On January 6, 2021, Twitter, Facebook, and others officially banned President Trump from their platform for inciting hate and violence, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got off social media allegedly because of the hatred they had received there. For months, medical and public officials have struggled to counter misinformation around political events and Covid-19 vaccines that tore apart families and friends and cost many lives already. Have we reached “peak hate” and confusion online? How do we combat it? What are the causes and costs of the haze that has become our digital lives? Where do we go from here?
Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, we have receded from our public squares to online forums, like Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok. Facebook, which initially got its start as a college student social networking site, saw a 27% increase in daily active users near the beginning of the pandemic — but now most of its users today are 35 years of age and older. No longer a fringe feature of an otherwise productive internet, we now use social media as an integral part of how we connect, get news, and share information. As we do so, we rarely pause to think about how to protect our privacy.
We are consuming more media in general (both NBC News and New York Times increased website visits by more than 150% since the pandemic). But traditional media is not the only industry booming; so has fake news. Since the very start of the pandemic, misinformation promoting DIY-remedies to protect against covid-19 and conspiracy theories like Q-anon have taken ground on our media landscape — and our perception of the truth.
Addictive by Design: “Social Media is a Drug”
Experts argue the pandemic has accelerated the digital economy, with many predicting that much of these innovations are here to stay. Some suggest that the digital economy’s effectiveness and agility will lead to its success. Another advantage our growing digital economy has that will help it stick around is that our technology is designed to be addictive. Technology — particularly social media — addiction is not new, but we have yet to publicly discuss the long-term implications of fueling economic growth with addiction.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1918, smoking among soldiers skyrocketed, as tobacco companies and advertisers convinced soldiers that cigarettes were a psychological escape from the isolating and stressful conditions of war — and supplied them with a “free” supply. After the military stopped cigarette rations, they were sold tax-free at military stores to support soldiers’ recreational activities and welfare. A 2015 estimate put the veteran healthcare cost of smoking at $2.7 billion in 2010, and smoking in the military is still a problem today.
The U.S., like other countries, has used addiction to fund social goods, like in the case of the lottery earning supporting schools or casino profits funding gambling addiction programs. When thinking about taxing or regulating social media today, we should consider ways to offset the externalities we experience due to social media addiction, which might turn out to be surprisingly costly.
We cannot underestimate the enduring and unintended consequences of addictive material online — nor any way we decide to cope with our challenging circumstances. Today, our charge must be to find healthy ways to stay connected, support one another, and spread truthful information. We must also hold accountable our public officials, who benefit from the radicalization made possible by social media platforms. Our emotional equilibrium, democracy, and lives, and those of generations to come, depend on it.