Corporate social media is killing us softly.

Category: Internet

The United States Surgeon General issued an advisory earlier this year with recommendations for stakeholders to take that can help ensure children and their families have the information and tools necessary to make social media safer for children. My favorite part of the press release is at the end where medical organizations called out social media platforms and policymakers for not doing enough to ensure youth's safety on digital platforms.

"The first principle of health care is to do no harm – that’s the same standard we need to start holding social media platforms to. We all have a role to play in addressing the youth mental health crisis that we now face as a nation. We have the responsibility to ensure social media keeps young people safe." Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A., CEO and Medical Director, American Psychiatric Association

It emphasized the alarming increase in mental health issues, cyberbullying, and misinformation affecting the well-being of young users as well as highlights the need for more responsible practices to safeguard their mental health by promote a healthier digital environment. This advisory adds to the pressure building in the communications sector as a whole. Now is the time to question the status quo and cultivate conversations about the social dilemma. Intentional investments in safe digital spaces could positively impact particularly vulnerable and impressionable young people around the world.

As a youngish millennial who came of age in the early 2000s during the rise of the platforms Dr. Levin is calling out, I'm excited that this conversation is making its way into the mainstream as alternative internet protocols like Activitypub and Nostr are luring curious web surfers away from corporate giants like Meta and Twitter. I remember handling my mom's Palm Treo for the first time and marveling at its integration of instant messaging and web browsing as well as physical keyboards and styli. It's wild to think that was a couple decades ago now.

Fast forward to 2023 and we've somehow allowed a handful of companies to control how we share information and communicate with each other over the Internet on all fronts. As Christian Fuchs, a professor of media and communication studies, puts it,

"Twenty-one of the world’s largest 100 transnational corporations operate in the communication, media and digital industry. Subsectors of the capitalist communication, media and digital industry include, for example, advertising, broadcast networks, cloud storage, communication/digital networks, digital games, digital hardware, digital services and platforms, leisure and live entertainment culture, online shopping, online streaming, or software. The total profits of the dominant 21 communication/digital/media corporations amounted in financial year 2019 to USS$ 2.5 trillion, which made up 3% of the global 2019 gross domestic product.1

We're letting 21 communications companies exploit our attention for profit and shape public discourse in a world that's getting more complicated every day. Corporate social media giants rely heavily on targeted advertising to generate revenue, which presents an interesting dynamic between our attention spans and their profit. The title of @Mushon Zer-Aviv's "No Exit - Every Feed is a Traffic Jam", puts it eloquently. Current social media platforms are engineered to be addictive, often leading to excessive screen time and negative effects on mental health. The feed, a feature first introduced in email and RSS, is now a daily "traffic jam" we must navigate to get news about our worlds. Users are bombarded by the algorithmic amplification of sensational content and misinformation that keeps them engaged for longer periods. The rise of Internet empires over the last two decades centralized the means of communications by capitalizing on open source messaging protocols and software like email, instant messaging, and other web services. The result of this concentrated power has been well documented by internet philosophers like Jaron Lanier in his book, "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now". We are being force fed sensational content that skews our perception of reality for hours every day. Social media's business structure should reflect responsible design principles rooted in democratic principles and user well-being over engagement metrics.

"I do believe there’s room to present bolder attempts that truly challenge the dominant models of trafficking individual content production through congested social media feeds." - @Mushon Zer-Aviv, "No Exit - Every Feed is a Traffic Jam"

Why do community institutions continue to expose their audiences to harmful content by centering corporate social media channels like Instagram and Twitter in their communications strategy when alternatives exist?

Conditions are ripe for a reckoning in social media as we've come to know it.

At its core, social media as a set of internet protocols and web applications that enable communication and connectivity is not inherently evil. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s revolutionized how we express ourselves, find like-minded communities, and organized the workplace. Ideas and information crossed oceans as email and blogs were adopted into the mainstream. The World Wide Web is poised for an evolution, and public institutions must seize this moment to reassess assumptions about communication and stick their heads under the hood of the Internet to figure out how to solve the social dilemma. We have to cultivate a collective consciousness of our relationship with the Internet and empower public institutions like libraries, schools, and churches to leverage open source protocols to create safe digital spaces to congregate and exchange information. This will require stakeholders, including platform users, experts, civil society organizations, and policymakers to exercise joint powers to implement targeted strategies in communities. Collective impact initiatives are in a unique position to spearhead a lot of this work in partnership with community based organizations.

The open source nature of the World Wide Web itself is a testament to the possibilities we have as new communication protocols break into the mainstream conversation. We must reimagine our digital spaces to center safety, inclusivity, and the common good through the use of ethical, open source protocols. By structurally changing the incentives on the internet and holding organizations accountable to "do no harm", we can foster innovation in the ways we build community over the Internet that prioritizes the public interest over profit maximization and foster safer, digital spaces.

The stage is set for a significant transformation in social media. The recent advisory from the Surgeon General highlights the urgent need for change, particularly regarding the safety of young people. Communications professionals are the shephards in the migration of the masses away from the Internet empires that exploit them. We must empower communities to control their means of communication by leveraging open source communication protocols to evolve social media into a powerful force for understanding, empathy, and social cohesion. This transformation calls for collective action, requiring collaboration between platform providers, policymakers, and users to pave the way for a brighter, safer digital future. Which one of recommendations from the Surgeon General are you going to incorporate into your role?

  • Policymakers can take steps to strengthen safety standards and limit access in ways that make social media safer for children of all ages, better protect children’s privacy, support digital and media literacy, and fund additional research.
  • Technology companies can better and more transparently assess the impact of their products on children, share data with independent researchers to increase our collective understanding of the impacts, make design and development decisions that prioritize safety and health – including protecting children’s privacy and better adhering to age minimums – and improve systems to provide effective and timely responses to complaints.
  • Parents and caregivers can make plans in their households such as establishing tech-free zones that better foster in-person relationships, teach kids about responsible online behavior and model that behavior, and report problematic content and activity.
  • Children and adolescents can adopt healthy practices like limiting time on platforms, blocking unwanted content, being careful about sharing personal information, and reaching out if they or a friend need help or see harassment or abuse on the platforms.
  • Researchers can further prioritize social media and youth mental health research that can support the establishment of standards and evaluation of best practices to support children’s health.