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the influence of social networks on human society

20/04/2022

In order to be admitted at TUM I had to write an essay of ~1000 words, among the available options I choose "The influence of social networks on human society", here is my work:

Nowadays social networks are a huge part of the life of the vast majority of the population, they are not anymore a niche phenomenon and influence our lives, they are often perceived as a source of both news and entertainment. Platforms had a huge impact on connecting human lives and truly enabled free speech, however lately a few major critics arose, in this short essay I want to try to discuss each of them to understand if they actually make sense and if they provide any meaningful insight about our lives and society.

It is often argued that social networks introuced new social issues and even illnesses. Let's tackle a few points:

Whenever someone talks about social network addiction they are mentioning that platforms are guilty of trying to maximize the time spent by users on their platform in order to have a financial gain by showing them more ads. Altough true this point does not apply only to social networks, but to every product being sold in the world since each company has an incentive to sell more of his product. Politicians and policy-makers should regulate the free market and take responsibility for the well-being of cititzens.

"If you are not paying for a product you are the product" is a pretty bold claim, partially true, that however must be analyzed. Social companies never stole anything, whe are deciding to give them data that is only used for targeting ads, gathered information is not sold to anyone, it is used internally to target users based on categories they belong to. It is a matter of showing ads that are most relevant to the final user. Each user can decide to not see relevant ads at any time, thus preserving their privacy, however they cannot decide to completely remove ads, and I think there's nothing wrong with it.

As Zuckerberg mentions in an interview 1 what's great about advertising is it makes the consumer service free, this is the most crucial and barrier-removing choice in terms of free speech and giving everyone a voice. Lastly, as a side note "you" are not the product, the time you decide to spend on the platform is the product, and this completely shifts the problem to the "educational" part of the discourse.

Education plays a huge role in an aware usage of social platforms, nowadays we are asking social networks to regulate themselves, this is just a way to take no responsibility for the interactions happening in the online society. A company has all the interest to work with institutions to create regulation policies, since moderating users is an extremely hard,human resource intensive and prone to human judgment task.

Balancing censorship and free speech is non trivial because the line separating them is incredibly blurry, we can all agree that censoring the spread of terrorism-related media or censoring the call for violence on a social group based on a racial basis is something useful in order to protect the vast majority of the society. However should far-right or far-left politicians be able to spread fake news and manipulate the truth to obtain political gains? Is it useful? Another important question to ask is a technical one that somehow has a relevance on moderation policies. Why is someone posting that specific content? Understanding the nuances and the intent of communications is extremely hard. Training an AI to detect nudity or pornography is relatively easy, however determine if some specific content is posted to call for violence or to denounce it is almost impossible. A lot of moderation still needs human intervention, so having estabilished policies to work with is mandatory to assure an equal treatment, and policies should be written togheter with regulators.

Personally I think the best way to stop the spread of this kind of content is education. Citizens should be thaught to analyze content they interact with in the medias, just as they do in their "offline" lives, to analyze why someone is saying something, what financial gain he has and to check the scientific data supporting statements.

Of course bullying happens on social networks, this is due to human nature, bullying happens in private offline life too, however it's common sense to note that whenever people are hiding behind a keyboard they happen to be more violent than in real life. Facebook, for example is developing AI-based tools to signal users manifesting menthal issues or even sucide intent to local health authorities. To stop bullyng acts Facebook is allowing users to mute comments from a specific person without the person knowing it happened, this is what platforms and engineers can do, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, a company selling a product can develop tools to limit some of the inhumanity born from the fact people online does thing it wouldn't just do in real life, however mental issues and bullying should be discussed with psychologist and doctors, not with computer scientists. Blaming a platform for human behaviours is just a way to hide from truth.

It is often argued that because social media is funded by ads the algorithms running the platform want to maximize attention and engagement and that an effective way to do so, is to get people angry at each other, increase division and hate. Zuckerberg argues that his company (just as any company) has an incentive to build a service that people use, however he suggests that getting people agitated, which appears to be the most engaging content is not something that generates revenue in the long term, he thinks (and it makes a lot of reason) that this might increase screen time in the short term, however a company is trying to maximize the profit long term, and the way to achieve this result is to build a product that users find valuable over time, not what is gonna draw people's attention today. 2


  1. Meta, Facebook, Instagram, and the Metaverse 

  2. What "The Social Dilemma"Gets Wrong