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A viral post by Elmo from “Sesame Street” was a pleasant throwback this week to the once-common, feel-good stories about social media as a force for good bringing people together. The puppet posted on X, simply asking how everyone was doing.
Viewed by more than 180 million people, a massive collective therapy session ensued. It seemed cathartic for those who took part, but it was clear not everyone is doing OK.
Today’s social media atmosphere is also not OK. The darker stories are taking over and the wrong people have a platform, as in the horrible news that a man posted video to YouTube of himself claiming to hold his father’s dismembered head and promoting conspiracy theories that flourish online.
It took longer than you’d expect for YouTube to remove the video, which means thousands of people saw it.
Or there is the horrible story of South Carolina state house Rep. Brandon Guffey, whose son died by suicide after being targeted in a sextortion scheme on Instagram. Guffey was taunted by people demanding money to hide nude pictures of his son. He’s suing Instagram’s parent company, Meta, for wrongful death and other claims and has spearheaded a state law in South Carolina to make such sextortion – a growing nationwide problem, according to the FBI – an aggravated felony in South Carolina.
Through the lens of the evil extremes of social media, that Elmo post could also be viewed as a man pretending to be a puppet and disarming social media users so they provide personal information to the world.
Everyone but Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to acknowledge that, yes, Americans’ addiction to social media – an addiction turbocharged in children – is a problem.
Zuckerberg and other social media company CEOs withered under a bipartisan explosion of pent-up anger and accusations Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
“It appears that you’re trying to be the premier sex trafficking site in this country,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican, to Zuckerberg, pointing to failures at Instagram to take down content related to sex trade. It was one of the few claims that seemed to fluster the Meta CEO. He called Blackburn’s claim “ridiculous,” but he also admitted there are things that his content moderators miss in the millions upon millions of posts on Instagram.
“As a collective, your platforms really suck at policing themselves,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, noting lawmakers get complaints about the trafficking of fentanyl, bullying, child pornography, sexploitation and blackmail.
Phones are “portals to predators, to viscousness, to bullying, to self-harm,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican.
“Your product is killing people,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican and master of outrage, booming down at Zuckerberg and demanding that the tech billionaire consider compensating audience members in the hearing room whose children had committed suicide or suffered, they say, as a result of their children taking part in social media.
Zuckerberg, unable to get many words in to interrupt Hawley’s barrage, did take the unusual opportunity to stand up, turn around and apologize to people for harm they experienced. Later, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel apologized to families of people who died after buying drugs on Snapchat.
All of this bipartisan bluster generated plenty of engaging, made-for-TV moments – particularly since Zuckerberg can often appear to have the empathy of a cyborg when he refuses to agree with the premise that social media can be harmful to children or when he refuses to simply say that his business model includes getting more people, including children, to engage with social media.
Obviously, it does. And anyone who has seen a teenager and parent both hunched over their phones can tell you the model works.
“Children are not your priority. Children are your product,” Blackburn said.
The bipartisan bluster also only goes so far
If this is all feeling a bit familiar – the frustration of lawmakers and the dissembling of tech CEOs – that’s because it’s happened before.
Remember the Facebook whistleblower? Frances Haugen told lawmakers back in 2021 that Facebook was hiding internal research about the toxic effect of its apps on girls. Last May, the US surgeon general issued an advisory warning about the effects of social media on mental health, particularly children and adolescents.
While lawmakers promised Wednesday that they are working hard on new legislation to police social media, they’ve been saying that for years as the evidence of the harm on young people has only grown. It’s a shortcoming they acknowledged. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, became visibly frustrated at the lack of congressional action over decades as the social media environment has evolved.
What might lawmakers actually do now?
There are any number of bills. Hawley has a proposal to ban social media accounts for users under the age of 16, something that seems unlikely to pass.
More lawmakers are behind the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which could set a national minimum age of 13 for social media accounts. Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat already ask users to verify they are over 13 for new accounts. On Instagram, accounts for older teens are initially set to private – but it is no problem for teens to find ways around age restrictions. TikTok asks parents to restrict their children from downloading the app.
Another proposal, the Kids Online Safety Act, sponsored by Blackburn and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, has multiple sponsors and would require social media companies to do more to take “reasonable measures” to prevent harm.
There is also growing bipartisan agreement that the portion of US law known as Section 230, by which social media companies are immune from federal liability for content hosted on their sites, needs to be revisited. But lawmakers have also been talking about that step for years.
Zuckerberg did tell Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, that Guffey should be able to sue Meta.
There is no current path forward for any specific bill, even though the rhetoric on social media approaches apocalyptic.
“Your platform has become a killing field for the truth, hasn’t it?” Sen. John Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican, said to Zuckerberg, adding the platforms are “cesspools of snark, where nobody learns anything.”
“I wonder if our technology is greater than our humanity,” Kennedy later mused.
Sen. Laphonza Butler, the California Democrat, pointed to filters on social media platforms that allow users to envision their faces after plastic surgery and wondered how anyone could believe tech companies are going to do more to protect young women from harmful content when “you give them the tools to affirm the self-hate that is spewed across your platforms.”
A focus on China
Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, condensed the many concerns of Republican lawmakers about TikTok. Lawmakers do not believe the platform has done enough to shield Americans’ data from the Chinese government, or as Cotton consistently calls it, “the Chinese Communist Party.”
Cotton also asked TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who is from Singapore and is married to an American, about his passport and his nationality. Over in the House, Republicans have empaneled a special committee to specifically concentrate on China. The witness at that committee’s Wednesday hearing, while not focused on social media, was FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said Chinese hackers are preparing to “wreak havoc” on critical US infrastructure.
Wray’s testimony came the day after CNN reported that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised President Joe Biden at their meeting outside San Francisco last November that China would not attempt to interfere in the coming US election.
Foreign election interference, by the way, as every American should know by now, is commonly attempted on social media with the spread of misinformation.
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