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Social media is good, actually.
What if Facebook was down forever?
I actually didn't notice that Facebook went down. That seemed rather surprising to me because I am of the terminally online sort. I suppose I enjoyed the respite from the notifications on my desktop and phone, plus Twitter was still up, so that kept me preoccupied (plus Mondays are particularly busy for me). Ultimately, I noted that I didn't miss Facebook when no one could access it. And I wondered, what if Facebook wasn't a thing? What if social media didn't exist?
I think that many people see social media as a problem. The 2016 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal shows that Facebook, in particular, because of its access to our data, can be used against us to nefarious ends. We know that covid-19 and vaccine misinformation has been propagated on Facebook as well. And a few days ago, before the Facebook outage, we learned that Facebook favored profits over its users, sometimes even ignoring hate speech and violence for its marginal gain. Facebook helped spread QAnon conspiracies as well.
Ironically, it's because of social media itself that we know the gravest of things about it. Before social media, the media was also run by major conglomerates, but we were just consumers of that experience, instead of users, and so we couldn’t see the corruption as clearly as we can with social media. Information about social media’s ills actually spreads on those very platforms.
Social media platforms are too big for their own good
Lawmakers think that regulation may be a way to curtail the negative influence of Facebook. Some social media platforms have pre-empted government regulation and created their own standards. Famously, Twitter and Facebook both banned Donald Trump. Facebook created a diverse independent Oversight Board to try to hold itself accountable. YouTube recently banned all covid-19 misinformation.
It seems like the companies themselves along with Congress are trying to figure out a way to help social media platforms continue to be useful without being dangerous. In my opinion, that is a noble end, and rather possible, too. We've learned that regulation and self-policing can help a lot of potentially dangerous things become less so. Facebook’s enormous size, power, and wealth are proving to be a hard thing to regulate. It is unfathomable that Mark Zuckerberg lost seven billion dollars during the outage. Facebook has created a monopoly by buying up its competitors, including Instagram and WhatsApp, and so it has burdened itself with a responsibility that is too great for any individual to bear.
Jesus advises us against hoarding large amounts of wealth because not only will it corrupt our hearts, the wealth itself will become corrupt. In Luke 12, he tells us: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He'll proceed to offer a parable of a man who has a great abundance on his farm and decided to build bigger barns, instead of being generous toward others and God. God asked for his life that night and his plan to prosper was ruined.
We must guard against such power acquisition because the bigger and more powerful we become, the more power we have to do evil. Our power and wealth are better shared and distributed. Facebook's outage was so dramatic because it affected so many people and their livelihoods. It would have been less devastating if Facebook were not as large or as influential, which is where regulation comes into play. It is nearly impossible for a corporation, which exists to grow, to regulate itself, so it needs outside intervention to help it. The government can play this role for corporations and individuals, especially when they are unlikely to submit to another outside force, namely God, who also compels us to act and change beyond our self-interest.
I think regulation and self-policing can help make social media more of a neutral player. That argument tries to limit the evil that social media platforms. But if all we are doing is limiting its evil, what good are we preserving in it?
If social media can be so damaging, what good is it? Many of my friends were wondering if we’d be better off if Facebook was permanently down. Barack Obama called the Internet "the single biggest threat to democracy." This Vox columnist suggested it mutes our empathy, lowers our attention span, and could even affect our morality.
Would we be better off without social media?
Here, I want to defend social media at large. I have been an early adopter. I grew up with dial-up Internet at my house and logged on to AOL Instant Messenger every night to chat with my school friends (I finally settled on the screenname "thejplay”). I signed up for Facebook in 2004 and have been on it since. I joined MySpace shortly after that and was an avid user as well. I've been writing online since high school too. So I grew up with the Internet—it's hard to imagine my life without it, and I find it curious when folks suggest that removing social media altogether would be better for us. It's too complex of an aspect of our lives to be spoken about in simple terms like that.
Not only has it been a source of fun for me, but it's also been a way that I have made friends, connected with old ones, learned new things, and gained new perspectives. It has connected me to networks of Christians and I am grateful for my deepened understanding of faith as a result. It’s a way I share what I write, and also read what my friends are writing or sharing as well. So, for me in my life, social media has been a net positive.
Social media disrupts hierarchy
Furthermore, social media has been elemental all over the world for relating, connecting, and communicating with one another. There is a reason authoritarian regimes heavily regulate or ban entire platforms because they are threats to the powerful. There is also a reason why many of social media's chief detractors, the ones who complain about it is ruining our society, are often frustrated because it levels the playing field in a way that they aren't used to. Dominant people, white men, are less effective at using their bodies to dominate others online. It sort of flattens our power dynamics.
Social media can hold power to account, as well. Sometimes we call that cancel culture, but there is a big difference between accountability and bullying. Standing up to the powerful isn't bullying; dogpiling one of the least among us is. Read more about that here.
Its ability to hold power to account is why Twitter was so important during the 2011 Arab Spring because it allowed oppressed Arabs to rise up against their autocratic rulers. Social media helps equalize all of us. It can disrupt power relationships in a good way that can feel liberating. Social media provides a platform for voiceless people, and though the privileged may see it as an extraneous aspect of their life, for many people it is essential to how they live and thrive in the world.
I think we noticed this during the pandemic, to an extent. I heard from numerous people, mainly racial and sexual minorities, that Zoom calls gave them a chance to offer their voice with less intimidation. The individual boxes, the muted (regulated) dialogue, changed the power dynamics that are often present in a room. No longer are the extroverted dominating conversation because they have a much harder time doing so online. I believe we are hearing more clearly from marginalized voices because of social media platforms, and I think that is important.
I confess myself to favoring face-to-face dialogue at times because: 1) It offers no record of what happened. 2) I can use my strengths: charismas, personal persuasion, and the ability to think on my feet to my advantage more in-person than online. 3) It requires more courage to stand up to a man like me in an in-person setting. I have since learned that other ways of communicating are personal and there is a reason they exist. Sometimes Email is the best way to communicate a direct message, too often things get lost in an in-person interaction. So until we have flattened our hierarchies, we can expect minorities to use social media to collect some of their power to confront their oppressors. We should not shame them for that, even if it disturbs us. We actually should be disrupting the present order is a good thing.
White supremacy and patriarchy are the evil forces we need to confront
Social media is then a good thing for the smallest of us, and it is better when the platforms are also made smaller. The people who are threatened most by social media are the powerful whose order is disrupted because of social media. (This may be another reason the government is interested in regulating it, too, because social media platforms often are more powerful than the nation-states they operate in.)
When we burden social media with the ills of the world, for which it is in part responsible, we unburden ourselves from our complicity in those evils. The forces of white supremacy and patriarchy are stronger than social media. We can't scapegoat our responsibility and blame social media for the inevitable grievances that those in power express. It is white supremacy and patriarchy that are the evils that social media amplifies, but it is not social media that creates them. And frankly, the same applies to cable news, as well. While regulating both could be effective in limiting their propagation of evil, we need to confront those evils directly, within ourselves, and our society.
Social media is a phenomenon that is staying with us. It is good that we are trying to regulate it to limit its evil, but keep paying attention to its good, and who it empowers. Pay attention to the evil that it propagates and resist it actively. We can use it for its best while rebuking it for its worst.