media happens nonetheless. It happens to not just a handful of people, but estimates put the number as high as 10% of Americans (for now). Yes, having a product that is fun and engaging is harmless but it’s not harmless when people become addicted and other areas of their lives suffer as a consequence. People are naturally skeptical, or at the very least know they should be, of things that have a high tendency to cause addiction. This skepticism with regards to social media leads to a lack of trust for some people who either reduce usage, stop altogether, or never start.
So remember the phrase that was mentioned a bit ago? It also points to another thing wrong with social media today that is closely related to lack of trust: privacy concerns. Americans have been familiar with marketing and sales for a long time and understand that companies can’t exist without these business processes. The problem in recent years is that unlike before where there were understood limits on how invasive, shall we say, companies could be, now those limits seem to be eroded or obliterated. Analysts say this shift has happened in large part due to companies utilizing the gold mines that are social media platforms (and web search histories) to learn more about their potential customers than ever before.
There is the argument that “no one is forcing people to use these social media platforms so they can’t get mad when their personal data is collected.” At the same time there is the argument that “those people definitely can get mad when they are told by social media companies via complex collections of ever-changing privacy policies that personal data won’t be used in various manners, but it happens anyway.” Astute observers are only half-worried about social media companies regarding privacy. They are more worried that said companies will not hesitate to hand over that data when the government calls. Everyone remember the Patriot Act? Some parts of that legislation live on today.
For those on the liberal side of the political spectrum one of the biggest problems with social media is the spreading of hate. The definition of hate in this context varies depending on who you ask but in general it is the incitement of discrimination, hostility, or violence. The primary allures of the Internet to those who have a desire to spread hate are anonymity, permanence, and increased reach. Such a person could go to the local town square and spew hateful speech, but 1) they could be identified, 2) unless recorded, it would disappear into the ether, 3) it would only reach the people who happen to be nearby. The Internet, however, well that’s a different story.
Sure there are some websites that receive higher traffic than social media websites, but remember one of the key features of the latter? They’re interactive, aka social! This makes social media websites a magnet for those who wish to spread hate. A majority percentage of the creators of these social media platforms tilt toward the liberal side of the political spectrum so they have a heightened interest in not seeing their creations used in such ways. Studies show that a large percentage of hate is directed at groups of minorities, and because voting patterns for decades show that a majority of minority groups vote for candidates on the liberal side of the political spectrum, that is another reason why combatting hate is such a high priority.
For those on the conservative side of the political spectrum one of the biggest problems with social media is the censorship of speech. The definition of speech in this context is generally the expression of, or the ability to, express thoughts and feelings by various means. Conservatives point to a number of examples of where conservative speech or conservatives were either stifled (via throttling, shadowbanning, warning labels, and more) or outright blocked (via temporary or permanent bans, abuse of flagging processes, and more). Such examples are commonly put side-by-side with similar content from liberals with commentary about how the liberal content was not stifled or blocked. They say this comes as no surprise given that a majority percentage of the creators of these social media platforms are liberals.
In the United States, the first amendment enshrines freedom of speech as it pertains to the government and its citizens. Since social media platforms are private companies, you might think this is an open/shut case, right? Not so fast, say conservatives. Private companies have terms of service, policies, and more that outline the relationship between them and their customers. Conservatives say another component of the issue of censorship is when people have complied with such things but their speech is still stifled or blocked. Conservatives also cite recent examples such as Masterpiece Cakeshop as putting America on a dangerous road where the government decides winners and losers with regards to private companies and the first amendment.
To balance out all of what was just said about social media companies, we want to go on record as specifically saying we do not think all social media companies or the people who work for them are bad or evil. We believe they are trying to do the best job they can in a young industry that has been changing since day one due to advancements in technology. It should also be noted that society’s problems, and America’s problems, run much deeper than the issues with the social media. For social media there is also the interesting dynamic that the majority of the content on their platforms is not generated from the social media companies themselves. It is generated by individuals or groups external to the social media companies. Again, there is no escaping the fact that issues with social media companies, such as the ones from above, have led the American people to not trust them. As fun or interactive as they are, Americans’ trust with regards to social media is generally lower than legacy media. Lack of trust regarding political information coming from social media platforms is just one dimension in the lack of overall trust, but in the context of American politics, it is why we see it as a dynamic at the core of why the landscape of American politics is the way that it is today. This landscape needs an organization like Political Rankings to be a nonpartisan, comprehensive, and trustworthy source of political information.
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