In the last decade, technology has paved the way for social media to become the enticing human obsession it is today. Forbes contributor Enrique Dans stated in a 2019 article that social media, as it was originally intended, died once it stopped being social and became hyperfocused on making money.
“We’ve woken up with a hangover amid the wreckage of a decade-long social network party to realize there is no privacy and that sharing generates an immense amount of garbage, all of which will exist forever, and that that blurry photograph of your living room has been sold to the highest bidder, that democracy has been manipulated to the point of the grotesque, that we live in a permanent, sordid popularity contest,” Dans wrote.
Nowadays, social media has become a hot-button topic within the world of politics. From debating ethical usage of it, to restricting individuals’ access, social media’s role in modern society is growing by the minute. NAU associate professor and political science department chair, Stephen Nuño-Perez, said when the opportunity arises, there is almost always a chance for lies, propaganda and hate to be spread through social media platforms.
The corporate role
In terms of profit, it is often not in a company or media platform’s best economic interest to ban users because it lowers the company’s overall revenue margins, Nuño-Perez explained.
“I think there’s some competing forces here. One force is obviously the attraction of making profit off social media,” Nuño-Perez said. “It is a business and these people are commodifying what you say. And I think businesses are struggling with the balance of commodifying that stuff and taking responsibility for what they’re commodifying.”
Dipayan Ghosh, a writer for Harvard Business Review, stated in a Jan. 14 article that it is inherently natural for corporations, such as social media platforms, to be extremely profit-driven.
However, Ghosh noted that the strategies used by these corporations are unlike any other business model, therefore the same regulation formats are not nearly as effective.
The typical results of the social media business model tend to push users toward more fringe or extremist content, Ghosh said. Politically polarized media, Ghosh explained, is not a new discussion, but the type of hyperindividualized and politically polarized media model that blankets the world today holds dangerous potential.
“The social media business model relies on leveraging individual users’ data to push highly-personalized content in order to maximize scroll time, incentivizing more customized, and thus potentially more extremist, content,” Ghosh said.
Essentially, modern social media corporations are having to perform a critical balancing act between platform accountability and revenue, Nuño-Perez said.
He explained that the path most corporations wish to take requires less accountability or responsibility but boosts their profit margins exponentially.
“That is a question that we as a society need to address,” Nuño-Perez said. “Because if a company wants zero accountability but 100% flexibility, that doesn’t mean we can allow it as a society and as a government. There’s nothing that says putting regulations on corporations is some big violation of the Constitution.”
Accountability tends to directly translate into gatekeeping one’s service or platform, Nuño-Perez explained. Social media is a societal tool that can reach so many individuals in such a short period of time that it has the potential to be classified as volatile, Nuño-Perez said.
“This is not a new conversation, it’s just a different venue,” Nuño-Perez said. “In social media, there is high impact or high potential. Because if I tweet something or post something on Facebook and it goes viral, millions of people can read it. That’s a new impact whereas in the past it required some sort of broadcasting network that had some of those gatekeeping powers.”
In turn, every company has the right to form their own terms of service as long as the terms are ethical and legal. When a new user signs up for any social media platform, such as Twitter or Facebook, there is a document and a button that first appears, asking the user to agree to the terms of service for that specific platform. If a user then violates any of the platform’s terms, it is well within the company’s rights to sanction or ban that particular user’s access, Nuño-Perez said.
As an example, Nuño-Perez explained when one goes to a bar there are certain behavior and legal expectations, just as there are with media platforms. Becoming too intoxicated and threatening the bartender because they refuse to serve anymore alcohol is nowhere within those standards of behavior. Therefore, the establishment has the right to have the individual removed from the premises, Nuño-Perez said.
Social media bans and freedom of speech
As of January, social media platforms alike Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and more have permanently banned former President Trump’s accounts, according to a Jan. 14 article from The Washington Post.
Following the companies’ decisions, Trump publicly commented on the matter, stating the Silicon Valley tech industries had “done a horrible thing for our country and to our country,” a Jan. 12 article by The Washington Post. Alongside the former president’s official comments, many are calling the social media bans unconstitutional, claiming they violate one’s freedom of speech and are reminiscent of censorship, according to a Jan. 9 New York Times article.
what is truly being violated in this situation. He explained violating a social media company’s terms of service and therefore losing access to the platform does not necessarily correlate to losing one’s freedom of speech, especially for a figure like the president of the United States.
“Some of it makes me think that people are just ignorant about what freedom of speech really is,” Nuño-Perez said. “The more cynical me makes me think they do not have an actual argument about freedom of speech and they are just trying to delegitimize our government.”
Trump has the ability to call every news network to announce a speech or statement he will be giving, and it is highly likely that his every word will be televised, Nuño-Perez said.
“The First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship,” Lata Nott, the executive director of the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center, said. “Social media platforms are private companies and can censor what people post on their websites as they see fit.”
In more ways than one, social media has actually lessened our social connections to one another, Nuño-Perez said. He explained that this inability to connect with others is truly frightening within a democratic society like the U.S.
Those who have lost a large portion of their societal connection tend to think only of themselves when making decisions and only care how that decision will affect them personally, Nuño-Perez said.
“I think the founding members of our government knew that was a danger within our democracy,” Nuño-Perez said. “Once we lose that connection with each other, we lose our empathy for each other.”
In response to the U.S. Capitol protests, Nuño-Perez mentioned President Joe Biden put out a statement that emphasized “this is not who we are” as a country and society.
“I really hope someday someone with the same importance and stature says ‘this is who we are,’” Nuño-Perez said. “We need to look in the mirror and say, ‘Yeah, we do some good things, but we also do some bad things.’”
Social connections through media platforms have, as stated by Dans and Nuño-Perez, become friendships gained through materialistic swipes and likes. However, these platforms have also grown to be such an all-consuming part of most peoples’ lives that there are now uproars whenever media access is limited in any way.