What the hell do we want from social media?
Nobody can articulate that clearly, which is why government policy on social media is a mess
Two stories about government action on social media caught my eye this week.
First, the Online Safety Act came into effect in the UK. Described by the neutral BBC as ‘divisive’ and ‘controversial’, the OSA is nanny-state-ish if you’re being kind and technologically illiterate and dystopian if you’re not. The OSA’s most famous provisions mandate government backdoors into encrypted services, in the name of protecting children.1 Of course it’s essentially impossible to build a private, encrypted service with a backdoor without ruining the purpose of encryption, and online giants like Wikipedia, Apple, Signal and WhatsApp have threatened to either not comply or withdraw fully from the UK market if the encryption provisions are enforced.2
Second, 33 states3 are suing Meta for practices related to kids on social media. The best way to understand this suit is the avalanche of quotes from all the various attorneys general4 and the complaint itself:
"Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens," according to the complaint filed in the Oakland, California federal court. "Its motive is profit."
“We have a mental health crisis in our country. Everywhere I go - from Loudoun to Lee - Virginians agree that social media presents a new and unique danger to our children. Users know that platforms like Instagram are addicting - especially to children. It’s obvious. But this addictive nature goes beyond just distracting our youth. It’s harmful, has real world implications, and Meta has been flat out disingenuous to the American people. This lawsuit is about holding big corporations that prioritize financial gain over our children’s wellbeing accountable.”
-Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares
“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame. Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”
-New York Attorney General Letitia James
“Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion: Meta has been harming our children and teens, cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits. With today’s lawsuit, we are drawing the line. We must protect our children and we will not back down from this fight. I am grateful for the collaboration of my fellow state attorneys general in standing up for our children and holding Meta accountable."
-California Attorney General Rob Bonta
These cases are similar, but I’m going to focus on the mega-suit against Meta because it’s such a clean representation of the phenomenon I want to talk about. The complaint is a sprawling 230+ pages and covers a lot of ground. If you’ll permit me to summarize, the main complaints against Meta, in plain English, seem to be:
Social media is really addictive
Meta didn’t warn us about how addictive social media could be
They made a bunch of money off this
We, as Attorneys General, are very righteously angry about this and would like to give grandstanding press conferences about the whole situation
To be blunt, this lawsuit stinks. It’s a mess legally, conceptually, and consequentially. But it’s also interesting because it speaks to a larger society anxiety about social media. We, as a culture, can’t decide what exactly it is we want from our social media systems. And because we can’t make that decision, we end up with bumbling lawsuits and tech-illiterate legislation.
The Meta Lawsuit is a Mess
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