Simon Jaronski | Staff Writer
Oct. 13, 2022
The harmful effects of social media algorithms have been a much-debated topic as of late, with numerous parents, conscientious youth and journalists rallying against the unprecedented monopoly on attention being cultivated by Silicon Valley.
Thus, the question of feed optimization is not only rooted in policy, but in morality as well: What is to be said for the ability of companies like Meta and ByteDance to both stupefy and radicalize today’s youth?
The design behind various algorithms, perhaps most-notoriously that of Facebook’s, is simple: getting user engagement. However, the precise designs are infinitely more complex and perhaps out of reach to those who are less tech-savvy.
Indeed, a core part of the problem is the inability of the public to pierce such a complex issue, let alone a national legislature dominated by geriatric politicians.
Essentially, major social media companies are successfully maximizing the amount of time we spend scrolling through waves of stimulating content. This incentive structure is facilitating the slide of America’s youth into unreflective and uncritical habits.
The effect on political opinion and discourse may be obvious, as it is deteriorating social media’s myriad of benefits for communicative efficiency and community-building potential. How can anyone be said to form an intellectually supported argument if their information is dictated to them by an algorithm formulated to reinforce their beliefs?
This is a particularly difficult nut to crack for the American polity, which values unrestricted expression. In comparison, Germany had no problem guarding the copyright for “Mein Kampf” until very recently, and a current bill winding its way through the Canadian Parliament seeks to provide the government with the power to leverage patriotic content on YouTube.
The traditional argument against censorship or regulation of private companies goes something like this: In the free marketplace of ideas, the most-valuable opinions will naturally find their way to the top. But is this the case when millions of Americans absorb a carefully curated stream of ideas designed to fortify their own beliefs and boost further engagement? One can’t help recalling the notion of a “bubble.” At what point will the great content binge become unsustainable? It could be when hyperreal political fantasies boil over into civil breakdown and total polarization.
As far as a solution goes, forcing Big Tech companies to relinquish some control over their own algorithms and monitoring practices may not be a violation of free speech as such, but rather a mechanism to provide for the flourishing of a genuinely stable and equal distribution of information. But is regulation really the answer when greater problems lie beneath the surface?
The fraudulent ethical vision of Zuckerberg and Co. revealed itself as a sham during the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. These developments necessitate a moral response among the American public that should start with responsible families and community guidance.
By first addressing these concerns at the moral level, effective public policy will have more room to maneuver, with a robust sphere of digital liberty protected.
A common understanding of morality’s inseparable link to expressive potential surprisingly supports the responses to tech policy from both ends of the political spectrum. This may indicate a favorable consensus at the most-basic levels of society, able to temper the worst excesses of the digital public sphere. If the value of constructive free speech is reclaimed, perhaps the dangerous echo chambers of social media lose their appeal. If more free speech as a corrective to an already poisoned – and realistically rigged – well of public discussion offends your common sense, chances are your inclination is sound.
Beware the Big Tech robber barons, who are remarkably capable of channeling anxieties about digital tyranny for their own benefit. The recent controversy over Twitter’s bot problem conceals the larger issue of Twitter being a potentially unsustainable and morally problematic means of communication in the first place. The fact that Elon Musk and other tech giants often successfully peddle a brand of other-worldly wisdom does wonders to conceal their self-interest in manipulating public opinion for the worse.
Will our historic and much-lauded public sphere diminish into a cash cow for those seeking to profit off political radicalization? Will the cognitive capacities of our nation’s youth dwindle into oblivion, robbing them of the potential for authentic and reason-based discourse on politics and social issues?
The robust civil society of print media and associations that Alexis de Tocqueville once found so compelling is no more. Only the ineffable digital nexus of senseless extremes remains to nourish the young political observer and preserver of democracy. What is to be done?