The Use and Misuse of Social Media
HHI Ethics Seminar
USCB Hilton Head
Neil Funnell, Moderator
Paul Weismantel, Speaker
Neil Funnell, Moderator, began by asking ”Who in the room has a Twitter account?” Three or four members of the audience raised their hands. He then asked, “who knows what dogpiling is?”
The Speaker of the day Paul Weismantel, retired product manager for multinational companies with expertise in communication and information, explained that Twitter users are dogpiling when they gang up against a tweet. He admitted that he does it sometimes.
Paul recalled that he led an energy seminar session in 2019 on the lack of privacy and social media and noted that even though the social media businesses have taken some steps to offer privacy to users, the US Congress has done nothing. ”One side is against all the lies and the attacks that show up. The other side is against all control of what users can say. So nothing gets done”, he said.
The European Union, on the other hand, has taken action toward data protection and maintenance of privacy since 2018 and is working toward a system that would require social media companies to reject material that is clearly false. The plan is for big fines against the companies for perpetuating lies. The pending law is not yet final.
In the past, Apple products tracked users everywhere all the time, but Apple has changed its optional settings and learned that 80% of people invited to share their private information said no. Google however, continues to track images in order to sell ads. US Senator Mike Lee of Utah is working on a bill to prevent that.
In the 1990s when the general public was just getting onto the Internet, there was discussion about all knowledge eventually being digitized and thus accessible to everybody. It was as if copyrights didn’t exist, he said. There also was a notion that once everybody in the world was connected to everybody else, the result would almost certainly be 98% beneficial and only 2% detrimental to society. This was proven to be wrong, Paul said.
He described the situation this way: problems occur because people can ”shave the edges” of discussions when on topics that they feel strongly about. In addition novel ideas traveled around the Internet much faster than facts because truth is so often seen as mundane. The more outrageous a post, the faster it moves from used to user.
Our first amendment providing for free speech and a free press simply prohibits the US Congress from passing restrictive laws. It does not prevent the businesses owning the five major social media sites (Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat) from restricting what is said on their platforms. Legally they could police their users preventing the spread of what the companies deemed to be false or otherwise harmful, if Congress declared them to be public utilities, Congress could regulate them to an extent. However, they are so huge, with 6.5 billion users, that public monitoring of them for compliance would be almost impossible.
As for civil litigation against social media, the existing legal standards for libel, (falsity maliciousness, knowledge of falsity and damage), do not work because of the enormous size of the companies.
Paul recalled that author Gore Vidal in a setting to debate William Buckley found it very effective to make his attack personal. Social media users today do that regularly. He noted as well that commentator agitator Alex Jones made tons of money maliciously promoting the notion that the Sandy Hook massacre of school children was a hoax. Other social media users have likewise made money pushing mean, false ideas. Alex Jones has now lost a civil suit against him, illustrating the power of libel laws to work against a relatively small entity. Such laws are worthless against the behemoths, however.
If Elon Musk is successful in acquiring Twitter, he intends to flip the business model from a basis in advertising to a basis in subscriptions and then to allow users to say anything they want to say. Presumably, Musk would allow Donald Trump to return to Twitter. Free-speech, Paul pointed out, depends on who owns the microphone.
After Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and the Florida legislators passed a law stopping discussion of homosexuality in schools, the Disney company put out a press release denouncing the action. The state then reneged on the contract conferring the special tax status to Disney because of its size and its benefits to the state. Does everybody think that is OK – that the state can punish a business for its words? Paul asked, how about free speech.
Our sincere thanks to Presenter Paul Weismantel for his outstanding and clearly presented presentation on The Use and Misuse of The Social Media. Thanks also to Neil Funnell for moderating and to Betsy Doughtie for her challenging and well-executed Zooming of our meeting. Lastly, ongoing thanks to Fran Bollin for her excellent, concise and well-edited note-taking and summary.
This concludes our 2021-2022 season, but we shall keep you updated as to our upcoming 2022-2023 season, which starts Wednesday, October 5th, 3-4:30 PM. Have a healthy and enjoyable summer season.
-- Gerry Schroeter and your Hilton Head Ethics Society Board members.
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