Last month, amid recent hearings on social media’s role in harming users, especially young ones, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal stated, “Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment.”
Tobacco? That’s a bold comparison. Perhaps it’s apt, though, considering the way many of us began our experience with Facebook years ago. Remember that? It was cool and fun, and only later did we learn of its downsides, let alone that the company hid research acknowledging its harms.
It’s become almost cliché to describe social media as toxic — a cesspool of misinformation and trolling that threatens not only individuals but democracy itself. And addictive? We had to come up with a new word, doomscrolling, to describe the late-night black hole many fall into while on social media.
Some may argue it’s the consumer’s fault, but in many respects, it’s not a fair fight. According to Tristan Harris, head of the Center for Humane Technology, part of why we find ourselves down so many digital rabbit holes is you have “a supercomputer pointed at your brain.” Historian Yuval Noah Harari believes the tech giants’ AI systems amount to “hacking human beings,” allowing surveillance and manipulation on levels Big Tobacco could only dream of.
No wonder Sen. Blumenthal sounded the alarm on Big Tech after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed internal documents that she believes shows the company “chooses profit over safety” and amplifies extremism and misinformation.
Until there are further systemic and political fixes — which seem to be imminent — what can we do to reduce social media’s influence? Is it time to go cold turkey?
A brave few have done so, quitting outright, or having never joined in the first place. One friend deleted his Facebook account after the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, when that company collected data without consent, allowing highly targeted ads for right-wing political campaigns.
But quitting is hard to do. Two weeks ago, music star Lorde, who publicly announced she was deleting all her social media apps, admitted she was questioning her decision. In a letter to fans, she noted, “I was so sure skipping the negatives (compulsive time-wasting, IV drip of dread, satisfying but hollow validation loop) would outweigh missing out on the positives (feeling like part of a community, hearing your sweet words, hitting you back). But I’ve really, really missed you.”
Canadian tech critic Ronald J. Deibert does a great job describing this conundrum in last year’s Massey Lectures, since published in his book “Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.” Deibert takes pains to detail the damage that social media and digital technologies have wrought in a short amount of time. Yet he acknowledges their “many positive uses,” from environmental monitoring to helping people connect during the COVID crisis.
In the end, Deibert appeals for a more balanced approach with Big Tech, leaning on the concept of restraint. With that in mind — and again until governments and corporations put in firmer guardrails — here are suggestions to slow things down without having to quit social media altogether.
First, reduce contacts. Follow fewer people, “friends” and groups. One idea a journalist mentioned is he keeps his Twitter account to a set number, 100 for example, and if he wants to follow someone new, someone old has to go.
Second, get off their apps. Most of the social-media giants (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be accessed through a web browser. Functionality is reduced, but that’s the point. That “functionality” is often ways to target more ads and more influence.
Next, don’t read the comments. It’s a tough one, but until these platforms moderate or turn off comments, as some media outlets do, this is the quickest way to find yourself in the weeds of social media. You may want to look at the accident at the side of the road, but sometimes it’s best to turn away.
Take breaks. A month, a week, a day, an hour. Some people don’t check social media at night, or in the morning, or at work, or on the weekend. Decide what’s best for you and stick to it.
Finally, double down on slower media. Like this newspaper you’re hopefully holding in your hands. If print isn’t your thing, read the digital editions of publications, many of which can be downloaded free through public libraries. And read books, which both slow us down and expand our perspectives.
There are certainly more good ideas out there. If social media is indeed hacking humans, it’s high time we hack back.