Toronto Star Publishes Facts Optional Rant Against Social Media

The Toronto Star published an article trying to further push the social media moral panic in Canada.

Lately, when I read articles by mainstream media about technology and social media, I am reminded by the classic TV show Whose Line is It Anyway. Specifically, the intro where Drew Carey famously says “Welcome to ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ The show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.” This is usually followed up by some sort of joke about the points. These days, I’m getting flashbacks to that show where I find myself reading a mainstream news article about technology and saying, “Welcome to mainstream media. The medium where everything is made up and the facts don’t matter.” That’s right, you’ll see the facts when the Toronto Maple Leafs hoist the Stanley Cup.

Back in March, we’ve started noticing the social media moral panic spreading across from the United States media to the Canadian media. It was a disappointing thing to see that I would have to battle misinformation and disinformation in Canada much like the folks over at Techdirt have to battle it in the United States. Since then, the moral panic pushed by the Canadian mainstream media has been coming in steady drips.

The social media moral panic is essentially the conspiracy theory that social media, in general, represents this overwhelming risk to the public. A popular angle is that social media represents a massive threat to people’s mental health and that “something must be done!” to curb those damaging effects. As long time readers of Freezenet know, the evidence has consistently shown that social media either doesn’t have an impact or generally has a positive effect on people’s mental health. Where the science jury is out is whether it is neutral or positive. Either way, there is very little evidence to point to social media having an overwhelming negative impact on people’s mental health.

Yet, a cursory look across the mainstream media articles would suggest to the less informed that this is the overwhelming conclusion. To put it another way, it is so incredibly obvious that social media is bad for your mental health that the only thing that’s missing is government lawmakers finally cracking down on this health hazard. Usually, the most in-depth analysis articles I see on these outlets is simply an exercise in confirmation bias where the author or authors intentionally seek out evidence that confirms their own beliefs while disregarding all the evidence that contradicts their personal beliefs. This while publishing a report suggesting that they have found yet more overwhelming evidence that social media is bad for your mental health. This is why I often use the phrase “confirmation bias” to describe many of these findings.

Depressingly, this isn’t even the first time I’ve seen the Canadian mainstream media push an obviously wrong theory in the world of technology. This was seen through Bill C-18 (now the Online News Act) when the media pushed conspiracy theories about how social media “steals” their news articles and that talk about Meta blocking news links was just a “bluff”. It was always a silly talking point, yet mainstream media published these obviously wrong opinions as fact. When reality hit, the reality bubble burst and it became painfully evident that the mainstream media got high on their own talking point supply. Publishers began experiencing bankruptcies and loss of traffic as a result of Meta following through with their warnings and blocking news links.

Faced with a loss in trust in the media, you would think that the Online News Act would prove to be a valuable lesson on why you should stick with the facts, rather than pushing messaging. Sadly, that obvious lesson did not sink in and many outlets are continuing with their facts-optional agenda’s when it comes to coverage in general technology.

Now, here we are with the mainstream media pushing that moral panic about social media. The correct and obvious way of going about this is to look at what the science says on the matter, think logically about what people are saying about social media, then offer some analytical conclusions about what you are witnessing. Instead, what outlets are doing is starting with their own personal beliefs about he subject and actively engaging in that confirmation bias, seeking out anything that confirms their beliefs and disregarding any evidence to the contrary. That was exactly what appears to have happened with the Toronto Star recently.

The piece was published with the headline “Social media is a public health threat for our youth. Our leaders must take it seriously”. With a headline like that, either the Toronto Star found some secret evidence that manages to finally offer evidence to prove this, or, they are just pushing another round of evidence free moral panic. Having read the article, we are most certainly witnessing the latter. The by-line contains the following:

When it comes to the issue of social media’s negative impacts on the mental health of our young people — an urgent issue that should concern us all — a tone of indifference is not a good look.

With this alone, it is made clear that this is an appeal to emotion. Further, anyone who dares question their conclusions should be frowned upon. In other words, the Toronto Star is pushing a sort of witch hunt mentality when it comes to this. Those accusations were, in fact, directed at someone in particular:

And yet that’s a reasonable interpretation of the minister’s comments when asked for his view on the U.S. surgeon general’s call for warning labels on social media platforms. “I don’t think that when a parent is talking to their kids about social media, that it’s helpful if I tell them that there’s problems or dangers with it.”

In other words, let’s depend on parents alone to keep our children safe. Health Canada needn’t play a role in warning children and their parents of potential harm. The minister’s take: “I don’t think there’s a parent in the country who doesn’t understand how injurious social media can be to young people. Having open, honest conversations with our kids about social media, I think is the answer.”

