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RMU Ethical Issues in Social Media Discussion

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Chapter Fighteen Iwwer law and Ethics 867
Part Six-Reprise: Who Governs Cyberspace?
At the time of this writing, the world is in the midst of a global pandemic of which the
economic impacts are unknown. Our collective impact on the ecosystem may be temporar-
ily lessened during the pandemic, but that alone will not materially alter the climate crisis
trajectory presented in Part Five of Chapter 17. All 50 states have experienced massive
protests, driven by the cry that Black lives do indeed matter. And, for the first time in about
four decades, a genuine debate is occurring about whether shareholder primacy should be
superseded by a balancing of the interests of all stakeholders.
In an economic system founded on capitalism, business is a potent force for assembling
ideas, skills, and economic resources to find creative, cost-effective solutions to address our
collective needs. Consider, in this respect, the husband and wife team in Ohio, an engineer
and a doctor, who, over dinner in March 2020, envisioned a method for decontaminating
N95 masks, so crucial to protect the health of medical personnel during the pandemic.
Three days later, executives from the hospital system where she worked and engineers from
his employer met. By the end of March, the FDA granted emergency authorization to deploy
the new machines, which are able to process 80.000 masks per day. I
This text asks the reader to examine the relationships among business, society, and gov
ernment. Chapter 18 has explored these relationships in the context of the Internet, a tool
created with government funding and transformed into a global communication network by
The Internet’s contributions are many: but at the moment, it may be inflicting as much
harm on society as the benefits it produces. To explore that proposition, we end the book
with a final Practicing Ethics topic.
LO 18-13
Discuss several
ethical issues
raised by social
The Dark Side of Social Media
To be able to weigh the benefits and costs of social media,
we first need to understand its business model: what it was
designed to do and why.
First, it is important to understand that we, the users are not the
customers of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In truth.
we are their products–our attention is what they are seling. The
real business of these companies is to sell advertising. Their cus-
tomers are their advertisers. To succeed in this business, their
highest priority is to seize and retain users’ attention.
Once they have a user’s attention, they strive to hold onto it
for as long as they can, because the longer they retain the user
on site, the more data they collect about the user’s interests
and preferences. The more data they collect the more targeted
ads they can sell. The more targeted ads they sell the more
refined their user data becomes, and around it goes
The algorithms they apply to the data collected for pur
chased from others) allows them to deliver the content that
most closely aligns with what will capture the user’s attention,
which results in the user staying longer and visiting more often.
A corolary is that these companies go to great lengths to avoid
presenting content inconsistent with a user’s preferences
868 Unit Five Selected Tools in Cl-wess Reli
The founding president of Facebook, Sean Pariet, acknowl
edged this intentional design, when he said that from the very
The thought process that went into bulding these
applications, Facebook being the test…. was al about
“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious
attention as possible. This means that we need to
…give you a dopamine hil every once na whte
because someone like your comment or post or
Wittever. That’s going to get you to contribute more
content and that’s going to get you more les…
In other words, the attention-capturing techniques used on
the sites are intended to trigger the brain’s dopamine system,
which creates a chemical inducement to repeat an action. This
chemical Inducement does not discriminate between good and
bad actions eating quality food versus engaging in behavior
that thrils, like gambling with stakes that are unaffordable
Notifications and alerts, themselves, can produce a dopamine
effect from the mere anticipation of engaging with the media,
• Infinite Scrolling: App designers do not want the user to
look away or disengage; they want to preclude any poss-
bility of encountering stopping cues (moments lke reaching
the bottom of the screen that suggest it may be time to
move on having to take an affirmative action like a click to
continue, which is eliminated when, for example, YouTube
automaticaly starts the next video it has selected for the
user within a few seconds of finishing the last video
• Self validation: Leah Pearlman, the co-inventor of Face
book’s “Like” said it was added to pull users in by creating
a sense of self-worth. She included herself: “When I need
validation, I go to check Facebook
• Apps that indicate how many days in a row the user has
engaged with creating a compulsion to sustain the
“streak by constantly returning
Exploiting foar-ofmissing-out reactions “I need to check in
now so I know things as soon as everyone else does”).
Creating crcumstances where a reciprocation is felt
required for example, WhatsApp’s double-checkmark sys
tem and user-is-typing notification, which keeps the user
engaged with the app to avoid giving offense.
• Endowment effect: The more time an app can get the user
to invest in it the harder it is for the user to detach from it.
