Fall 2021 has been filled with a constant stream of media coverage claiming that Meta’s social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram pose a threat to user mental health and well-being, are radicalizing, polarizing users and spread disinformation.
Are these technologies adopted by billions of people killing people and eroding democracy? Or is it just another moral panic? According to Meta’s public relations team and a handful of contrarian academics and journalists, social media has been proven to do no harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite seemingly contradictory studies, imperfect access to data, and the difficulty of establishing causation to support this position. Some of these researchers surveyed social media users and found that the use of social media appeared to have at most minor negative consequences for individuals. These findings seem inconsistent with years of journalistic reporting, Meta’s internal data leaks, common sense intuition, and people’s lived experience.
Teens have self-esteem issues, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that browsing Instagram could make the situation worse. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine so many people refusing to be vaccinated, becoming hyperpartisan, or succumbing to conspiracy theories before social media. So, who is right ? As a researcher who studies collective behavior, I see no conflict between research (apart from methodological quibbles), leaks and people’s intuition.
Social media can have catastrophic effects, even if the average user suffers minimal consequences. Averaging the blind spot to see how it works, consider a world in which Instagram has a rich-increasingly richer and poorer-increasingly poor effect on user well-being. A majority, those who are already doing well to begin with, find that Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay in touch with their friends. A minority, those who struggle with depression and loneliness, see these messages and end up feeling worse. If you average them in a study, you might not see much change over time. This could explain why survey and panel results can claim minimal impact on average.
More generally, small groups in a larger sample have difficulty changing the mean. Yet if we zoom in on the people most at risk, many of them may have gone from sometimes sad to slightly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerously. This is precisely what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reported in her testimony to Congress: Instagram is creating a downward spiraling feedback loop among the most vulnerable teens.
The inability of this type of research to capture the smaller but still significant numbers of people at risk – the tail end of the distribution – is compounded by the need to measure a range of human experiences in discrete increments. When people rate their well-being from a low of one to a high of five, “one” can mean anything, from breaking up with a partner they weren’t so much with in the first place to. urgent need for crisis intervention to stay alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.
Allowing most of the experience to obscure the fate of smaller groups is a common mistake, and I would say these are often the people that society should care about the most. It can also be a pernicious tactic. Tobacco manufacturers and scientists have previously argued that the premature death of some smokers is not a serious concern, as most people who have smoked a cigarette do not die from lung cancer. Drug companies have defended their aggressive marketing tactics by claiming that the vast majority of people taking opioids get pain relief without dying from an overdose. In doing so, they swapped the vulnerable for the average and steered the conversation towards the benefits, often measured in a way that masks the very real damage done to a minority – but still substantial – group of people.
The absence of harm to many is not incompatible with serious harm to a few. As most countries around the world now use some form of social media, I think it’s important to listen to the voices of worried parents and troubled teens when they point to Instagram as a source of distress. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has continued because misinformation on social media has scared some people into taking a safe and effective vaccine. These lived experiences are important pieces of evidence about the damage done by social media. Does Meta have the answer?
Establishing causality from observational data is a challenge, so difficult that progress on this front has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics. And sociologists are not well placed to conduct randomized controlled trials to establish definitely causation, especially for social media platform design choices such as changing the way content is filtered and displayed. But Meta is. The company has petabytes of data on human behavior, many social scientists to its credit, and the ability to conduct randomized controlled trials in parallel with millions of users. They carry out such experiments all the time to figure out how to best capture users’ attention, right down to the color, shape and size of each button. Meta could present irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to vulnerable people, if they exist. Did the company choose not to conduct such experiments or did it conduct them and decide not to share the results? Either way, Meta’s decision to publish and focus on average effects data is revealing. (The conversation)