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Opinion: Who’s right about social media, liberals or conservatives?

Does social media need more or less regulation — and who is it hurting?

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A hand holds a phone displaying a folder filled with various social media apps.

Social media apps help people connect, but the conversation around their regulation is growing.

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Social media has emerged as a big societal issue — and getting bigger. This matter has political ramifications, so the Utah Legislature and the U.S. Congress are debating and may take action. We’re dinosaurs, having grown up in the pre-social media era. But we still have opinions.

Liberals say social media companies aren’t aggressive enough in eliminating disinformation from their platforms, including conspiracy theories regarding elections and COVID-19 vaccinations. Conservatives say social media companies have been biased against them, have shut down free speech and are damaging young people. Who is right? Has Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter improved things?

Pignanelli: “I think a lot of things that get blamed on social media are just human problems, and social media just makes them more visible.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, senior editor, Reason Magazine   

When in junior high, I overheard a heated debate on talk radio (the “social media” of the 1970s) about whether the elitist Trilateral Commission was controlling society. Most historians agree the yellow journalistic tactics of William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in their newspapers fostered the Spanish-American War. The development of the printing press exponentially spread antisemitism throughout medieval Europe. So whatever medium humans use to collect and distribute news circulates both information and disinformation. (75% of Americans now use social media.)

The internet has done much to expand human knowledge, therefore government regulation of content is a dangerous path. Concerned activists suggest instead transparency of the algorithms used and a focus on consumer protection. The escapades surrounding Elon Musk serve as a valuable prompt to Americans to scrutinize both the organizations and individuals behind statements in social media.

My parents assured me the “Trilateral Commission conspiracy” was a silly rumor — proving that consulting with family and friends is the best check against falsehoods.

Webb: When I was a journalist I was fond of a quote by John Milton, the great English poet and intellectual. I found it inspirational. In 1667, Milton wrote in “Areopagitica”: “Let her (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Milton was right for about 336 years — until social media arrived about 15 years ago.

Today, Milton’s Truth (with a capital T) doesn’t have much of a chance against the falsehoods and pervasiveness of social media — the algorithms that deliver garbage at every click, untruths going viral with no ability to stop them, bots creating millions or billions of deceptive posts sparking outrage and unhealthy bodily comparisons, along with insecurity and depression. When immense success and wealth are produced by clicks, unsavory people and businesses will do anything to generate clicks.

Government interference and censorship are not the answer. Government interference will only give more power to the political party in charge and may stifle more wholesome competition. It would be great if Musk could clean up Twitter, but I’m not hopeful. 

An enormous social media issue is the damage these platforms have done to the self-images and mental health of young people. Are reforms needed via legislation and family screen-time rules?

Pignanelli: A conclusion social media harms adolescents drives whether sponsoring companies will be required to limit access by age. To do so effectively will mandate companies to obtain deep personal data on everyone in order to decipher who is a minor. That begs the question of forcing social media companies into such a situation.

Because this is a technology dilemma, solutions teem in technology. A number of apps exist to help parents monitor content and accessibility. Requiring government or corporations to intrude on personal lives is not the answer.

Webb: Used properly and sparingly, social media and other tech platforms can be useful for purposes like communicating with family and real friends and supporting business objectives such as promoting good products.

I’ve spent plenty of time on YouTube learning how to connect a posthole digger to a 3-point hitch on a tractor, or how to build an ATV bridge across a creek. But it takes immense self-discipline to stick to the positive aspects of social media and not get distracted by — and addicted to — the garbage.

The good, unfortunately, is dwarfed by the worship of beautiful bodies, the nasty bickering, the outright political falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Social media addictions too often replace real relationships, people thinking they can find fulfillment following the lives and fashions of the Kardashians. The most popular “influencers” are those who dare show the most skin in TikTok and Instagram posts or promote the craziest conspiracies.

We’re not going to be able to regulate away the damage these platforms do to young people and others. The genie is out of the bottle and government can’t do much more than apply a few bandages. It comes down to families and individuals establishing standards, limiting screen time and filling time with real and more wholesome activities.

Should we allow such incredible communications and political power to be concentrated in the hands of a few social media companies and their owners?  

Pignanelli: Constructing regulations just to keep companies from “being big” is destructive and pointless, as our economy is constantly changing the playing field. Indeed, just in the last year the power of Facebook and Twitter has diminished. As American families search for alternate means to garner information, the entities that supply such that will grow, tumble and evolve.

Webb: It’s a very difficult dilemma. The algorithms control the flow of information and those who create the algorithms wield immense power. But government censorship and interference would make things worse.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.