• Utilizing imagery, action, and words known to attract and
hold attention, as well as to induce actions for instance,
user clicks are strongly encouraged by phrases like “Prin
cess reveals ….”Now we finally know why…,” and
“Breaking News”)
To engage users, social media platforms and apos are designed
to take advantage of human tendencies related to where atten
tion is directed. Each company does its utmost to grasp more
of that attention than its competitors. Author and New York
University psychologist Adam Alter said: “There is an arms race
for attention of you don’t use every tool at your disposal to
ensnare consumers, you will be left behind.”
Essential to capturing and holding users’ attention is
ensuring that the content most likely to induce engagement
s presented at the top of the screen Captured for purchased)
data is used to create a profile of preferences-what is liced
or disliked–for each user Algorithms then locate and prioritize
content for that user, which is shown in descending order of
alignment with their preferences. Other techniques include:
• Pull-to-refresh (dragging the screen dowward to promptit
to refreshi: This take advantage of individuals’ attraction
to unpredictability (known as intermittent reinforcement)
sometimes there is a reward in this context, an item of
interest waiting, other times there is not the uncertainty
keeps the user coming back to find out.
Everything they do to keep users coming back and staying as
long as possible is specifically intended to better serve their
real customers-their advertisers.
Large swaths of today’s online media carry content that is any
thing but even-handed, which poses a problem. The algorithms
that drive social media sites are calibrated to deliver people
only the information they like-only what they want to see or
hoat, with a powerful preference for the sensational. And the
experience is designed to keep them immersed in what they
like for as long as possible. Neither accuracy, balance, nor con- at least some of the major news sources are blased. The more
text are prerequisites for the information disseminated. extreme the political views held, the more biased opposition
This all provides an opportunity to reconsider a core theme view news sources are deemed. Those who describe them
of this book: When businesses sell goods or render services selves as either very liberal or very conservative for 43 percent
with a view to generating a profit that provides an adequate of such sources are based. Only 31 percent of those who
retum on investment to owners, negative externalities-costs viewed themselves as moderate felt that way. The only news
to third parties resulting from the business’s actions that are not source to fare reasonably well was the Public Broadcast
born by the business or its customers-can result. The questioning System; yet 14 percent of Americans still felt its content
is, how can these extemalities be eliminated?
Was biased
Echo chambers are commonly described as a situation in
Core principles of democracy, such as CMI
which individuals self-select into a group, all of the members
discourse between opposing views to reach
of which share the individual’s core beliefs. The group provides
sound compromises are in jeopardy.
those beliels legitimacy and promotes a tribal, us versus them
mentality Technically, this description of echa chambers is
The negative externalities being generated by social media
incorrect. An epistemit bubble arises when “insiders aren’t
platforms threaten to rend the social fabric Core principles of
exposed to people from the opposite side,” whereas an echo
democracy, such as civil discourse between opposing views to chamber results when “insiders come to distrust everybody on
reach sound compromises, are in jeopardy. Trust in essential the outside. “Divisiveness is usually not the result of insiders
long-standing Institutions like science and legitimate news being unfamiliar with the outsiders’ arguments. Rather, it occurs
sources is being eroded. Opinion, belief, and rumor are acquir- when the insiders’ self-reinforcing version of reality becomes
ing the same stature as fact. Titillating but baseless conspiracy unassailable because its acherents profoundly distrust the out
theories are growing more ubiquitous and are gaining credibil siders and therefore dismiss their contradictory views
ity among those who hear them. Extreme positions on issues
Once Individuals segregate themselves into the chant
are becoming Impenetrable, with adherents isolating them bers, they become especially vulnerable to fake news (that is
selves from alternative views of reality, indeed, sometimes stories which appear to be news, but are disseminated either
rejecting them with rage
as jokes or maliciously with the intent of impacting a reader’s
In May 2020. The Wall Street Journal explored Facebook’s understanding of the truth of the matter) Fake news can be
Tole in creating the extreme divisiveness of the current polit used by bad actors to sow dissent, manufacture consensus
kcal landscape. “Facebook is under fire for making the world
impair the community’s ability to act responsibly, incite vio-
more divided. Many of its own experts appeared to agree-and lence, and otherwise adversely impact the target. Once take
to believe Facebook could mitigate many of the problems. The news is incorporated into the belief structure of an echo cham
company chose not to Fixing the polarization problem
ber, contrary new information is discarded to maintain cognitive
would be difficult, requiring Facebook to rethink some of its
consistency. It can reach the point that even highly dublous
core products. Most notably. [doing so would forced Facebook information is viewed as bona fide simply because it dispar
to consider how a prioritized user engagement-a metric ages opposing views. The mere exposure to outside opinions
involving time spent, like, shares and comments that for years can elit volent reactions, sometimes physical, which can dis
has been the lodestar of its system.”
