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Policymakers play whack-a-mole on social media

December 9, 2021, 6:11 PM UTC

Following Wednesday’s mostly-deserved congressional flogging of Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, I couldn’t shake a foundational question about social media reform: What is the tangible, realistic end goal here?

Over 140 minutes of testimony, U.S. senators correctly highlighted the innumerable harms done to kids by Instagram and other social media platforms. They correctly called out irresponsible algorithms, the addictive nature of Instagram, and the hollow promises of dramatic change from Silicon Valley. They made broad, politically palatable proclamations about what they hope to see from Instagram. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Mosseri to “stop the destructive, toxic content that now, too often, is driven at kids and takes them down rabbit holes to dark places.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., called for Instagram to move beyond “half measures,” to help the country “get us to the point where we need to be to truly protect teens and young adults online.”

But where, exactly, is that point? We can’t feasibly shield children from all harm online, so what amount of pain are we willing to tolerate in exchange for the benefits of social media? How would we know when we’ve reached the right balance?

Rather than starting with these larger, more unwieldy conversations about what success in social media reform might look like, policymakers prefer to play whack-a-mole with the latest problematic trends. They bounce between political point-scoring issues—harmful content, sketchy algorithms, disinformation, addictiveness, mental health, political censorship, anti-competitive mergers, user privacy—without a clear, overarching target in mind.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect members of Congress to craft such a blueprint. The idea that Congress will regulate Silicon Valley into a healthier, happier relationship with Americans feels preposterous at this point. The Internet is too vast. It moves too fast. As quickly as one problem is solved, several more pop up.

If that’s the case, however, there is one obvious goal in the quest to tame the innumerable ills of social media: get people to spend way less time online.

Instagram announced this week that it plans to roll out a feature in early 2022 that will give parents control over how much time their children spend on the platform—though skeptics quickly noted that kids can set up secret accounts hidden from mom and dad.

In the most dramatic sense, Congress could take a page from China, which responded to concerns about video game addiction among children by limiting their use to three hours per week. This, of course, would not fly across the Pacific.

Rather, policymakers could take a leading role in the unglamorous work of repairing our frayed social fabric:

  • Find ways to bring Americans together, so we don’t retreat into dark corners of the Internet. 
  • Educate families about the impact of excessive social media use, beyond just periodic congressional hearings. 
  • Empower parents with tools that help them better respond to their children’s mental and social health needs.

Pollyannaish? Probably. Incredibly difficult? Definitely. But find me a better solution.

Have any thoughts about how to reform social media? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Alexa, how do you say “ouch” in Italian? American tech giants took another antitrust hit in Europe this week, as Italian regulators slapped Amazon with a $1.2 billion fine following an investigation into its logistics practices in the country. Italian officials concluded that Amazon illegally mandated that third-party sellers must use the company’s delivery services and restricted those vendors’ access to perks of Amazon Prime, making it more difficult for them to compete with larger retailers. In a statement, Amazon promised an appeal of the fine, calling it “unjustified and disproportionate.” Antitrust regulators across Europe have hit Amazon, Google, and Facebook with billions of dollars in fines over the past few years as they ramp up enforcement of competition rules.

It’s not ‘game over’ yet. A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Apple will not have to follow a district judge’s order to immediately make changes to its App Store that could take a chunk out of its app-related revenue. The judges ruled that Apple can continue to require that all in-app iPhone and iPad purchases go through the Apple Store while litigation filed by Fortnite creator Epic Games continues. The appellate court ruled that Apple’s appeal, at a minimum, “raises serious questions on the merits of the district court’s determination.” Epic Games and other developers want to direct users to outside platforms for payments, helping them to avoid Apple Store fees that can reach 30%.

Congress’ crypto crash course. Top executives of cryptocurrency companies took their first spin in front of Congress on Wednesday, pitching the potential benefits of a decentralized financial system and educating lawmakers about the still-young system, The New York Times reported. Testifying in front of a House subcommittee, six CEOs faced Democrats demanding more regulation of crypto and Republicans supportive of the innovative industry. The hearing left observers unsure of where crypto-related laws might land in the coming years. A Senate hearing on stablecoins is scheduled for next week.

Allowing academics under the hood. Three U.S. senators are expected to introduce a bill Thursday that would force social media companies to provide outside researchers with access to their data for projects approved by the National Science Foundation, The Wall Street Journal reported. The proposed legislation comes in response to the troves of internal research by Facebook and Instagram that whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked starting in October. The bill also would give the Federal Trade Commission power to demand the release of certain information by social media companies, including data about ad targeting.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Just when it seemed the Internet couldn't get worse. The New York Times debuted a horribly depressing but important read Thursday on a website that doubles as a how-to guide and social forum about committing suicide. The site’s very existence raises questions about the role of law enforcement and legislators in policing websites promoting harmful content. It’s also a sad reminder that, even in the very darkest of days, so many people are still desperately looking for a sense of community. 

From the article

Though members are anonymous, The New York Times identified 45 who had killed themselves in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Australia—and found that the trail of deaths is likely much longer.

More than 500 members—a rate of more than two a week—wrote “goodbye threads” announcing how and when they planned to end their lives, and then never posted again. In many of them, people narrated their attempts in real-time posts. Some described watching as other members live-streamed their deaths off the site.

Most of the narratives cited the same lethal method, a preservative used for curing meat, The Times found. By promoting the preservative as a poison, the site has helped give rise to a means of suicide that is alarming some coroners and doctors. Yet many public health and law enforcement officials are unaware of it.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Europe hits Uber and other gig-economy firms with tough new rules that will give many contractors the rights of employees, by David Meyer

Here’s how tech workers are feeling about going back to the office, by Megan Leonhardt

Lyft will allow employees to work from home for all of 2022 as the new Omicron variant contributes ‘to some uncertainty’, by Jackie Davalos and Bloomberg

Was 2021 a tipping point for startups’ board diversity?, by Maria Aspan

Stitch Fix stock falls as much as 28% on fears that its new service could ‘cannibalize’ its core business, by Phil Wahba

‘Form, storm, norm, perform’: Twitter’s new CEO faces a critical few months as he seeks to differentiate himself from Jack Dorsey, leadership experts say, by Jane Thier

Stablecoins are taking over the crypto world and they’re a hot topic for Congress—here’s what they are and the fastest-rising ones to keep an eye on, by Felicia Hou

BEFORE YOU GO

Reverse psychology on the chess board. Here’s one person who has conquered the challenge of technology: international chess champion Magnus Carlsen. This fascinating Wall Street Journal article explores how the Norwegian phenom takes computer-simulated chess, which grandmasters use to study optimal moves, and turns it against his competitors. Rather than always making the best move, Carlsen will sometimes “lead the game down a more obscure path where the player across the board might get lost,” authors Joshua Robinson and Andrew Beaton write. Checkmate, indeed.

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