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Does Social Media do More Harm than Good?

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When we spoke to some of the researchers whose work was included in this article, we found a combination of concern and uncertainty about the impact of social media on our lives. While there was a broad unease about the toxicity of harassment and trolling, and the lack of transparency from the platforms, there was also a sense that social media might not be as catastrophically bad as we have been led to believe. This was not an attempt to be contrarian, but rather an acknowledgment that the issue is complex and nuanced, and requires careful study. Although there may not be clear answers yet, the research suggests that some of our assumptions about social media may be unfounded.

Concerns About Social Media

One of the concerns that has been raised about social media is the idea of echo chambers, where people are exposed only to views that confirm their existing biases. This can be harmful to democracy, as it reduces our ability to engage with different perspectives. However, research indicates that most people on social media are actually exposed to a wider range of views than they are in real life. In fact, echo chambers may not be as widespread a problem as previously thought. While it's important to step outside our comfort zones and engage with different perspectives, we should also be aware that this may not necessarily make us more moderate, and could even make us more extreme.

Another concern is the spread of fake news and foreign misinformation on social media. While it's true that misinformation exists and can have indirect effects, such as creating incentives for the mainstream media to cover stories that circulate online, the research suggests that very few Americans are consistently exposed to fake news. This is likely because those who are most likely to consume fake news are already predisposed to believe it. In fact, echo chambers may even be helping to quarantine misinformation. While this is an issue that requires ongoing attention, we should be careful not to overstate its impact.

A third concern is the idea of algorithmic radicalization, where platforms like YouTube might serve up increasingly extreme content to users. While some anecdotal evidence suggests that this does happen, the research suggests that almost all extremist content is consumed by subscribers to relevant channels or encountered via links from external sites. This suggests that algorithmic radicalization may not be as widespread a problem as we have been led to believe. Ultimately, our problems with social media may be more complex and multifaceted than we realize, and may require more than just technological solutions.

More Research is Needed on the Impact of Social Media

Overall, the research suggests that our assumptions about social media may not always be accurate. While there are certainly concerns about the toxicity of harassment and trolling, the lack of transparency from platforms, and the spread of fake news and extremist content, we should be careful not to overstate their impact. Social media is a complex and evolving phenomenon, and understanding its impact on our lives requires careful study and analysis. Rather than waiting for a technological savior to solve our problems, we should be prepared to engage in ongoing dialogue and exploration to find solutions that work for everyone.

According to conversations with researchers, the majority of the earlier research on social media's impact was correlational and lacked reliable data, resulting in poorly founded criticisms. The research suggests that social media's impact is complex and multifaceted, and cannot be solely attributed to technology. Studies indicate that exposure to extremist content and misinformation is minimal and limited to a small minority with extreme views. Echo chambers, while not ideal, may not be as widespread a problem as previously thought. Additionally, algorithmic radicalization may be less of an issue than anecdotal evidence suggests, and those with existing extreme views consume most extremist content.

Research on social media's impact on democracy is similarly mixed. While some studies suggest that social media amplifies political polarization and populism, other research shows minimal impact. One study found that deactivating Facebook for some time reduced online activity and political polarization while increasing subjective well-being. Other factors, such as the political realignment and nationalization that began in the sixties, may be more significant drivers of polarization. Social media may amplify these processes but is not the primary cause.

Researchers caution against discounting the degree to which platforms have responded to criticism and made efforts to address potential negative externalities. Algorithms have evolved to consider more than just short-term engagement, and reverse-chronological feeds may not be as effective at reducing exposure to low-quality content as algorithmic curation. While the research is ongoing and inconclusive, it suggests that our understanding of social media's impact is complex and nuanced. Rather than relying on simplistic solutions or criticisms, we should engage in ongoing dialogue and exploration to find solutions that work for everyone.

There is an ongoing debate among scholars about the impact of social media on society, particularly concerning political polarization and the spread of misinformation. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt, argue that the preponderance of evidence points to social media as a net negative. In contrast, others, such as Brendan Nyhan, argue that the evidence is less clear and that many studies are correlational rather than causal. Scholars in different disciplines also differ in their approaches to interpreting evidence, with economists and political scientists favoring randomized controlled trials and sociologists and psychologists more comfortable drawing inferences from correlational data.

Agreement Among Scholars

Despite these differences, most scholars agree that social media has had negative effects, such as exacerbating political polarization and amplifying inflammatory posts. However, there is debate about the extent of these effects and whether they are outweighed by potential benefits, particularly in less developed democracies where social media can provide a platform for marginalized voices.

There is also concern about the potential for social media to facilitate extreme views and behaviors among a small minority, even if the average effect on the population is small. Scholars agree that more research is needed, particularly on the impact of social media on extreme cases such as teen suicide and ethnic violence. Despite the lack of definitive evidence, many believe that the potential harm is significant enough to warrant action to address the negative effects of social media.

How Can Social Media be Reformed?

There is no easy answer to how social media can be reformed, as it is a complex issue with many factors at play. However, here are a few suggestions that experts in the field have proposed:

  1. Greater transparency: Social media platforms could be required to be more transparent about their algorithms and how they decide what content is promoted and what is demoted or removed. This would help users to better understand how the platforms work and make it easier to identify and address harmful or misleading content.
  2. Improved moderation: Social media companies could invest more in content moderation, including hiring more human moderators and improving automated tools to detect and remove harmful content. This could include better training for moderators and increased collaboration with outside organizations and experts.
  3. Better user controls: Social media platforms could give users more control over what they see in their feeds, including filtering out certain types of content or seeing posts in chronological order. This would allow users to better curate their own experience on the platform and reduce exposure to harmful content.
  4. Regulation: Governments could impose greater regulation on social media platforms, including requirements for transparency and accountability, as well as penalties for failing to address harmful content. This could include new laws or regulations to protect user privacy, prevent the spread of false information, or limit the power of tech companies.

Social media companies have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for the role their platforms have played in exacerbating societal issues such as political polarization, misinformation, and mental health problems. In response, many companies have taken steps to address these concerns and reduce harm.

One major area of focus has been the algorithms that determine what content users see on their feeds. Critics argue that these algorithms prioritize engagement and click-through rates over other considerations, leading to a proliferation of sensationalist and polarizing content. Some companies have responded by rethinking their algorithms and placing greater emphasis on quality and accuracy in the content they promote.

References

  1. The New Yorker article discussed in this conversation: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/01/the-disturbing-relationship-between-sociopathy-and-trumpism
  2. Jon Haidt's article in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/the-danger-of-mistrusting-expertise/619005/
  3. Hunt Allcott et al.'s article on the welfare effects of social media: https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/facebook-welfare.pdf
  4. Jaime Settle's book "Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America": https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691184105/frenemies
William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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