Saunders: Facebook is a problem, but the fix has to be fair

Too often social media’s past attempts to manage itself have favored the left over the right.

By Debra J. Saunders / syndicated columnist

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and Facebook itself share a vocabulary that reflects current sensibilities. They both talk about making Facebook “safe”; as proofs of the social media giants’ role in making America uglier pop up daily.

Tuesday, Haugen testified on Capitol Hill in an effort to get Facebook to clean up its act. Sunday night, she told “60 Minutes” that some organizers used Facebook to facilitate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Based on company documents she leaked, The Wall Street Journal reported the company cooked its newsfeed algorithm in 2018 in ways that made Facebook an “angrier place.”

The latest example: Not only did activists follow Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., into the bathroom this week to pressure her to vote their way; worse, these clowns were so proud of their own little Jan. 6 moment that they posted video of themselves hectoring at Sinema outside her bathroom stall.

Company research also found that Instagram, owned by Facebook, “triggered” unhealthy body image issues and made girls feel worse about themselves.

As Haugen was testifying, I attended a Faith Angle Forum in Napa, Calif., at which San Diego State University psychology professor and author Jean Twenge gave a compelling talk about how social media contributes to anxiety and depression among teens who spend less time interacting with people and more time with their eyes glued to their smartphones. Her charts illustrated how the proliferation of smartphones in 2012 drove teens into virtual life and away from what used to be real life.

Haugen has a compelling David versus Goliath story that confirms what almost everyone who uses social media knows: Platforms that are supposed to bring us together are driving people apart.

Still, I fear that her testimony and The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on her leaked documents will lead to the usual Washington overreaction.

Haugen believes Facebook needs more hall monitors. That’s probably true, but it’s hard to get enthusiastic when we know how Big Tech was heavy-handed in squelching free speech on the right during the 2020 election and how it suppressed unorthodox covid-19 viewpoints.

As personally relieved as I am not to be bombarded with former President Trump’s unending grievances online, Facebook and Twitter wrongly took it upon themselves to muzzle a former president who won 74 million votes in November. They used a bulldozer when only a scalpel was needed. By being so clearly one-sided, Big Tech sowed more distrust and division.

Somehow, when the social media giants decide to ban what they see as misinformation, they always seem to gag the right and assist the left. They tried to bury the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story, which essentially was true, during a political campaign. After the 2016 election, they were oddly credulous about the so-called Russian dossier used to smear Trump; and the dossier was deliberate campaign misinformation.

My preference over hiring more heavy-handed censors would be to eliminate Section 230 liability protections to protect against arbitrary or discriminatory actions. Yes, the First Amendment allows private companies to control speech within their domain, but with social media giants marching in lockstep with Washington’s elected left, I don’t trust them.

On the issue of children, Twenge had useful suggestions on what parents, not government, can do to steer their children from the dark side of the internet. There’s the Wait Until 8th pledge; parents promise not to give their children smartphones until at least eighth grade as long as 10 families from their child’s school also adhere to the pledge. Basic phones that allow calling and texting without access to time-sucking platforms would be allowed. “Let kids be kids a little longer,” the group exhorts.

“I think we are at that moment of reckoning,” Twenge noted.

I see adults who feel the downside of too much screen time and are changing their habits. Twenge sees students and educators trying to limit the presence of smartphones in schools. Some parents object, but she reminds them that for decades, families somehow managed to schedule dinner and sports and other activities without handheld devices.

Parental controls can limit how much time children spend online. Adults can use those controls for themselves, too. That simple act, getting people away from blue screen light, might help everyone sleep better at night.

Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Email her at dsaunders@discovery.org.

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