Social media affect our society in many ways. We consider issues of addiction, democracy, the decline of journalism, privacy, surveillance, and effects on friendships and user happiness. Taking the most obvious problems of social media into account, it seems that LinkedIn, WhatsApp and Pinterest are more ethical, on the whole, while Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are least ethical.
That’s a great question that I recently found on Quora, and I think that many of us are asking the same (TLDR: My answer is at the very end). It’s also a very difficult question to answer: for one, there are many different social media sites, and I’m not even sure that I know most of them (and, obviously, I’ve used even less myself, so my own experience is very limited). It’s also not entirely clear what would could as social media: take Quora, for example. Are we also talking about this? And, finally, social media affect society in many ways that are really difficult to sort out. Who would have thought, for example, that Facebook can influence the outcome of democratic elections, redefine friendship for almost 3 billion humans, and, together with Twitter, lead to the collapse of almost the entire newspaper and print magazine industry?
So this is a really huge question. Still, we need an answer, both as individuals and as a society, so we’ll have to find some way to evaluate the relative moral goodness of different social media.
Effects of social media on society
Let’s try to make a preliminary list of the effects of social media on their users and on society:
Social media have a huge influence on democratic processes in a way that renders democracy largely meaningless (The Dark Psychology of Social Networks). Fake news and information bubbles have wrecked the ability of citizens to make educated, informed decisions about matters that affect them (as one can easily see by looking around).
Social media have concentrated the world’s advertisement spending in the hands of a handful of companies (Social media advertising spend set to overtake newspapers by 2020: Research). In the process, they have severely hampered the ability of newspapers to compete for funds, leading to the extinction of many (Decline of newspapers - Wikipedia). What is sometimes overlooked is that big newspapers had a special legal status (press accreditation with special rights) and enough power (in terms of both manpower and financial means) to uncover scandals and to effectively hold the governments and big industry to account. Replacing big news outlets with social media also means replacing journalists with press IDs and the financial means to investigate one story for months, with bloggers sitting in their living rooms, pressured to bring in ad revenue through views and clicks, and having none of these powers. This leads to a fundamental loss of democratic structures in society, leaves all the power in the hands of the unchecked few, and has led to the corrupt governments we have seen take over many countries in the world over the past five years (Democracy Index - Wikipedia).
Social media have severely eroded privacy. Not only do people “voluntarily” give away all sorts of intimate detail about their lives, but social media also track their behaviour with pixels and cookies.
Rise of AI and surveillance
The explosion of social media is directly connected to the rise of AI (image identification through deep neural networks needs lots of image data for training, and this the big companies obtained through social media). Through this, social media made the deployment of automated, effective face-recognising surveillance cameras possible, and their use by both good governments and dictatorships.
Decline of physical friendships
Social media have redefined friendship. Together with the worldwide COVID restrictions in movement and assembly, they have led to many “friendships” becoming entirely impersonal and disembodied. Many, especially younger people, are left without any real friends and without a social environment of peers that they can relate to.
Influencers and fake lifestyles
Influencers and unchecked viral content have a direct, often detrimental effect on young people’s perception of life, emphasising form over content, a beautiful picture over real engagement, number of followers and likes over education and personal growth.
On the positive side, research shows that social media can actually make some users happier [see sources at end of article], so they do have a positive contribution to happiness on a personal level – but only for users who use them in moderation and who are not addicted to them (see references at the end of this article).
Contact with absent friends
Again on the positive side, social media allow us to keep contact to acquaintances, friends and relations over great geographic distances. They allow us to have at least some human contact during lockdown times.
Social media also make much easier the dissemination and the finding of information that is useful to people’s lives: from shopping recommendations and online cooking recipe collections to addresses of companies, customer reviews, and instant news from all parts of the world.
Boost for independent creators and small businesses
For creators, makers, artists and small businesses, social media enable them to build a customer base online without having to go through the big media (which they could not afford anyway).
Support for minority groups and activism
Social media enable small groups of citizens with special interests or concerns to come together. This can be politically and socially valuable, for example in the case of crime victims, or opponents of dictatorial governments who can organise themselves online.
