Was there a time when people regarded social media in a wholly positive light? It’s hard to remember. The honeymoon’s been over for a while. We still recognize the benefits of social media — after all, the majority of Americans use platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on a daily basis — but when we talk about these companies, it’s usually not to laud them for bringing the world closer together.
Our conversations about social media often revolve around the problems that have come with it. There are the usual laments about how these applications have ruined our ability to focus and made us all unhappier. And then there are the more serious concerns: That social media can serve as a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations. That it enables, and perhaps encourages, people to broadcast themselves committing heinous acts. That it allowed for the unbridled dissemination of fake news, which may or may not have impacted the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Here’s a snapshot of the controversies that Facebook has encountered just within the past year:
In May 2016, news broke that Facebook employed human curators to decide which news stories would show up as trending topics, and that these curators frequently suppressed conservative news stories.
In September 2016, Facebook censored an iconic and historically important photograph of a naked child fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
In November 2016, Facebook was “embroiled in accusations that it helped spread misinformation and fake news stories that influenced how the American electorate voted.”
In April 2017, a video of a 74-year-old man’s murder was posted on Facebook; shortly afterwards, the killer made a video confession via Facebook Live.
Each controversy was followed by a public outcry for Facebook to do better. Each outcry led to Facebook quickly rolling out some sort of triage solution, such as its partnerships with third-party fact checkers to deal with fake news stories, or its recent hiring of 3,000 contract employees to screen violent videos. Each solution was derided as either a token, too-small step in the right direction, or as a misguided attempt to curtail free expression.
Is it possible that we expect too much from social media companies?
This isn’t to say that Facebook shouldn’t be held responsible for the increasingly large role it plays in disseminating the news. Nor is it to say that we, as news consumers, don’t have the right to ask the tech giant to do better. But it’s worth acknowledging that there may not be any obvious solutions or quick fixes to the problems that have emerged with our growing reliance on social media.
Pushing social media platforms to shut down terrorist-related accounts can help to curtail ISIS recruitment efforts. It can also deprive legitimate opposition groups in politically oppressive countries of a key communication tool.