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Is the Internet Turning on Us?

The advent of the World Wide Web in 1989 rocketed our civilization into warp speed. It enabled the decentralization of information and worldwide connectedness in a way that was previously impossible. But what about the negative effects of internet? 

Due to present-day’s ease of publishing non-editorialized content and the proliferation of social media, we find ourselves asking: Is the internet still a force for good, or has it become the vehicle for something more nefarious?

Largely spurred by Netflix’s recent release of the docudrama The Social Dilemma, a number of ethical challenges facing our society have come to light. In the film, former employees who played a critical role in securing social media’s current foothold in society express concern about what social media has become, what it’s doing to society, and what we risk if it continues on its current trajectory.

The Pew Research Center recently published findings from a months-long series of studies revealing that 18% of Americans use Facebook as their primary news source. This may appear to be a fairly innocuous statistic on its own, but when combined with a 2018 MIT study that found false news stories spread six times faster on Twitter than true stories do, these statistics begin to demonstrate cause for concern. 

While this combination may not immediately alarm most people, publishers who understand how remarkably inexpensive and easy it is to create a website, publish content, and submit that content into the rapid “stream” of social media will tell you — the ability of these two statistics to compound on one another has profound implications for society. With no regulation and a low barrier to entry, everyday digital consumers are left to fend for themselves.

We’ve seen how this plays out in other industries, like online business opportunities, for over a decade. The number of product publishers promoting bogus “get rich quick” schemes have outpaced government regulation for years, resulting in an industry climate similar to the “Wild West.” Consumers are left to their own intellectual faculties to fend for themselves. Aspiring internet entrepreneurs around the world are being cleaned out of their life savings on a daily basis. They’re left with zero funds to pay for qualified legal counsel and with no organization they can turn to for help.

However, there are several differences between this industry and the current dilemma facing social media companies.

Firstly, the online business opportunity industry is virtually microscopic compared to the number of social media users. Facebook alone reportedly boasts over 2.7 billion active users worldwide as of June 2020 — dwarfing the few million people who Google “make money online” worldwide annually.

Secondly, the sheer volume of information published daily on Facebook is impossible to moderate. Just last month Facebook deleted over 10,000 accounts and assets related to the QAnon conspiracy theory, and that barely scratches the surface of misinformation campaigns. Campaigns like these often “splinter” into other similar posts that ride the accelerated stream of social media six times faster than anything factual could. 

Thirdly, significantly more is at stake than just the consumer’s money. Misinformation campaigns seek to undermine a consumer’s intellectual defenses, rewire how they perceive information, and change which sources they feel they can trust. Without the general population understanding exactly how easy it is for just about anyone to publish anything in the form of a website or YouTube channel that appears credible, an independently published website that was built in a matter of weeks can seem just as trustworthy as an international news conglomerate with a team of journalists, contributors, and editors. 

With over seven billion people in the world, any entity can find someone willing to substantiate their stance, credible or not. An experienced digital marketer can then get that media more exposure than credentialed, editorialized media outlets with strong journalistic standards can. When seeds of mistrust are sowed against the traditional “gatekeepers” of information who hold themselves to a journalistic standard, everyone is on a level playing field. Every outlet can achieve the same level of mindshare — regardless of track record, expertise, credibility, or bias — and the speed at which misinformation campaigns travel gives illegitimate stories a significant advantage.

Finally, content moderation is a lose-lose proposition. The “witch’s brew” of: 

  • Misinformation campaigns,
  • Ease of creating media outlets that appear credible,
  • Eroded trust in authority, and… 
  • The delicate balance of navigating freedom of speech laws.

Makes any corporation’s decision to remove content subject to accusations that consumers are being “lied to.” Due to how quickly misinformation spreads, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies don’t want to leave misleading content published, but they also can’t take it down without playing into the misinformation campaign’s narrative.

If the government can’t regulate content because it doesn’t have the means or expertise to do so, the responsibility of regulation falls on the corporations. As demonstrated above, corporations can’t effectively regulate content or protect their users from it, so publishers are left to self-regulate. If even a handful of publishers choose not to self-regulate due to the advertising dollars that viral stories command, the people are left to protect themselves against the flood of poorly-researched and unsubstantiated information that appears just as credible as empirical reporting.

But what is the intellectual equivalent of protecting ourselves from a misinformation “virus”? Right now civilization can’t even effectively protect itself from an actual virus, let alone an intangible one. Where does that leave us as individual consumers of digital information? Does the seemingly irreparable toll social media is taking on civilization merit the connectedness it provides?

Unfortunately there’s no clear answer right now. With the baseline of universally agreed-upon truth eroded for much of the world’s population, where do we, as a society, find common ground? 

As always, only time will reveal the answer. In the meantime, all we can do is educate ourselves on the dangers of social media, remain vigilant as consumers of digital information, do whatever we can to protect our higher-risk populations who might be more susceptible to misinformation campaigns, and keep an eye out for opportunities to effect the change we want to see in the world as individual contributors to society.