When I read the comments from the minister, I’m not sure what was so particularly wrong with them. Indeed, when it comes to things like tobacco, hard drugs, alcohol, sexual health, and general social behaviour, education is the first line of defence when it comes to protecting our youth from harmful behaviour. No one, to date, has been able to explain why social media is any different, yet the Toronto Star staff seems to be pointing to this logical response as some sort of indictment for the minister. Why? Heck if I know. They never explain that part.

Funnily enough, even the UNESCO report, which certainly had its flaws, concluded that education is a key component in responding to whatever risks social media may or may not pose. Yet, the Toronto Star staff somehow disagrees with even that and suggests that education is not sufficient for… undisclosed reasons. You can’t help but do a facepalm at those Toronto Star comments.

Instead, they rely on the US Surgeon General’s recent inflammatory remarks as a reason:

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has a different perspective. In a recent column in The New York Times, Murthy underscored that the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency and highlighted social media as an important contributor. Parents, he added, feel “helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms.”

Can warning labels increase awareness and change behaviour? Murthy points to tobacco as evidence that they can. We recall that Health Canada has been at the forefront of public health tobacco warnings going all the way back to the 1960s. But let’s remember the decades it took to pry loose the truth of the known public health risks and addictive nature of nicotine from Big Tobacco.

As we previously pointed out, the comparison is deeply flawed. I myself, and others, have pointed out that tobacco is something you physically consume. Social media… is not.

What is especially astonishing in this statement is just how deep the Toronto Star dives into conspiracy theory here. The suggestion here is that “Big Tech” is somehow covering up the harms their platforms have on consumers. This suggestion doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Nothing is stopping researchers from studying the impacts of social media on people in any age group and releasing their findings to the public. We’ve had social media for more than a decade (heck, two decades by now). If there was some inherent harm to using social media, you would think we would’ve found out about it by now.

In fact, in 2021, Facebook itself offered up their own evidence of the impacts on social media and happily published their findings. The slide that got the mainstream media to launch moral panics over the last few years was this:

If you look at the slide thoroughly, you’ll find plenty of data points that suggest that social media has either had a neutral or positive impact on people’s lives in various ways. The slide was there to highlight if there was anything the platform could do to improve on their platform. This was ultimately Facebook itself saying, “yes, we need to improve on this one area and we are working on it.”

The mainstream media, however, took a very different approach. They took that one data point and screamed endlessly for years about how this proves that social media is somehow inherently harmful to people. Make no mistake about it, that fit firmly into the definition of cherry picking.

As for the US Surgeon Generals commentary, the general conclusion was that he ignored the evidence pointing to the contrary and, instead, relied heavily on anecdotal evidence to push his theories.

Some people might get the impression that when it comes to anything health related, the US Surgeon General is this all-knowing always credible source of health information. It is why it was so timely that Techdirt published an article highlighting the time when the US Surgeon General found himself to be very VERY wrong about technology. in 1982, the US Surgeon General sounded the alarm over the health hazards of teenagers playing Pac Man. The quote, at the time, is disturbingly familiar:

In 1982 then Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop would sound a warning about the risks of video-games to youth and resulting “aberrations in childhood behavior.” He would note the risks weren’t proven, but ensured scientific proof would inevitably emerge:

“Koop said he had no scientific evidence on the effect of video games on children, but he predicted statistical evidence will be forthcoming soon.” – Associated Press report, 1982

The push to ban Pac-Man was certainly on for a period of time by the US Surgeon General. The evidence he was convinced would eventually emerged never happened and he was forced to back off that push to ban the video game:

“My off-the-cuff comment was not part of any prepared remarks. Nothing in my remarks should be interpreted as implying that videos are per se violent in natures, or harmful to children”

It turned out the scientific evidence didn’t emerge. In retrospect it seems clear Dr. Everett Koop – as a medical authority – had the opportunity to quell unsubstantiated panic that distracted from more empirical threats to kids – like smoking. A few years later Dr. Koop would wade into the TV violence debate, citing the 1972 Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee coming to a unanimous conclusion that violence and TV increased aggression.

That correlation is now long debunked.

Now, here we are, repeating that same history of jumping to conclusions and assuming that the evidence would eventually catch up. This is almost word for word what the Toronto Star wrote.

