Social media allows information to spread at lightning-speed. The internet has granted us an ocean of entertainment, news, language courses, parenting advice, exercise routines, support groups and recipes that less than thirty years ago, no one would see outside big, expensive cities. Everyone has access to everything all the time, censorship laws notwithstanding. This has given people in remote areas a chance to advance their education and careers, push for social movements, and find support for difficult life experiences.
We also know the dark side of the internet. The one that radicalizes disgruntled, young outcasts and pushes them to kill in the name of some political or religious ideology. The internet that instructs teenagers how to commit suicide. The internet that traffics humans, sells assault weapons and gang-controlled narcotics. The internet that spreads baseless conspiracy theories such as QAnon and Pizzagate. The internet is whatever you want it to be — boring, celebratory, friendly, nonsensical, hateful, beautiful, sinister. A resource that is only as good as its users.
In the mid-twentieth century, media was a shared experience. With only a handle of channels and newspapers, people gained their information from a handful of sources. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission required all public broadcasters to prevent both sides of any controversial issue. That rule was eliminated in 1987. This introduced a new era of news as entertainment and deepened the American political divide. With unregulated journalism, conditions were ripe for the rapid spread of misinformation.
Now, in the age of smart phones, media is your experience. Anything you want to read, see, or learn is a few taps away. Every bit of curiosity may be satisfied instantly. If you want articles confirming anything that comes to mind, you will find them. No fact-checking, no verification, no responsibility. Each search will influence your social media algorithm: YouTube will continue to offer similar videos, sending curious, vulnerable people down anti-intellectual rabbit holes.
At the dawn of the millennium, the internet was the great equalizer. Now, it has become the great divider. We are locking ourselves inside echo chambers, and the results are dangerous. Totally baseless conspiracy theories, once relegated to a tiny sliver of society, are now reaching millions. The Pizzgate theory began gaining traction in 2016. That year, Edgar Maddison Welch stormed into Comet Ping Pong, a pizza joint in Washington D.C. rumoured to be operating a Satanic sex trafficking ring. With his AR-15, Welch fired three shots that luckily harmed no one. It’s easy to write off these individuals as extremists, yet I have friends with university degrees that believe these theories. They are otherwise bright, levelheaded people that have been manipulated by unrestrained social media.
This issue isn’t going to solve itself. The peddling of patently false information with zero scientific basis is influencing elections and, in extreme cases, driving people to violence. Social media giants need to take responsibility for their content through fact-checking. Any major industry must work for the social welfare of its consumers. Cosmetic companies are regulated to keep carcinogens out of their products. Construction projects are regulated to protect the surrounding wildlife. It’s time to treat social media similarly.