rupt familial and other personal relationships. Such encounters
Facebook’s former vice president for user growth. Chamath
with opposing Mews intensify the cyberbaanization
Palihapitiya, said: “I feel tremendous guit… We have cre- Perhaps most terrifying in an era of fake news are devel-
ated tools that are ripping apart the social fabrid. 1961
aptents in artificial intelligence that provide the capacity
to generate entirely fabricated pictures, videos, and sound
Because of social media’s cuenco, trust in
recordings, colectively known as deepfakes. Illustrations
bona fide news sources is waning.
were recently presented by various news services using phony
videos of Mark Zuckerberg and Vladimir Putin. It is not yet
Because of social media’s influence, trust in bona fide news impossible to distinguish the real from the fake, but the fabrica-
sources is waning. Overall 35 percent of Americans beleve tion technology has gotten so good that it can take hours or
870 Unit Five Select Tycy w w-
Bess Rol
days to perform the verification analysis. In a world of instanta a competitive advantage or decreases a competitive dis-
neous, far-reaching, uncurated communication and increasingly advantage. For example, a business might take the step of
credulous and angry viewers, fake videos of political assassina reducing its carbon footprint ir it belleves that sourcing closer
tions, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, or stock market crashes could wil produce a competitive advantage, as with a grocer that can
have a catastrophic impact before they can be debunked. The increase its profits by catering to the subset of buyers attracted
implications for political campaigns are distressing, especially to’locally sourced food
given the tinderbox state of American politics. Fortunately, Sie The only market force that could induce social media plat-
con Valley leaders are linaly recognizing how dangerous this forms to change their behavior would be widespread, fervent.
technology is and contrary to their usual stance, are calling for sustained outrage by the user community. Users would need to
federal regulation. They realize that an appropriate solution withdraw from the sites and vigorously press for change. It is
cannot be achieved by the high-tech industry itself-regulation highly improbable that these globe-spanning companies, col-
is required.
lectively worth over $1.5 trilion, with extraordinary lobbying
power will succumb to any plausible effort by users to compel a
reconsideration of their fundamental business model. Recall that
users cannot even bring themselves to disengage from these
Unsurprisingly, the various revelations about privacy breaches,
sites despite belief that the platforms are haming Society
political interference, fake news, extremism, the risk of addic-
Thus, we are left with the final choice: either endure the
tion-like behavior, and other troubling matters have led the
externalities or impose government regulation. Given the grave
public to question the integrity of the social media platforms.
implications to society of allowing the externalities to continue,
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of
regulation would seem imperative. But that will be no easy
those who get information from social media expect the bulk of
lask, especially in the United States with its constitutionally
it to be inaccurate. A 2019 Wall Street Journal
NBC poll found
enshrined freedom of speech. The most realistic and perhaps
that the majority of Americans believe social media is divisive.
only chance of government regulation in the United States is
a threat to privacy, and should be subjected to greater federal
California’s adoption of the California Consumer Privacy Act
regulation. Remarkably, however, those polied admitted that
discussed in Part Three. Given the size of the California mar-
they could not bring themselves to detach from these sites
ket this law, which went into effect in July 2020. will force the
Whether or not it is appropriate lo label this as an “addiction.”
big social media companies to provide effective opt-out paths
it is a testimony to the platforms’ design that even those with
for the collection and retention of users’ personal data. It is
strong negative views of social media in the aggregate find
not likely, however, that enhancements to privacy protection
engaging with it indispensable to their daily lives.
alone, will suffice to redress all of harms social media is impos-
ing on society. More will be needed. Nonetheless, perhaps its
One force that could eliminate these negative extemalities is
enactment is an indication that a turning point is approaching
social responsibility. A single business could simply choose to
where intense dissatisfaction with privacy violations, elec
unilaterally change its behavior so the externalities it creates
tion interference, market domination, extremism, fear for the
are eliminated or it could decide to bear the cost of those
mental health of our families, and dread of the social fabric
extemalities. As a general rule, the responsibly acting business unraveling will suffice to pressure more states or the federal
will experience reduced profitability by taking this step, which
government to act
must be acceptable to the owners. Especially in the context
of a publicly traded company, expecting an inclination toward
social responsibility by an indMdual business to be the force
1. Do you agree that social media platfoms are threatening
that eliminates negative externalities is unrealistic
the foundation of US democracy? Explain
Market forces could eliminate these externalities. For this 2. Are you comfortable with the ways social media platforms
to occur, there must be some factor that economically motiv- strive to keep users from disengaging and moving on to
ates a business generating negative externalities to either other activities in their lives? Why or why not?
desist or internally absorb the cost. Market forces will only 3. What is the difference between an epistemic bubble and an
cause a business to change its behavior if doing so increases echo chamber? Which do you think is more likely to be the

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