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Cainz writers debate: That social media companies should work more in the interests of society

May 16, 2021
Editor(s): Nuoya Liu, Thomas Sinclair
Writer(s): David Li, Kaiyue Chen, Annie Zhu, Inga Steenblock, Daniel Li, Kerrie Liang

*The speakers in this article are competitive debaters, and therefore the views expressed may not necessarily represent their beliefs or the beliefs of the organisation they belong to.*


First Affirmative (David Li)

Social media has permeated every aspect of our lives, and yet we continue to allow our precious time and attention to be taken up by toxic posts that only serve to further divide an increasingly polarising society. This is because the goals of social media companies misalign with what society values – social media companies have an overbearing shareholder orientation. Instead, since social media impacts everyone, social media companies should be accountable by a wider array of stakeholders in society. Indeed, a lack of prescriptivist solutions makes a dynamic stakeholder approach to this problem the only viable option.

To fully appreciate the benefits of a society-oriented social media company, it would be illustrative to consider a counterexample. If you’ve ever thought that your phone has been listening to you, it’s because it essentially has – social media companies such as Facebook are constantly collecting data from consumer interaction with its interface. Unwittingly, every Facebook user has been aiding Facebook and its partner companies to build consumer models. As a result, Facebook can create feeds and ad’s that are specifically targeted at you, with the sole aim of keeping your attention focussed on their app.

Free apps end up costing us most of our time and energy.

Ironic, isn’t it.

To pre-empt a rebuttal that states consumers are aware of this happening and can choose to stop using social media, the burden of changing the status quo should befall the social media company. A theory elucidated by economist Mancur Olson states that the larger the group that is affected, the harder it is to organise a collective movement.[1] Hence, a society-oriented social media company would willingly terminate data collection of its consumers.

Social media’s accessibility can also be converted into a forum for productive debate that can help formulate effective policy. However, the current focus on targeted content only serves to preach to the choir. If social media companies were accountable to societal stakeholders, there would be additional incentive to regulate the formation of radical groups, left-wing and right-wing alike, with a focus on reaching a common ground as opposed to reinforcing existing prejudices and allowing discontent to fester in the underbelly of the comment section.


First Negative (Inga Steenblock)

The main contention of the opposing team appears to be that social media companies should work more in the interests of society due to the current misalignment of company aims and societal values. It is clear that there have been recent conflicts between these large corporations and some sectors of society, particularly in cases involving bullying, violent videos, and rising misinformation campaigns or ‘fake news’. However, the opposing team fails to articulate exactly why social media companies should work in the interest of society and does not specify which interests and which societies this is directed at.

While it can be argued that “the burden of changing the status quo should befall the social media company”, it is doubtful that this would be in the interests of society. These companies are often monopolies in their subsection of the market as there are few competitors and high barriers to entry. In fact, they may be regarded as ‘natural monopolies’ because a single firm in the market is more efficient than any alternate market structure [2][3], as well as the economic phenomenon of economies of scale [3]. While this may bear some economic benefits, it comes at the cost of enormous amounts of (market) power. If the responsibility of overhauling the ethics codes of social media fell into the hands of these companies, it would be naïve to assume that social media companies would benevolently relinquish market power.

Additionally, it is important to question the tunnel vision-like focus on “society”, which completely disregards the diversity present within countries and across continents. What may be seen as acceptable (or at least not criminal) behaviour in one country may be completely different in the next and creating a blanket rule for social media companies would fail to consider the different needs and desires of these groups. It is necessary to keep in mind the importance of free speech, which in some cases may be threatened by tighter regulations and unpredictable algorithms which at this time are still unable to replicate human decision making. An example of this is the recent, short-lived ban of the ResignModi hashtag on Facebook [4], which gained popularity due to the Indian prime minister’s handling of the pandemic [4]. Social media usage is in dire need of change, but it is not in individuals’ interests for social media companies to be instigating this transformation.


Second Affirmative (Kaiyue Chen)

The opposing team argues that societies are diverse, and it is hard for social media to localise products and meet different interests. It is true that different societies have different norms. However, it is undeniable that almost every society promotes right, justice, true, and prosperity. These are the common interests in diverse societies that the social media companies can and should work on. Yet not everyone uses social media appropriately. Sometimes the information posted does not necessarily follow such interests. For example, some people use Twitter and YouTube to spread extremist propaganda, and “use little-known content uploading services, anonymous text-pasting sites and multiple backup Twitter accounts, a select group of ISIS operatives managed to evade administrators’ controls to spread the Cantlie video, titled Lend Me Your Ears, around the web within a few hours” [5]. These do not adhere to the common social interests and social media companies should play a major role to deal with them.

