Site of publication: Knowledge@Wharton
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: July 26th, 2019
In little more than a decade, the impact of social media has gone from being an entertaining extra to a fully integrated part of nearly every aspect of daily life for many.
Recently in the realm of commerce, Facebook faced skepticism in its testimony to the Senate Banking Committee on Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency and alternative financial system. In politics, heartthrob Justin Bieber tweeted the President of the United States, imploring him to “let those kids out of cages.” In law enforcement, the Philadelphia police department moved to terminate more than a dozen police officers after their racist comments on social media were revealed.
And in the ultimate meshing of the digital and physical worlds, Elon Musk raised the specter of essentially removing the space between social and media through the invention — at some future time — of a brain implant that connects human tissue to computer chips.
As quickly as social media has insinuated itself into politics, the workplace, home life and elsewhere, it continues to evolve at lightning speed, making it tricky to predict which way it will morph next.
In 2006, Facebook had 7.3 million registered users and reportedly turned down a $750 million buyout offer. In the first quarter of 2019, the company could claim 2.38 billion active users, with a market capitalization hovering around half a trillion dollars.
The challenge going forward is not just having the best features, but staying relevant. “Social media isn’t a utility. It’s not like power or water where all people care about is whether it works. Young people care about what using one platform or another says about them. It’s not cool to use the same site as your parents and grandparents, so they’re always looking for the hot new thing.”
Cambridge Analytica, the impact of social media on the last presidential election and other issues may have eroded public trust, Werbach said, but “social media has become really fundamental to the way that billions of people get information about the world and connect with each other, which raises the stakes enormously.”
Just Say No
“Facebook is dangerous,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) at July’s hearing of the Senate Banking Committee. “Facebook has said, ‘just trust us.’ And every time Americans trust you, they seem to get burned.”
Social media has plenty of detractors, but by and large, do Americans agree with Brown’s sentiment? In 2018, 42% of those surveyed in a Pew Research Center survey said they had taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more, while 26% said they had deleted the Facebook app from their cellphone.
In 2006, Facebook had 7.3 million registered users and reportedly turned down a $750 million buyout offer. In the first quarter of 2019, the company could claim 2.38 billion active users, with a market capitalization hovering around half a trillion dollars
A year later, though, despite the reputational beating social media had taken, the 2019 iteration of the same Pew survey found social media use unchanged from 2018.
Facebook has its critics, says Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim, and they are mainly concerned about two things: mishandling consumer data and poorly managing access to it by third party providers; and the level of disinformation spreading on Facebook.
The other discussion bound to intensify is around the separation of Big Tech into smaller, easier to regulate units. “Most of us academics do not think that dividing organizations into smaller units is sufficient to improve their compliance with regulation. It also does not necessarily mean they will be less competitive,” says Yildirim. “For instance, in the discussion of Facebook, it is not even clear yet how breaking up the company would work, given that it does not have very clear boundaries between different business units.”
One prominent commentator about the negative impact of social media is Jaron Lanier, whose fervent opposition makes itself apparent in the plainspoken title of his 2018 book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He cites loss of free will, social media’s erosion of the truth and destruction of empathy, its tendency to make people unhappy, and the way in which it is “making politics impossible.” The title of the last chapter: “Social Media Hates Your Soul.”
Worse, there is an addictive quality to social media, and that is a big issue, says Berger. “Social media is like a drug, but what makes it particularly addictive is that it is adaptive. It adjusts based on your preferences and behaviors,” he says, “which makes it both more useful and engaging and interesting, and more addictive.”
The effect of that drug on mental health is only beginning to be examined, but a recent University of Pennsylvania study makes the case that limiting use of social media can be a good thing. Researchers looked at a group of 143 Penn undergraduates, using baseline monitoring and randomly assigning each to either a group limiting Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes per platform per day, or to one told to use social media as usual for three weeks. The results, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks in the group limiting use compared to the control group.
Irreplaceable – and Damaging?
Of course, many have begun to believe that the biggest challenge around the impact of social media may be the way it is changing society. The “attention-grabbing algorithms underlying social media … propel authoritarian practices that aim to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos, thereby facilitating manipulation and undermining accountability,” writes University of Toronto political science professor Ronald Deibert in a January essay in the Journal of Democracy.
Worse, there is an addictive quality to social media, and that is a big issue, says Berger. “Social media is like a drug, but what makes it particularly addictive is that it is adaptive. It adjusts based on your preferences and behaviors,” he says, “which makes it both more useful and engaging and interesting, and more addictive”
Berger notes that any piece of information can now get attention, whether it is true or false. This means more potential for movements both welcome as well as malevolent. “Before, only media companies had reach, so it was harder for false information to spread. It could happen, but it was slow. Now anyone can share anything, and because people tend to believe what they see, false information can spread just as, if not more easily, than the truth.
“It’s certainly allowed more things to bubble up rather than flow from the top down,” says Berger. Absent gatekeepers, “everyone is their own media company, broadcasting to the particular set of people that follow them. It used to be that a major label signing you was the path to stardom. Now artists can build their own following online and break through that way. Social media has certainly made fame and attention more democratic, though not always in a good way.”
His cri de coeur argues: that citizens have the right to know what companies and governments are doing with their personal data, and that this right be extended internationally to hold autocratic regimes to account; that companies be barred from selling products and services that enable infringements on human rights and harms to civil society; for the creation of independent agencies with real power to hold social-media platforms to account; and the creation and enforcement of strong antitrust laws to end dominance of a very few social-media companies.
“We are used to being in contact with more individuals, and it is easier to remain in contact with people we only met once. Giving up on this does not seem likely for humans,” she says. “The technology with which we keep in touch may change, may evolve, but we will have social connections and platforms which enable them. Facebook may be gone in 10 years, but there will be something else.”
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