Another election. Another crisis. Another case of social media in the crosshairs.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election was marked by sustained, and exhaustively documented, interference by Russia on Facebook. The 2020 election largely avoided those issues, but opened up a new set of challenges on social media, as the homegrown spread of misinformation and distortion threatened to erode faith in the electoral process itself. The events of January 6 in the Capitol were, in some ways, a tragic culmination of this influence.
The days since have seen some platforms suspend or permanently ban the President, while others have been forced to shut down altogether. Meanwhile, concerns that networks like Twitter and Facebook were initially too lax in policing hateful and divisive content have been supplanted by concerns that they’re now too restrictive. With equally impassioned views on both sides of the debate, the question is where does the way forward lie?
What’s abundantly clear is that social media is not going away. But we need to find ways to help this technology serve our interests and the greater good, rather than subvert it. The reality is that networks face no small task: moderating discussions without chilling discourse; enabling free exchange without promoting falsehood. Throw profit motives, political intrigue and pandemics into the mix and the enormity of the challenge starts to become clear.
Ultimately, getting this right — coming to grips with a genuine communications revolution, in real time — partly falls to individual networks but also clearly transcends them. In the end, saving social media is the collective work of a society and all its stakeholders.
It also requires something that can be sorely lacking right now: perspective.
Situating social media in historical context
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Seeing social media for what it is and can be requires taking off the blinders imposed by our particular historical moment and extending our time horizon — something that rarely comes easy, especially with real-time flow of our current news cycle.
The simple truth is that social media isn’t the first communication technology to take the planet by storm, enthralling people with its potential applications, before transforming and subverting relationships, politics and even knowledge in ways never intended. Indeed, you could argue that every new communication medium has followed this exact trajectory.
Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, maps these shifts as far back as Ancient Greece. “With a new medium, it starts with euphoria and then goes to hysteria and then hopefully you get some kind of balance. It happened with the radio. This happened with TV. There was a huge amount of skepticism about reading Plato because he was writing and no one could argue versus yelling into a public square,” he explained to the New York Times.
Radio, a technology proximal to our era but distant enough to reveal historical trend lines, offers a telling example — and one I explore in-depth in my new book, Saving Social. As the familiar history goes, the first radio transmitters and receivers were developed in 1895 by Italian Guglielmo Marconi. By 1901, the technology was able to send a signal 2,200 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
In the United States, regulated radio was inaugurated several decades later, and on September 19, 1921, WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts started broadcasting. Over the next several months, WBZ broadcast political speeches, opera performances, and even a bilingual show from Montreal.
But it wasn’t long before unexpected challenges surfaced. In 1924, Pentecostal evangelist and founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel Aimee Semple McPherson purchased her own station, Los Angeles’s KFSG. It became a platform to promote her worldview, one that divided people into “heathen” and “saved” and sowed disunity and distrust.
Soon, airwaves were clogged with righteous evangelicals and their secular adversaries. Ordinary listeners, initially enchanted with the new technology, were suddenly caught in the middle. But rather than just turn the radio dial, they did something. Fed up with all the bickering, radio’s early power users raised a stink. And the government listened.
Three years after McPherson’s show premiered, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Radio Act of 1927, which regulated “all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmission and communications within the United States, its Territories and possessions.” The act went on to say that radio stations had to deliver content that was “in the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” An overseeing body called the Federal Radio Commission was soon created.
Radio would continue to evolve, with new efforts at oversight generating new challenges and demanding further change and compromise. But in time, radio went from being the Wild, Wild West of media — a playing field in which broadcasters could say or do most anything, no matter how offensive — to a well-regulated entity and social good that will likely be with us in one form or another forever.
Understanding the real “social dilemma”
So what can we learn from the tumultuous early days of radio to apply to our era? For starters, every technological revolution carries with it an inexorable momentum. The choice isn’t to turn away or embrace innovations like social media. Instead, it’s about willingness to engage in the messy and sometimes daunting task of shaping innovation to serve, rather than subvert, our needs. And this responsibility extends beyond individual companies to embrace government, citizens, the business community and advocacy groups — in short, all of us.
Testifying before Congress recently, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey aptly summed up the dilemma social networks wrestle with: “We are facing something that feels impossible … We are required to help increase the health of the public conversation while at the same time ensuring that as many people as possible can participate.”
Despite the magnitude of the challenge, Dorsey offered concrete suggestions for a way forward: redoubling a call for algorithmic transparency so users know what shows up in their feeds and why; demanding clarity around moderation processes and appeals so accounts can be suspended swiftly and equitably; and calling for an overhaul of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that has so long shielded social platforms from responsibility for what they publish. While these steps would be neither easy nor a panacea, they would represent real progress.
To be clear, I don’t want to be an apologist here for social media’s failings, which have been many and real. However, it’s impossible to dispute its value. Globally, 3.8 billion people use platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The benefits of the social media revolution have been so pervasive and so profound — from connecting friends and families to democratizing the flow of information to empowering voices who wouldn’t be heard, including during this year’s protests over the George Floyd murder — that we almost take them for granted.
So how do we maintain and regain perspective? How do we sustain focus as we tackle the enormous task of evolving and reforming a communications channel that has transformed the world in the space of little more than a decade?
Patience. Perspective. And, above all, pragmatism. Can we save social media? Yes, absolutely. In fact, we have no choice. The way forward lies in coming together to do the hard, incremental work of molding a promising technology to serve our collective needs and realize its potential. And history has shown we’re up for the challenge.
Ryan Holmes is the chairman of Hootsuite and the author of Saving Social: The Dysfunctional Past and Promising Future of Social Media.