Brian Patrick Green is the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
With social media constantly in the news as corporations try to navigate the new socio-technical terrain, we could distill much of the hype down to just one question: What is the purpose of social media? With this core question of purpose, we seek to understand what something is for. What role does it fulfill in society? What good are we seeking when we engage in this activity?
While the cynical answer might be that social media exists in order to make social media companies money (and certainly that is not totally wrong), there is something more going on with social media, otherwise billions of people would not be drawn to use it. I think there are two paradigms at play in social media: entertainment and education. Education ought to be the goal of social media, but instead it is entertainment, and that difference is leading to a world of trouble.
For decades, journalism and the media have been in a state of massive upheaval, with the internet and social media gaining huge power. As competition in this space has intensified, gaining attention through clicks has become the means to survival. Gaining clicks has come to dominate the pursuit of truth, and journalism and the media have been reduced to entertainment instead of an informative, educational experience intended to help us align our minds with reality.
This paradigm shift has had destructive effects on society. Instead of everyone sharing a common understanding of world events, because of the internet and media personalization, filter bubbles are now standard. Rather than readers and viewers becoming more educated about the world, and therefore more capable of making informed decisions, instead our attention is directed towards amusements and clickbait. (And AI just lights the entire situation on fire.)
Journalism and media have in many ways become subservient to social media, which is now a dominant way for people to get their information. Social media economically survives by making itself “sticky” and grabbing our eyeballs for as much times as possible. And one good way to do that is by providing entertaining content – which drives journalism and media producers even more towards entertainment and away from education.
But what is the right paradigm for social media: entertainment or education? Here I will make a philosophical assertion: human brains need to run on facts, and the purpose of information is to give us a true representation of the world in which we live.
Because of this, the answer should be obvious: education is more important that entertainment, and therefore ought to be prioritized over it in social media. Having an information ecosystem run on entertainment yields a world of amusement… at least for a while. What it does not yield is a world of informed citizens capable of making good decisions, either ethically or politically. Thus the amusement ends.
If we in the United States want to have a functioning democracy, where we can trust each other to make the right decisions, we need to be educated, not just entertained. On the other hand, if we would rather be entertained, then we need to accept that as a culture we have chosen to no longer live in a functioning democracy, but rather one where oligarchs and demagogues vie for control of our nation, with everyone else as bystanders.
Here we can see that our economic priorities and governmental priorities are in conflict. People want to buy entertainment, and businesses are happy to provide it. But democracies need education, which is not as hot a commodity as entertainment. In this conflict, democracy needs to be prioritized over money-making, and society rebalanced towards education.
To protect democracy, we should 1) somehow place headwinds upon entertainment, to reduce its control over our attention, 2) somehow promote the growth of educational media, social media, and journalism, or 3) both. When we go to social media, we should come away having learned things that are true and significant, not things that are false and/or useless. We may be less amused in the short term, but in the long term we will be more prepared for the real world.
Of note is that education will doubly grow in importance as AI causes disruption to jobs and the economy. More and more people will be in dire need of adult education to allow them to pursue the careers of the future. If we come to view media and journalism as a form of continuous adult education, then we will be preparing ourselves for this disruption, which is already upon us.
Lastly, in America there is the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The government cannot control speech unless that speech is within a carefully delineated set of harmful circumstances. While I believe we are currently within those harmful circumstances, it is difficult to argue this case, because a quantitative change has yielded a qualitative change (a change in degree has led to a change in kind). That is, the slow growth in entertainment has created a world in which Americans are losing our civic capacities. And it might be impossible to get the congress and courts to agree that they need to take action. Therefore, some other mechanism must be brought to bear on this problem, and that mechanism is most likely the social media companies themselves.
This is far from ideal. We are right to be skeptical of relying on corporations to make society function. But when corporations are more aware of the world in which they exist, it becomes easier for them to see that they do not benefit if society begins to crumble under the weight of general mismanagement. Organizations such as the Partnership on AI (of which the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is a partner) and others have begun to explore these important questions and are working to promote a better future.
In conclusion, social media companies should re-think their identities away from being suppliers of entertainment and towards being organizations mediating and promoting our access to quality adult education. This is a paradigm shift – but it is one our society badly needs.