Social media platforms are now among the most important forums for discussing urgent social problems, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 5G, COVID-19 and climate change. Techno-idealists continue to promise that these platforms will bring the world together — despite mounting evidence that they are pulling us apart. Which of the following ideas do you believe Big Tech should consider?
Efforts to regulate social media have largely stalled, perhaps because no one knows what something better would look like. If we could hit ‘reset’ and redesign our platforms from scratch, could we make them strengthen civil society?
ALGORITHMS BEHAVIOR: The first question is what types of algorithms could encourage consensus and discourage hate, abuse and division. Most platforms order posts according to engagement. But this incentivizes extreme statements that generate controversy and create vicious cycles of incivility and outrage.
ONLY IDENTIFIABLE PEOPLE: What would happen if social-media users had to be identifiable in real life. Anonymity can help people to avoid censorship in authoritarian regimes or to explore alternative viewpoints without peer pressure. How can we give people the freedom to explore ideas anonymously without enabling trolls or imposters?
LIMITING CONNECTIONS: Tech leaders have long measured success by the number of connections people have. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that humans struggle to maintain meaningful relationships with more than 150 people. Experiments could encourage some social-media users to create deeper connections with a small group of users while allowing others to connect with anyone. Do you believe that researchers should investigate the optimal number of connections in different situations, to work out how to optimize the breadth of relationships without sacrificing depth?
PROFITS VS PUBLIC INTERESTS: Big Tech companies will always struggle to balance profits with improving human life — but they will respond to legislation, public opinion, and individual behavior. Facebook, which once seemed invincible, just announced its most dismal earnings report in years — and admitted it is struggling to compete with TikTok for users.
RISKS VS. BENEFITS: Although today’s platforms seem to have largely negative effects on US and Western-Europe politics, the opposite might be true in emerging democracies (P. Lorenz-Spreen et al. Preprint at https://doi.org/hmq2; 2021). One study suggested that Facebook could reduce ethnic tensions in Bosnia–Herzegovina (N. Asimovic et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 118, e2022819118; 2021), and social media has helped Ukraine to rally support around the world for its resistance.
Social media has indeed its pros and cons, benefits and risks. However, without evidence-based insights about how to innovate, pundits and policymakers will continue to speculate about how to fix a system that is now beyond repair — while the rest of us suffer the consequences.
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