Commentary

Gov’t Fines Won’t Stop Social Media Chaos

By Jeffrey M. McCall | September 18, 2019 | 3:03pm EDT
(Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)

The Federal Trade Commission has continued its financial punishment campaign against big tech with a 170 million dollar fine against YouTube for illegally harvesting private information from kids and then targeting them with ads. Earlier this summer, the FTC slapped Facebook around by imposing a five billion dollar fine because the social media giant deceived users about use of private data. The FTC is also opening an antitrust investigation into social media firms. Another federal tough guy, the Securities and Exchange Commission, has levied a hundred million dollar fine on Facebook for misleading investors.

Big deal. The feds are not only closing the barn door after that horse has long departed, they are closing the door on a barn that collapsed in flames long ago. The fines imposed on Facebook are so wimpy that the firm’s stock went up after the penalties were announced. It is hard to financially hurt Facebook, given its revenue was almost seventeen billion dollars in just the second quarter this year. And nobody figures YouTube, which is owned by Google, will suffer as a result of its latest FTC-imposed financial penalty.

Facebook, YouTube and their other partners in creating social media chaos can’t be punished enough for the harm they have rained down on civilization. The feds have finally gotten around to confronting the privacy and business corruption of Facebook and friends. It is the cultural destruction created by these tech giants, however, that harms society more. And, frankly, it is not the job of the government to reel in the cultural disruption. That will have to be done by digital citizens who get tired of getting worked by social media firms. Those concerned citizens simply need to disengage from social media. Face it, time spent on social media wrecks a person’s privacy, makes a person dumber, and financially boosts exploitive tech giants.

Americans must honestly assess whether social media are a net plus in the nation’s discourse. Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Ajit Pai, raised that question when speaking to The Media Institute in 2017. He said he didn’t have an answer, but then proceeded to explain the ways social media have damaged rational discourse.

The social media craze snookered people into thinking technology enhances lives. Immersing oneself into Facebook ultimately doesn’t make a person happier. Social media outlets injected false hope and high expectations into the culture. Far from empowering regular people, however, platforms such as Facebook quickly became just another part of the establishment, profiting off the peddling of personal data and manipulating the nation’s public sphere.

The nation fell victim to what twentieth century rhetorician Richard Weaver called the “fallacy of technology,” which he described as “the conclusion that because a thing can be done, it must be done.” The big tech firms forced that technological determinism conclusion into the nation’s psyche, convincing users that digital interaction was as healthy as genuine human interaction.

The social media craze has created an obsession with egotism, and a concentration on sensation void of reflection. Think about the rhetorical insanity of the word “selfie.” Social media have created a false digital existence where users yearn to go viral, pile up likes and make a pop culture splash. Think of how often the phrase “YouTube sensation” is used in the news. Weaver wrote about how 1950s media was harming culture, “Self-absorption is a process of cutting one’s self off from the ‘real’ reality and therefore from social harmony.” Today’s social media disrupts harmony a gazillion times more than what Weaver warned about in the mid twentieth century.

Social media allows people to post vacation photos, announce their lunch menu, and share their all-important opinions on any subject. But it is also a place where bullying happens, where nonsense conspiracies get dispensed, where extremists congregate, and where teens get lured into sex trafficking. Social media absorb people’s time, makes them less physically active, and ironically, instead of making them more “social,” leads users to isolation and depression. These cultural saboteurs exploit people as mere targets for business purposes and as pawns for ideological/political manipulation.

Former Facebook vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, told a Stanford Business School audience in 2016 that social media had harmed civil discourse and promoted misinformation, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Americans may be beginning to understand that they have been had by the big social media firms. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last spring reported 57 percent of Americans believe social media does more to divide the nation than unite it.  Large majorities of respondents acknowledge social media wastes too much time, spreads falsehoods, and allows unfair attacks. Americans also don’t trust the social media firms with their private information.

Such a dismal assessment should compel Americans to back out of the prison that is social media. Social media are just not essential for sensible living.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_McCall

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