Addressing the issues
I’m sure there are many effects I forgot. Still, these give us a starting point from where we can try to address the question. Let us go back to the four main, Western moral theories, and see what they would say about the moral goodness of particular social media.
So in this sense, Facebook is worst, LinkedIn and Twitter the best. For utilitarianism, what would count is the amount of happiness or benefit the user gets from the social network. Here probably LinkedIn is more beneficial (it being a professional network that might have positive effects on one’s work chances), while Snapchat, even if it provides momentary pleasure, is much harder to see as beneficial to one’s life as a whole, or at least in the long run.
For Kant, it would be important that the networks respect the users’ freedom and choices and treat them as ends (rather than only as means to their own ends).
We know that Facebook has always treated their users as means to its own ends (“you are the product”), so the Facebook-related items above (FB, Instagram, WhatsApp) are probably bad from Kant’s view. Pinterest and LinkedIn have not, as far as I know, been involved in widespread misuse of personal data, so perhaps they would be judged more kindly by Kant.
Aristotle would ask which networks (and their typical content) promote one’s long-term virtues, interests, and growth as a human being.
Facebook connects one to one’s friends, and this would be seen as a good thing. Youtube can be a great educational resource, but it can also be used to watch silly videos of people falling face-forward into the snow, so here it would matter how the user actually uses the service. Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn seem to be used mostly for creative hobbies, news and work, respectively, and so they probably contribute most to one’s long-term benefit and personal development.
Worst player: The Facebook group, probably. Youtube depending on use.
Best: Pinterest, LinkedIn.
2. DANGER TO DEMOCRACY, FAKE NEWS: I will not work through all these rubrics in the same level of detail, because then I’d be writing a book :) But I think that now some of these can be left as an exercise to the reader. About fake news, here clearly Facebook and Twitter lead the group. WhatsApp can be used for that, too, but it also has many beneficial uses in everyday life (parents’ groups, family communication), so that these perhaps cancel each other out. Youtube can also promote fake news and conspiracies, but requires somewhat more engagement from the viewer (it’s harder to watch a 20 minute video than to look at a Facebook ad), so that perhaps its influence is less? I’m not sure. One would need to research that. It seems that Pinterest and Snapchat are less in the focus of the fake news discussion, although I don’t know much about them and I might be mistaken.
3. ENDANGERING INDEPENDENT NEWS: According to Statista.com, Facebook is, with 43%, the biggest provider of news. Youtube has 21%, Twitter 12%, and the rest are under 10%. So Facebook “wins” the evilness prize here.
4. EROSION OF PRIVACY: This has mostly been Facebook’s problem in the past, and since Instagram and WhatsApp are also Facebook, we should count them also as bad.
Worst: Facebook group.
Best: All others are better.
5. RISE OF AI, SURVEILLANCE: That’s difficult to attribute because it involves lots of historical development in addition to present research. I didn’t find easily available data on the research investments in AI of these companies, but Google and Baidu seem to be very high towards the top, followed by Facebook perhaps? Just guessing, though. Facebook was the first to offer automated tagging of faces in pictures in 2011, which was one of its first privacy blunders and was hotly debated at that time. I would guess that the historical contribution of the other networks to surveillance technology (and actual surveillance) is likely to be less important than that of the Facebook group. Google would probably still win, but the question was about social media, and Google doesn’t qualify.
6. FRIENDSHIPS AND SOCIALISING: In terms of endangering classical friendships, we would have to look at the number of users of a network (as a proxy for the number of friendships being conducted through it). Also, we would have to see whether the network is suitable to replace friendships. Facebook and its other products completely dominate here (Digital Information World). The next competitor is miles away (Twitter with 300 million users and less suitability to conduct a friendship over). Friendships over LinkedIn are probably rare, so it does not compete with live friendships that much. Pinterest can actually promote new friendships through the discovery of common interests between users, while at the same time it does not replace actual contact.
Best: LinkedIn, Pinterest.
