This blog was written by Aaron Kohrs (Center) of the Braver Angels Washington D.C. Alliance. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. It was edited by James Coan (Center), Co-Chair of the Braver Angels DC Alliance. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Social media, and specifically the divisive content it often spreads in our tech-centered society, is regularly cited as a major contributor to political and partisan polarization. Public platforms like Facebook and Twitter are, at their core, private businesses that must turn a profit to survive in the ever-changing social network marketplace. To create substantial traffic on their sites, these platforms must give users an incentive to visit, stay, and “scroll”. Divisive, rage-inducing political content is a key driver of time spent on social media.
However, as agreed in a panel discussion for the Braver Angels DC Alliance Solutions Exchange with D.C. Braver Angels Alliance Co-Chair and event moderator James Coan, Luke Hogg of the Foundation for American Innovation and Jamie Neikrie from Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media, there are solutions to the seemingly enormous problem of social media-amplified political division. Although the panelists came from somewhat different ideological perspectives, they actually fully agreed on the problem, and they largely agreed on solutions, with relatively minor differences about the ideal scope of specific policies. These solutions would change the internal, web-based mechanisms that promote partisan division in our country.
Social media is not necessarily bad in all respects. For instance, according to Hogg, it is also a crucial means by which people can engage in the civil and civic discourse that keeps the institution of democracy alive and functional.
Both panelists agreed that the main problem is the business model that ultimately encourages the spread of division-creating, sometimes factually-false content that provides social media giants with billions in advertising dollar “clicks”. Social media networks today make money by collecting personal data on a user’s social interests and then showing the user personalized content and advertisements. In this way, “attention is commodified,” according to Hogg. Effective content often causes users to feel emotions such as “happy” (e.g., cat content) or “anger” (e.g., purposefully divisive content). Neikrie noted that it is hard to imagine companies dependent on this revenue to decide to voluntarily “do the right thing” as it relates to de-emphasizing, at the very least, politically divisive content—if it meant substantial profit losses.
Both supported legislation on privacy, which would reduce the types and/or quantity of data social media companies can collect on users. Social media companies would then have less ability to directly target specific users, and these users would likely spend less time on the sites encountering divisive content.
The differences between the panelists concerned the exact scope of the privacy legislation. Hogg, unlike Neikrie, did not think the solution to social media-caused political ills is solved by broad legislation that covers multiple sectors—as advocated by Neikrie. Hogg sought a sector-by-sector approach as it relates to reducing politically divisive content. This can also be combined with requirements for user controls. For example, Apple users must approve their data to generate personalized and targeted advertisements, and such an approach could be the default across hardware systems.
Both supported changing more of the design of the platforms rather than trying to tweak the algorithms much. Possible design changes include ending infinite scrolling, at least adding an option for a chronological feed rather than one determined by an algorithm, or asking users if they really want to post content that seems inflammatory. The panelists did not take clear stands on which design changes they would prefer; however, they seemed to be open to options that gave users ability to choose among options, and both panelists discussed whether options should be “opt-in” or “opt-out.”
Both panelists believed that it would be helpful to conduct additional research to better understand the effects of social media and the potential pros and cons of various solutions. They would like to better understand the likely impacts of different design changes, for instance.
However, they once again had some differences on the scope of policies to achieve this. Neikrie’s Council for Responsible Social Media endorses the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA), proposed congressional legislation that would allow researchers more access to data to facilitate understanding of effects of and solutions to social media. Hogg was skeptical of PATA’s breadth but still supported the ability for researchers to have data to conduct research.
Both realized that political polarization is not the only concern regarding social media, even though it was the focus of the panel. For instance, Neikrie cited the “loneliness epidemic” and the adverse effects of social media on the self-image of young girls as other issues that often required their own separate responses.
The panelists had some broad agreement about how we, as a society, can help to make healthier social media systems. Both Hogg and Neikrie found common ground on the main problem of social media and reforms like the ability for more user control over a person’s social media news feed as well as modifications to social media platform design.
Finally, let’s end by going back to the opening of the panel discussion. Moderator James Coan opened by asking if social media was most like tobacco, alcohol, exercise, or broccoli.
Neikrie said we as a society need a “Big Tobacco Moment” when companies are held accountable for their actions. Hogg noted some positives of social media, most directly connecting it to exercise, which has benefits but can be destructive when one partakes too much or without the right techniques. Or, like Coan suggested, is social media most like alcohol – possibly without benefits even at low usage even though most will still use it, with the potential to binge, and with different rules needed for children and adults?
Nobody on the panel compared social media with broccoli, a generally healthy food that many people can consume without much worry of overdoing it. In the early days of social media, when the promise of connections around the world seemed real, likely some people would have associated social media with broccoli. Now social media has lost its luster. But with the right kinds of policy reforms, can some of social media’s luster come back?