Also, the opposing team raises the points of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a basic human right that we need to respect. But when people talk about their views, they also need to hold the bottom line that they should not spread fake news and violent videos, should not discriminate and insult others and so on. Given that hardly can we control what other people say, social media companies are expected to take the responsibilities to censor the content posted and maintain a healthy environment. 

The topic we argue is that social media companies should work more in the interests of society, but not purely for the interests of society. This means that, while considering some social responsibilities, social media companies are still operating normally and earning a profit. In fact, requiring social media companies to take societal interests into consideration also helps them to earn more profits. For example, typically, people favour the platform that limits the possibility of fake news, fake products, biased content for political purposes, and dangerous misinformation on elections, vaccines and other public health matters and so on [6]. If social media companies put more efforts on censoring such contents, which align with common social interests, they may be able to gain more customer trust and better reputation, attract more users and patterns and sponsors, leading to higher profits and larger customer base in the long run. In addition, the absence of self-regulation for a just and fair online environment may also incur heavy penalty and much tighter government regulation, which may cause huge loss. Therefore, the social media companies should work more on the interest of society, not only for the public and the society but also for themselves.


Second Negative (Daniel Li)

While it is true that social media companies working towards the benefit of society is a ‘win-win’, the affirmative team assumes that right now, social media companies are not already aligning with society’s interests, and not undertaking any form of self-regulation. Yet this could not be further from the truth. Facebook has its own “Oversight Board” [7], an independent committee which acts almost like a Supreme Court to Facebook: making consequential rulings around questions of free speech. In just the last week, the Oversight Board has made a significant ruling on Facebook’s ban on Donald Trump back in January, upholding the ban for the next six months. This is a clear example of arguably the most influential social-media company self-regulating not only its users, but itself. As such, it can be ruled that Facebook has gone above and beyond to achieve its own goals, while benefitting society simultaneously, the aforementioned ‘win-win’.

Yet this begs the question, how much regulation is really needed? While it is clear that social media companies can, and should improve their self-regulatory systems, piling layers upon layers of regulation, from local community groups to further government action to work in the “interest of society” may simply achieve the opposite. Brought up by the first negative speaker, the diversity of society as a whole simply makes it extraordinary difficult for these local members of society to bring social media companies to heel, as they could end up infringing upon the sovereignty of other users in another part of the world, who have their own interests [8].

As a matter of fact, to solve this issue, it may just be best to leave regulation in the hands of the social-media companies themselves, or more accurately, independent boards such as Facebook’s Oversight Board. Much needed regulation and clarification of the power that social media companies exert, and the role that they play should be left to these independent panels, rather than a mish-mash of ‘dynamic stakeholders’ from various societal groups around the world.


Third Affirmative (Annie Zhu)

Drawing attention to the prompt, the key word presented is “more”, hence it is precedented that social media companies already somewhat work towards the interests of society. Accordingly, it will then be questionable to fully relinquish the responsibilities of regulation to a social-media company solely. When power is within a sole entity’s hands, it is already infringing on ethics and interests of a society or any society. And it would not be farfetched to even characterise it as dangerous, especially when social media already has such an impactful influence on society. To illustrate this, GameStop’s case makes it apparent that the power of social media and information can directly affect the stock market, thus regulatory action is essential. To reiterate the opening statement, the “misalignment” described there is targeting a certain key issue of ineffective use of social media. So, returning to the Facebook example that the opposing team has proposed, this exactly reinforces our contention of working towards the interest of society. Exactly as stated, it resulted in a “win-win” situation, where our second affirmative has already iterated that it is ideal for the formation of a mutually economically and socially benefiting relationship.

Retracing back to ineffective use of social media, it poses the question what is effective use of social media? Effective use of social media will foremost bring about a mutually benefiting relationship. Effective social media companies would push for posts and advertisements that encapsulates the most imperative news to the top of user’s feed in the first few minutes of use. Further encouraging, news alert distribution, safety messages, teen awareness, marketing exposure and more to allow for maximised practical benefits. The target is not to advocate specific interests of specific societies to every user on the platform, but to consider the interest of the whole general population on earth. Simply, asking for social media companies to consider their own welfare in the future, the benefits of being a corporate socially responsible company. In reverse, as the economy has evolved to value reputation, it is instinctive for social media companies to be concerned about reputational risks.