7. INFLUENCER CULTURE: Young people’s lives are negatively affected by the displays of “extraordinary” (but often fake) lives on social media and the aping of influencer figures, who often are not the most virtuous role models. According to Neil Patel, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter (in this order) are the highest paid platforms for influencer marketing. This seems to be a good proxy for their actual influence on young consumers (Is Influencer Marketing Dead? A Hard Look at The Newest Data).
8. HAPPINESS: Again, it’s hard to find data on how happy the different platforms make the users, but the Economist tells us what percentage of users are happy with the time they spend in each app. According to How heavy use of social media is linked to mental illness, only 37% of Instagram users are happy about their app use, followed by Facebook (41%), Snapchat, Youtube, Twitter and Pinterest. Best of the social networks is LinkedIn with 70%.
Worst: Facebook group, Snapchat.
9. PERSONAL CONTACTS OVER DISTANCE: We’ll take the easy way out here and take the number of users as a proxy. Facebook and Instagram connect most people. Youtube does have more users than Instagram, but it doesn’t “connect” individuals in a meaningful way. Twitter and Pinterest have the fewest users, and so they enable personal contact least. Twitter can at least be used to message one’s friend, but I wouldn’t know how to do that on Pinterest (?)
This item essentially is the opposite evaluation of the same data as in point 6. Those networks that most efficiently endanger real-life friendships are naturally the same that enable friendships over a distance most effectively. So perhaps these two items (6 and 9) should cancel each other out in the final evaluation.
10. ACCESSIBLE INFORMATION: As news sources those networks would be best that are most used for news. This item mostly turns around the evaluation of number 3 (above). But since information is not only news, but also things like DIY instructions etc, the best and worst in terms of facilitating information spread are:
11. CREATORS: Creators, artists and businesses thrive on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and perhaps LinkedIn for professional services. The other networks seem to be less important, except perhaps Pinterest for visual artists.
12. CITIZEN POWER: Finally, revolutionaries and political activists are using social networks to organise themselves and to disseminate information about their causes. We see this as a good thing in a democracy.
Now, if we wanted to do a real utilitarian calculation here, we would provide each rubric with a weight factor that says how important it is to a society’s overall happiness. And then we would assign so many points to the individual networks (positive for best, negative for worst).
Democracy, fake news: 5
Destroying news: 3
Endangering friendships: 2
Influencer culture: 3
Happiness of users: 1
Facilitating distance friendships: 2
Source of information: 3
Citizen power: 3
These factors are, of course, all very subjective. That’s how I see things. You are free to discard the above weights and to calculate your own table.
And the winner is…
Let’s do it! Here is the table again, now with winners and losers listed (most ethical scores are highest):
Now I know, of course, that it is simplistic and not as scientific or sophisticated as one might wish. But that’s not the point. The point of this post is that sometimes we just need to give an answer. We cannot avoid deciding the question which social networks are morally better than others because it’s a vital question for our society. The approach above is, in principle, valid. One might disagree with the numbers, and I noticed myself that I did not always evaluate every network and so on, but this is only supposed to demonstrate the principle of a utilitarian calculation.
To answer the original question, here are my totals, such as they are (if I’ve counted correctly), sorted according to moral goodness (take all this with a good spoonful of salt):
Again, everyone is welcome to provide their own criteria and numbers. My advice to the ethical user: drop Twitter and Facebook and use Pinterest and LinkedIn, except if you need Facebook and Twitter for political activism, where they can be useful. The others are more or less indifferent.
Thanks for reading until the end! I’m amazed that anyone did! :)
Cover photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash.
Sources on Internet and happiness
Mitchell, M. E., Lebow, J. R., Uribe, R., Grathouse, H., & Shoger, W. (2011). Internet use, happiness, social support and introversion: A more fine grained analysis of person variables and internet activity. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1857-1861:
Akın, A. (2012). The relationships between Internet addiction, subjective vitality, and subjective happiness. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(8), 404-410:
Doğan, U. (2016). Effects of social network use on happiness, psychological well-being, and life satisfaction of high school students: Case of facebook and twitter. Egitim ve Bilim, 41(183)