2023 KMWorld Media Kit Available Here 

Getting more confused about regulating social media

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Our hearts—and I’d say our reason, too—tell us every life is absolute, but scale forces us to quantify them. Losing 250,000 people a year in car fatalities is obviously far worse than losing 43,000. So, scale makes us quantify the unquantifiable.

Although we can’t specify a precise number of “acceptable” deaths, we rightfully demand auto makers do “everything they can” to minimize the harm their products do. But we don’t mean it literally. For example, auto makers could minimize deaths by not enabling cars to go faster than fifteen miles per hour. And they could make car bodies out of stronger and heavier metal. But we want to go fast, we don’t want to increase cars’ environmental impact, and we’re price sensitive. So “do everything you can” throws us back into the impossible debate about conflicting values.

The same with social networking. “Do everything you can” should probably include continuous monitoring by qualified professionals. But the cost of that—if feasible at all—would likely drive the platforms out of business. Algorithms scale, but have their own downsides: They’re imperfect, they’re culturally relative, and their mistakes can disrupt healing conversations among at-risk youth. Not to mention that tyrants love that technology.

Plus, it would be useful if we could weigh the good that these platforms do against the harms. But how? The scale of their use around the globe brings us face-to-face with the differences we humans have about what’s helpful or harmful. How do we measure and weigh this worldwide values clash?

These difficulties are compounded by the basic fact that we don’t even know what to compare social networking platforms to. Publishing platforms? Communication media? School halls and playgrounds? This is crucial because we generally engage in moral deliberation by comparing something we’re confused about with something we’re clear about. But these new platforms have changed the very nature of being social and public. How can we come to agreement about what these platforms should do when we can’t even decide what they are like?

Out of the mix of commercial greed, politics, and genuine desires to make the world better, we’ll try many ways to “fix” social media. But I think it may take a couple of generations, affected by what we do, for us to begin to agree about what’s right and wrong about the new sociality we are now forging.

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