It is now apparent that social media’s influences ultimately impact itself after a chain reaction of events that eventually proceeds into a relentless cycle. In essence, social media is reliant on societies interest and well-being for its own future welfare. Thus, the smart preference is to work more in the interest of society and more in the interest of people.


Third Negative (Kerrie Liang)

Although it can be argued that power placed entirely into the hand of one organisation could be unethical, the opposition has not proposed a solution to mitigate this. Instead, they have generously chosen to reiterate our second-negative’s argument that social media companies already regulate, either internally or externally. The opposition attacked our example of Facebook’s Oversight Board, claiming that it demonstrates that social media companies are already working towards the interest of society. And we agree completely. However, like our opposition emphasised, the topic key word is “more.” Regulation does not imply that social networks should increase their focus on societal welfare, merely that they should work in favour of the public to some extent. The only possibility for regulation to unambiguously work more in favour of society would be if social media companies currently were not concerned with societal welfare at all. However, as the affirmative team acknowledged in the same paragraph, this cannot be true because under the status quo, social media companies already somewhat work towards the interests of society.

Moreover, the affirmative team has created a very one-dimensional characterisation for the effective use of social media. Despite our first-negative having already explained this, the opposition has once again failed to consider that the people who use social media, as well as their purpose for using such platforms, are incredibly diverse. There is no one single interest of the whole general population – what is important to someone differs person to person. The affirmative team’s proposal to advocate for only one interest to represent 7 billion people is problematic and makes it impossible to ensure each person receives news that is significant to them. To implement the affirmative’s ideal usage of social media would most likely result in one of two scenarios. Firstly, social media companies would have to throw copious amounts of content at each user to ensure that information relevant to them is buried somewhere under all of those posts. This would cause societal welfare to decrease because people would receive news that they do not need and may stop using social media completely. The second option would be to water down important information to be applicable for everyone on Earth, which would be just as effective as not receiving any news at all.

Overall, the opposition has been so concerned with trying to justify why social media companies should work more in favour of people, they have struggled to propose viable and effective solutions. Instead, they have chosen to dismiss the current qualities of social media that make it effective enough as it is. It is true that social media relies on society’s interest, but our interests have been met and trying to complicate matters causes inefficiencies. There is no need to fix what isn’t broken.


Citations:

[1] *Organising resistance becomes a public good, and with each person’s marginal contribution declining at a rapid rate, individuals elect to not put in effort to participate in resistance.

[2] Wareham, J. (2020, February 10). Should Social Media Platforms Be Regulated?. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/esade/2020/02/10/should-social-media-platforms-be-regulated/?sh=7d781de53370

[3] Investopedia staff. (2021, January 26). Natural monopoly. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/natural_monopoly.asp

[4] Paul, K. (2021, April 29). Facebook blocked hashtag calling for Narendra Modi to resign over pandemic. The Guardian Australia. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/apr/28/facebook-blocked-resignmodi-hashtag-india-coronavirus

[5] Malik, S., Laville, S., Cresci, E., & Gani, A. (2014). Isis in duel with Twitter and YouTube to spread extremist propaganda. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/24/isis-twitter-youtube-message-social-media-jihadi

[6] Cusumano, M. A., Gawer, A., & Yoffie, D. B. (2021). Social media companies should self-regulate now. https://hbr.org/2021/01/social-media-companies-should-self-regulate-now#

[7] Solmone, S. (2018, October 3). Regulate social media? It’s a bit more complicated than that. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/regulate-social-media-its-a-bit-more-complicated-than-that-103797

[8] Oversight Board. https://oversightboard.com/

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Nuoya Liu
Editor
Thomas Sinclair
Editor
David Li
Writer

Hi! My name is David, and I am a second year BCom student majoring in Economics and Finance. Outside of uni, I enjoy playing guitar, watching the F1 and making cocktails.

David Li's Articles
Kaiyue Chen
Writer
Annie Zhu
Writer
Inga Steenblock
Writer
Daniel Li
Writer

I am a first year Bachelor of Commerce student, and planning on majoring in Economics and Finance. One of my key interests is keeping up with, and analyzing economic policy adopted on a domestic and international level.

Kerrie Liang
Writer

Hi! I’m a first-year Commerce student planning to major in Actuarial Studies or Economics. Everyone has a story to tell and as a writer at Cainz, I hope to share these insightful and diverse stories with the world.