For some time now, I have been asking myself how social media – Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc. – might align with the principles of moral capitalism. One dimension to analyze is abuse of market power. Another is to use stakeholder analysis of the business model used by these firms – are the users of social media customers or suppliers? Social media is a free good for its users, so the companies make their money by selling the data provided by users to advertisers. Thus, the users are suppliers of a valuable product to the companies. Thirdly, issues of free speech or censorship by platforms. Fourth, there are issues of impact – is the service provided by social media morally good, bad or indifferent?
When we consider impacts, either as private goods or bads or as public goods or bads, we look to consequences. Generally, the provision of private or public bads is said to be market failure and so regulation is justified. With social media, there is accumulating evidence of its negative impact on many users – depression and lower self-esteem, emotional distress, facilitating narrow-mindedness and loss of empathic capacity. We have seen in the U.S. in recent years the effect of social media in deepening cultural, intellectual and political divisions within the society, accelerating political instability, a culture of recrimination and censorious shaming and factionalism.
In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Representative Chip Roy wrote of his turning his back on social media. His personal story raises concern over the moral quality of social media. Here is what he wrote:
“I’m suspending indefinitely my use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media. I’m doing so not to make a political statement, but in the hope that America can return to kitchen tables, churches, taverns, coffee shops, dance halls (it’s a Texas thing) — whatever it takes to look others in the eye and rebuild our communities and humanity.
As a husband and father, I also want to stop spending so much time looking at a screen and reacting in ways that are inconsistent with who I am and — most important — who I strive to be as a Christian.
While social media has proved a useful vehicle for sharing information quickly, I have concluded that it does more harm than good to individuals and society alike.
It tempts us to be reactive and feeds the worst of our human tendency to respond in anger rather than to stop and think before communicating. The result is more verbal combat and less deliberative thought — all with language we often wouldn’t use while looking someone in the eye. I have been guilty of this recently and I haven’t always been proud of my language.
It reduces the value of communication to statements graded by “likes” or being “ratioed” and other mechanisms that don’t reflect real human response or quality of thought.
It makes it difficult to ascertain the truth about the many difficult topics with which we all wrestle. We have replaced earnest truth-seeking with trial by retweet. Meanwhile, those who make consequential decisions such as issues involving impeachment, Covid and election fraud, often do so based on assertions that are difficult to confirm or deny.
It has politicized communication to an unhealthy level, widened divisions rather than bridge them and fed the temptation to call for censorship of views we find disagreeable.
Eighteen months ago, my wife and I joined with friends to establish a weekly Sunday Night Supper and to do our best to reduce or eliminate the use of screens on Sundays by setting rules that any screen use had to involve the whole family such as watching the Masters Tournament or a family movie.
Of all God’s earthly creations, man is the only one with rational speech, but we used to have a better way to communicate with each other. Let us dine together. Let us look each other in the eye. Let us sit down and talk again.
Then, let us unite again as Americans.”