Fixing social media

Leslie Stebbins
Friday, Mar 24, 2023

There has been a sea change in how we view our broken digital public spaces. We now understand that the intentional design practices of large tech companies are amplifying misinformation and vitriol to keep us engaged and online to increase their advertising revenues. A Seattle school district recently filed suit against Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok and Google claiming that they deliberately addict children to their platforms and serve up harmful content and misinformation that encourages anxiety, depression, eating disorders, cyberbullying and self-harm. Hundreds of families have also filed individual lawsuits alleging harm. Legal analysts are comparing these early cases to ones filed against Big Tobacco, and more recently, Big Pharma.

For the last four years, I have been steeped in research – across many disciplines – focusing on solutions to our information crisis. I had worried that our information crisis might be hopeless and that I was wasting my time. Instead, I found that we now have many tools and design strategies already at hand that can repair our broken online spaces without jeopardizing free speech. The Aspen Institute recently concluded that possibly the biggest lie being told about misinformation and toxic behavior online is that the crisis is uncontainable. It is not. We need to require social media platforms to change their underlying design that monetizes engagement. We need to demand that they work harder to prioritize the public good.

Changing our social media platforms will not be easy or quick, but we must continue to push forward. At the same time, we are expanding our media literacy programs beyond teaching skills, such as evaluating sources and critical thinking. Social media spaces are designed to encourage passivity by encouraging users to hit “like” and “share.” We are now teaching students to have more agency in interacting with these spaces. Education reformers – from John Dewey to bell hooks – have pushed for education to move beyond simply the passing on of current knowledge. Education needs to help students learn to question, explore alternatives, and demand change.

What might it look like if students could learn about their digital spaces while at the same time working to improve them? What if students could help build the kinds of online worlds they themselves want to live in? What if learning could include helping reform the underlying structures that are producing these unhealthy digital worlds?

Good news! It’s already happening. From second graders to college students, we have students involved and working on solutions. By promoting agency, we are encouraging students to actively construct new online worlds rather than passively accepting the designs laid out by Silicon Valley.

New teaching strategies such as critical media literacy, design thinking, and civic media literacies are helping students analyze and explore the complexity of online spaces while at the same time finding ways to create new digital worlds that can be of greater benefit to society.

Excerpted: ‘Enlisting Students in the Fight for Healthier Online Public Spaces’.