Ignoring Societal Issues While Debating Social Media’s Impact is Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There’s a lot of debate surrounding what to do with social media. Drew Wilson points out why ignoring societal issues is a bad idea.

We are often inundated with mainstream news stories about what horrible thing social media has sprung on society. Whether it is hateful content, threats of violence, or other crimes, many stories often conclude that it’s all thanks to social media or social media is to blame for it all. This has led talking heads wringing their hands that “something must be done about social media”, leading lawmakers to table laws that are always wrongheaded, potentially causing more damage while solving nothing. Often left out in the debates is external factors that led to such events.

Take, for instance, false conspiracy theories. There are countless stories about how social media helps spread this kind of content. So many conclude that this is clearly the fault of social media. The problem with this argument is that conspiracy theories have existed long before social media has been a thing. What’s more, are there other factors contributing to this problem? The answer is “yes”. Examples include American right wing “news” organizations as well as insane rantings floating around on conservative radio. Even if social media was shut down, you aren’t exactly solving the problem.

Another problem social media often gets blames for is violent hate speech. This is, again, another problem that has existed long before social media became a thing. Examples include the KKK and cross burning events or the vilification of the Jewish in Germany during Nazi rule. Again, both taking place long before social media became a thing. Yet, gloss over some of the news reports on TV or mainstream news outlets and you’d be led to believe that this issue only really became a problem thanks to social media.

The common thread in all of this seems to always be how online tools are being blamed for societal problems. Yet, one of the most ignored aspect in these same reports is how we deal with these societal problems. Instead, you are so often led with the impression that these problems only came into being thanks to social media, so, therefore, social media is the problem, not society.

Even if every platform was shut down tomorrow, these problems will not magically go away along with it. You’d still have violent extremism, racism, and so many other societal ills floating around in society, just in another form.

Yet, so many lawmakers use these reports as proof that “something must be done” and you get proposed laws to curb “harmful content”. Two countries with such a proposal are Canada and the UK. Unsurprisingly, such laws would have disastrous consequences for the internet as a whole.

At the end of the day, things like social media platforms are just tools. It’s a bit like saying that power tools are to blame for building code violations, therefore, we need to ban or otherwise curtail power tools, hand saws, and other construction equipment. It’s an absurd notion because it’s easy to point out how there are other factors that could go into a building code violation. While such a notion would easily be seen as silly, it’s on the same level of the thinking that maybe we should curtail social media because of societal ills.

Of course, lost in all of this is the good things that came from various platforms as well. There are big YouTuber’s that do massive giveaways, people who wind up going from rags to riches on these platforms, performers who were rejected by mainstream outlets who found audiences, fundraisers that helped people in need end up far exceeding expectations, fundraisers for charitable causes, and a whole lot more. Stories like that are out there, but very rarely ever get a mention on more traditional outlets. It may be because of the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads” at play.

At any rate, the public does generally get an extremely distorted view of what goes on on various platforms. What are you more likely to hear: the person who posted a few things and got famous for doing something positive or someone getting severely injured because of some stupid “challenge” that you never heard of? This is not a good way to even consider the larger picture of social media and its role in society.

What’s more is that societal problems are almost never discussed when it comes to contemplating the role of government has with online platforms. Are certain television or radio programs seeding some of societal problems? Are there underlying mental health issues involved? Is the political discourse healthy or has the rhetoric by some politicians gotten out of hand? These are questions you almost never hear asked in these discussions. Instead, it is inevitably a jump to conclusions comment of “platforms are the problem and we need to fix that.”

So, when we have so many wrong conclusions about platforms and the internet as a whole, it should not be a surprise in the least that proposed laws would both not solve anything and cause so many more problems. Indeed, as originally proposed, Canada’s online harms proposal represents an existential threat to not only Freezenet, but pretty much any website that wants to start up in Canada. As originally proposed, there is little to no evidence that it would solve any of the problems it aims to solve.

Ultimately, the root of these wrongheaded approaches is simply a lack of understanding of the underlying problems. By ignoring so many of the societal problems, are you ever really going to even have a starting point to addressing online hate or violent rhetoric? Probably not. By only hearing about the negativity of these platforms instead of having a deeper understanding of how these platforms even work and what all they really represent, are you ever going to formulate a law that both sufficiently addresses potential concerns and actually tackles actual problems? Not really.

Until we incorporate the major piece of the puzzle, societal problems, and having a solid understanding of what these platforms are really like, it is exceedingly unlikely you can even properly begin to address some of the problems that happen to exist on these platforms. We need to drop the attitude that people do awful things because the online tools that exist today made them do it. Instead, the real question is, what drives people to use such tools to advance their agenda of hate or harm? Understanding that these problems exist and happen to be on these platforms goes a long way to finding better solutions than simply saying that its the online tools fault that some individuals are awful people.

Until that mindset changes, we are very likely doomed to continually repeat the same mistakes of making bad laws that solve nothing and causes more problems in the first place. What’s worse is the possible prospect that those same bad laws could, heaven forbid, be passed in the future to actually inflict that damage in the first place. That is something society truly can’t afford.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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