This is not to say that the US Surgeon General is wrong about everything, but rather, a warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past. As I’ve said all along, we must rely on evidence rather than personal feelings, anecdotal evidence, and just overall getting swept up into moral panics. In fact, the Toronto Star would repeat that mistake of jumping to a conclusion and assuming the evidence would eventually catch up to their own personal views:

The key questions to pose are these: do we deem the online harms of social media a public health threat? And can we afford to leave it to Big Tech companies to ensure their products are safe?

The health minister should answer “yes” in the first case.

Anxiety, depression, negative body image: research into the degree of negative harm from social media is ongoing. Last fall, Gallup’s polling of U.S. teens revealed that 41 per cent rated their mental health as poor or very poor if they used social media more than five hours a day. Five hours of social media use a day is pretty much the average for that cohort. Thirty per cent of teens spend six hours or more on social media daily.

That’s… a pretty big admission. We’ve gone from a headline that suggests that it is certain that social media is a mental health threat to admitting that the science isn’t even in yet. Yet, the Toronto Star is pushing this narrative anyway. After all, the Toronto Star is special. They don’t need pesky inconvenient little things like facts and evidence. They have personal feelings, conjecture, and their own theories. For crying out loud, there’s a good moral panic to push and their readers aren’t going to whip themselves into a panic. After all, that’s what really matters here.

The Toronto Star then, ironically, points to the APA report as evidence that what they say is true:

As to the second, the American Psychological Association provides a swift answer: the addictive design of such features as infinite scroll — the constant loading of content — is particularly risky for youth whose still-plastic brains are developing. Tech companies, the association notes, have been too slow to address the inherent dangers in their platforms.

It is very obvious that the Toronto Star never bothered to read the report (or they chose to ignore any evidence that contradicts what their own personal feelings are on the subject). If they actually did, they would note the same things TechDirt noted:

The core findings, similar to what we’ve been saying all along, and which is supported by multiple other studies, is that social media is not inherently bad for kids. For the vast majority, it’s neutral or positive. There is a small percentage who seem to have issues with it, and we should focus our attention on dealing with those cases, rather than pushing for things like outright bans. From the findings of the APA report:

Using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people. Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives. In most cases, the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents’ own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances—intersecting with the specific content, features, or functions that are afforded within many social media platforms. In other words, the effects of social media likely depend on what teens can do and see online, teens’ preexisting strengths or vulnerabilities, and the contexts in which they grow up.

Adolescents’ experiences online are affected by both 1) how they shape their own social media experiences (e.g., they choose whom to like and follow); and 2) both visible and unknown features built into social media platforms.

Not all findings apply equally to all youth. Scientific findings offer one piece of information that can be used along with knowledge of specific youths’ strengths, weaknesses, and context to make decisions that are tailored for each teen, family, and community.

(emphasis mind)

That is pretty far removed from what the Toronto Star published. It’s kind of hilarious that this is the sources that the Toronto Star chose to use to further their position because it directly contradicts their position in the first place.

Again, though, evidence and facts are for losers as far as the Toronto Star is concerned. Anyone who relies on those things should be frowned upon. The moral panic must flow. With all evidence quickly removed from the conversation, leaving only personal feelings and conspiracy theories, the Toronto Star then openly lobbies the government for legislation solutions:

So what’s the answer? Of course the minister is right that parental guidance is an important part — strong parental relationships and regulation of use are shown to have significant positive effects. And no doubt the tech giants have a responsibility to act. But this is a crisis we can’t leave to individuals or tech companies to solve.

Legislation is necessary but it takes time. In the face of this urgent threat, we should be doing what we can to act now. Murthy writes that his medical training taught him to respond to emergencies with urgency. Originally appointed by former U.S. President Barack Obama, fired by successor Donald Trump, reappointed by current president Joe Biden, Murthy has said that he was asked by Obama to “look out for the health of a nation.”

That’s right, legislation must pass. Not because there is scientific research to back up the conspiracy theories (and the Toronto Star fully admits to that), not because there is evidence of any kind, but rather, “OOGA BOOGA!!!” After all, if you aren’t going to believe “OOGA BOOGA!!!”, what are you going to believe?

Seriously, though, there are reasons why there is a decline in trust in social media. As much as some would like to believe that it’s because some right wing conspiracy nut making up bullshit on his personal blog, it’s also thanks to the mainstream media publishing crap like this. This isn’t a one-off incident, either. This is part of a trend. If the mainstream media wants to restore trust in its readers, a great first step would be to make a return to fact-based journalism. After all, if there is anything that is not a good look, it’s mainstream media sources spending their days publishing conspiracy theories all day long as was clearly the case with the Toronto Star in this case.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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