Social Media Must End

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 111

By Aaron Visser 

Cover Image

Every person has his or her social media hot take. The Right complains about arbitrary censorship, the Left concerns itself with the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories, technocrats argue for the end of their monopolies, and advocates such as Tristan Harris focus on the damage to our attention. Yet most don’t go all the way and recognize that social media is wholly toxic to our society and personal lives.

While media moguls of the past controlled individual outlets, the unelected “kings” of the Internet—owners of absurdly powerful social media companies—collectively define the terms of engagement for every outlet and individual. Who are Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsy? I certainly didn’t elect either of them and neither did anyone reading this article. Multiple fruitless congressional hearings and a general lack of state action have shown that only these individuals actually have the power to govern these sites.

And boy, have they governed badly! Last week saw an insurgency at the Capitol incited by our social media President, and driven by social media conspiracy theories. A Vox poll found that 72 percent of Republicans “don’t trust the election results” and 49 percent believe Antifa is “very much to blame” for the attack on the Capitol. Though Facebook, Twitter, and 4chan didn’t create these theories, they are entirely responsible for the spread of these ideas. The main emotion these platforms produce is outrage, mostly directed at our fellow Americans. The exit ramp from our democratic implosion may not exist, but it certainly won’t be found online, where professionals spend all day dunking on the other side.

Yet nowhere has social media been worse than in our personal lives. These corporations have developed products so addictive that people not only frequently find themselves scrolling for hours, but also realize that such scrolling is a necessity central to their social lives. The 40-year-old mom has to be on Facebook, the up-and-coming journalist must be on Twitter, the college senior on Snapchat, the high school girl on TikTok, the middle school boy on YouTube, and the bored online learning student on all of them at once. Everyone I know uses some combination of these apps for hours every day. Yet when I ask whether it provides them satisfaction, I receive a confused look as if they don’t even comprehend why that question is important.

Yes, social media isn’t without any potential benefits. Light entertainment is great in moderation and some people have created relationships through the sites. Though it claims to have been so great for friendships, people spend less time with friends than ever. It should help people hookup, but sex has gone down. Depression, self-harm, and suicide rates have all shot up. For younger kids, especially girls, the connection between self-harm and social media is clear. The damage these apps continue to wear upon our society’s young people is deep, yet companies have paid no price.

Moreover, social media has begun to regulate itself in a way usually characteristic of the government. In a display of power last weekend, Google, Amazon Web Services, and Apple all moved to ban the conservative social media site Parler for its part in inciting violence. Whether or not you feel the act was justified is beside the point: it demonstrated that the U.S. government doesn’t define free speech in the 21st century. Instead, social media apps seem to be the ones placing limits on free speech.

Most people who recognize the problematic nature of social media advocate for some small tweak that will magically solve everything. Right now, a popular idea is to break up the big firms, as if separating Facebook and Instagram will fix the problems with their business models. Some people advocate for more censorship, others advocate for less, pleading in the court of our Internet kings to dictate the speech policy in our online world. Besides telling people to learn to use social media more responsibly or politely asking to change its algorithms, no one has come up with a good solution to the social and personal problems these sites produce. That’s because there is none.

Social media is fundamentally broken. It abuses our democracy and personal lives. People shouldn’t have more “friends” than they can actually know. The only proper solution is the accidentally brilliant one pushed by President Trump, probably the least thoughtful person ever. Congress must repeal Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. This is part of a law passed in 1996, when the Internet was still dial-up, that protects social media companies from legal liability for the content posted on their platforms. If social media is a factory, Section 230 allows them to dump their toxic waste of liability, conspiracy theories, and hate into the river of our society free of consequences. Without that clause, these platforms couldn’t exist in their current form. No more Facebook, Instagram, 4chan, YouTube, or Twitter. Laws would have to be passed to deal with the fallout; no one wants to see Wikipedia or other user-produced sites go. Kumbaya and spiritual healing wouldn’t immediately break out. But the arrowhead must be pulled out before the wound can be treated, and as long as social media exists in its current dangerous form, we can’t deal with so many of the most important issues in society.