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  • Marc in Madison

Social Media: The Fix is In

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.


Do you think social media does more harm than good?

NYU Professor Scott Galloway, in his Ted Talk titled “How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google manipulate our emotions,” compares social media (SM) titans to biological functions. Google is the brain, Facebook is the heart, Amazon is the gut, and apple is the irrational organ driving shareholder value (Galloway, 2017).

This comparative model describes perfectly how SM has figuratively and literally become a part of our digital selves—and like any biological system, a failure in one area cascades throughout the sum. 

SM may have started with innocuous motivations, but it has grown into a manipulative, nefarious—but often necessary—aspect of daily life. Our reliance on SM is no different than an IV upon which each click, like, share, or post is another tap on the button to release more into our digital bloodstream. 

The evolution of SM platforms as “narrowcasters” has blurred the lines between communication and information (Esade Business & Law School, 2020, p. 3). 

Besides the hardcore psychological/demographic targeting and data harvesting—a la Cambridge Analytica—there are less-obvious manipulations (Confessore, 2018). SM represents a disproportionate balance of unseen engineers and executives who steer desired thoughts and behaviors (Anonymous, 2018; Harris, 2017). 

Thus, SM companies do much more harm than good.

This is evident in manipulative SM dynamics and “Jedi Mind Tricks” (Galloway, 2018, 11:12). Here are some ways in which SM is harmful:

• Most recently, an iOS 14 featured revealed that LinkedIn copies a user’s clipboard repeatedly (Kastrenakes, 2020). 

• Auto-play of content minimizes bounce rates and keeps people blued to feeds (Harris, 2017).

• Snapchat streaks create social capital and strong incentive for users to maintain engagement (Harris, 2017). 

• Envy and fear of missing out (FOMO) increases depression—a phenomenon exacerbated through SM (Hayran, Anik, & Gürhan-Canli, 2020). 

• Centralization of software and platform control has created monopolies through “platform capitalism” (Henshall, 2018, p. 51). 

• Privacy is no longer guaranteed (Henshall, 2018).

• Misinformation is rampant (Henshall, 2018). 

• Hate speech continues to spread (Goldman, 2018). 

• SM feeds upon an innate human need to care for others (Galloway, 2017).

• SM propels the need for consumption (more is better) (Galloway, 2017). 

• Terms of service are based on non-negotiated terms for services that are often necessary for “civic life” (Schwartz, 2019, p. 17; Anonymous, 2018).

• Some SM platforms record audio surreptitiously and transcribe the data to be stored in metadata files (Winter, 2019; Zomorodi, 2019). 

• Psychological enticement, like the time-delay of a “variable schedule reward,” is designed to make and to keep users addicted to SM (Anonymous, 2018, 5:38). 

It is no secret that SM has become a juggernaut.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether platform coding is covered under free speech protection (Henshall, 2018). This is important because often, SM participation seems more compulsory than optional, but the platforms are built upon loose regulation. 

When applying for jobs, companies ask for a LinkedIn profile. Professional people use SM to network. When two people becomes friends, one of the first “social contracts” is to swap SM accounts.  

Anyone working in media, or any students, often are forced to maintain a Facebook account to admin a business page or to stay in touch with news and events.

It is rare for a person to have zero SM presence—so much that one could almost wonder: what is wrong with them?

The unspoken requirement or burden to participate in SM is ominous. Lack of choice implies control. Lack of participation could cause anxiety due to perceived loss or peril of social status.  

What are the pros and cons of social media?

There are some benefits of SM.

The ability of small businesses to advertise and to reach consumers is the biggest benefit of SM. To amplify messaging (organically or through sponsored campaigns) is to blend strategy and creativity without high overhead costs.

Additionally, the basic idea of staying in touch with family and friends—especially during a pandemic or during emergency situations—can help ease separation and loneliness. 

But as mentioned in the first question, the SM detriments far outweigh the positives. 

Can social media be "fixed"? Why or why not?

Last year, while working as a communications consultant for an Alzheimer’s and dementia non-profit, I was tasked with revising the organization’s privacy policy. While brainstorming, I came across the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The purpose of these regulations—which are specific to the European Union—is to protect rights and freedoms of personal data in seven categories: lawfulness, fairness, and transparency; purpose limitation; data minimization; accuracy; storage limitation; integrity and confidentially; and accountability (What is GDPR, n.d.).

GDPR noncompliance is subject to investigation by a data officer. Penalty fines range from €10 million, or 2% of the firm’s worldwide annual revenues, to €20 million, or 4% of the firm’s worldwide annual revenue from the preceding financial year (GDPR Fines, n.d.; Zomorodi, 2019). 

Perhaps through SM-focused regulation like the GDPR, the United States could implement core protections for SM users. At least this gesture could prove a solid start at protection and regulation.

One can imagine how politics would stall such an initiative—plus, regulation is expensive (Esade, 2020)—but the GDPR course serve as a model for consideration and for inspiration. 

Have you had a negative experience on social media?

SM has caused me to become estranged from family members due to a difference of political views.

I unfollowed an aunt and a cousin who posted links from hyperbolic, noncredible, far-right websites. These relatives’ political views, venting, attempts to persuade, and overall toxicity finally became too much, and I chose to remove them from my life. 

After unfollowing, I found out these relatives were trash-talking me to other family members. This was three years ago, and I haven’t spoken to this aunt and cousin since. Their SM personas became appositives for their real-life selves—and following the SM-as-biology example——I lost respect for them in my brain, my heart, and in my gut. 


Anonymous Official. (2018, July 5). Anonymous – This will change how you see everything… [Video]. YouTube.

Confessore, N. (2018, April 4). Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The scandal and the fallout so far. The New York Times.

Esade Business & Law School. (2020, February 10). Should social media platforms be regulated. Forbes.

Galloway, S. (2017, October). How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google manipulate our emotions. [Video file]. Ted. 

Goldman, D. (2018, October 29). Big tech made the social media mess. It has to fix it. CNN Business.

Harris, T. (2017, April). How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds everyday. [Video file]. Ted.

Hayran, C., Anik, L., & Gürhan-Canli. (2020, April 30). A threat to loyalty: Fear of mission out (FOMO) leads to reluctance to repeat current experiences. Plos One.

Henshall, A. (2018, September 24). What is digital ethics? 10 key issues which will shape our future. Process.St.

Kastrenakes, J. (2020, July 3). LinkedIn says it will stop repeatedly copying iOS clipboard. The Verge.

Schwarz, M.S. (2019, March 8). When not reading the fine print can cost your soul. National Public Radio.

What are GDPR fines? (n.d.). GDPR.EU.

What is GDPR, the EU’s new data protection law? (n.d.). GDPR.EU.

Winter, V. (2019, August 14). Facebook admits to secretly recording and transcribing users’ conversation. The Feed.

Zomorodi, M. (2019, August 26). IRL – Online Life is Real Life [Podcast]. #SocialMedia #Ethics

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