Metro

  • Written by Joseph Bak-Coleman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington
The thousands of vulnerable people harmed by Facebook and Instagram are lost in Meta's 'average user' data

Fall 2021 has been filled with a steady stream of media coverage arguing that Meta’s Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram social media platforms pose a threat to users’ mental health[1] and well-being, radicalize[2], polarize[3] users and spread misinformation[4].

Are these technologies – embraced by billions[5] – killing people and eroding democracy? Or is this just another moral panic?

According to Meta’s PR team[6] and a handful of contrarian academics[7] and journalists[8], there is evidence that social media does not cause harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite apparently conflicting studies, imperfect access to data and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this position.

Some of these researchers have surveyed social media users and found that social media use appears to have at most minor negative consequences[9] on individuals. These results seem inconsistent with years of journalistic reporting[10], Meta’s leaked internal data[11], common sense intuition and people’s lived experience[12].

Teens struggle with self-esteem, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that browsing Instagram could make that worse. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine so many people refusing to get vaccinated, becoming hyperpartisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories in the days before social media.

So who is right? As a researcher who studies collective behavior[13], I see no conflict between the research (methodological quibbles aside), leaks and people’s intuition. Social media can have catastrophic effects, even if the average user only experiences minimal consequences.

Averaging’s blind spot

To see how this works, consider a world in which Instagram has a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect on the well-being of users. A majority, those already doing well to begin with, find Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay connected to friends. A minority, those who are struggling with depression and loneliness, see these posts and wind up feeling worse.

If you average them together in a study, you might not see much of a change over time. This could explain why findings from surveys and panels are able to claim minimal impact on average. More generally, small groups in a larger sample have a hard time changing the average.

Yet if we zoom in on the most at-risk people, many of them may have moved from occasionally sad to mildly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerously so. This is precisely what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reported in her congressional testimony: Instagram creates a downward spiraling feedback loop[14] among the most vulnerable teens.

A teen watches an Instagram post of a young woman applying makeup
Large-scale population studies can miss effects experienced by a subset of people; for example, vulnerable teen girls on Instagram. AP Photo/Haven Daley[15]

The inability of this type of research to capture the smaller but still significant numbers of people at risk – the tail of the distribution[16] – is made worse by the need to measure a range of human experiences in discrete increments. When people rate their well-being from a low point of one to a high point of five, “one” can mean anything from breaking up with a partner who they weren’t that into in the first place to urgently needing crisis intervention to stay alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.

A history of averaging out harm

The tendency to ignore harm on the margins isn’t unique to mental health or even the consequences of social media. Allowing the bulk of experience to obscure the fate of smaller groups is a common mistake, and I’d argue that these are often the people society should be most concerned about.

It can also be a pernicious tactic[17]. Tobacco companies and scientists alike once argued that premature death among some smokers was not a serious concern because most people who have smoked a cigarette do not die of lung cancer[18].

Pharmaceutical companies have defended their aggressive marketing tactics by claiming that the vast majority of people treated with opioids get relief from pain without dying of an overdose[19]. In doing so, they’ve swapped the vulnerable for the average and steered the conversation toward benefits, often measured in a way that obscures the very real damage to a minority – but still substantial – group of people.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter[20].]

The lack of harm to many is not inconsistent with severe harm caused to a few. With most of the world now using some form of social media, I believe it’s important to listen to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teenagers when they point to Instagram as a source of distress. Similarly, it’s important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has been prolonged because misinformation on social media has made some people afraid[21] to take a safe and effective vaccine. These lived experiences are important pieces of evidence about the harm caused by social media.

Does Meta have the answer?

Establishing causality from observational data is challenging, so challenging that progress on this front garnered the 2021 Nobel in economics[22]. And social scientists are not well positioned to run randomized controlled trials to definitively establish causality, particularly for social media platform design choices such as altering how content is filtered and displayed.

But Meta is. The company has petabytes of data on human behavior, many social scientists on its payroll and the ability to run randomized control trials in parallel with millions of users[23]. They run such experiments all the time to understand how best to capture users’ attention[24], down to every button’s color, shape and size.

Meta could come forward with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to the vulnerable, if it exists. Has the company chosen not to run such experiments or has it run them and decided not to share the results?

Either way, Meta’s decision to instead release and emphasize data about average effects is telling.

References

  1. ^ users’ mental health (www.wsj.com)
  2. ^ radicalize (www.nbcnews.com)
  3. ^ polarize (www.cbsnews.com)
  4. ^ spread misinformation (www.cbsnews.com)
  5. ^ embraced by billions (investor.fb.com)
  6. ^ Meta’s PR team (about.fb.com)
  7. ^ contrarian academics (www.nytimes.com)
  8. ^ journalists (www.nytimes.com)
  9. ^ minor negative consequences (doi.org)
  10. ^ journalistic reporting (www.usnews.com)
  11. ^ leaked internal data (www.wsj.com)
  12. ^ people’s lived experience (www.nytimes.com)
  13. ^ studies collective behavior (scholar.google.com)
  14. ^ downward spiraling feedback loop (www.theguardian.com)
  15. ^ AP Photo/Haven Daley (newsroom.ap.org)
  16. ^ tail of the distribution (www.statisticshowto.com)
  17. ^ a pernicious tactic (doi.org)
  18. ^ lung cancer (global.oup.com)
  19. ^ get relief from pain without dying of an overdose (www.vox.com)
  20. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter (theconversation.com)
  21. ^ misinformation on social media has made some people afraid (dx.doi.org)
  22. ^ 2021 Nobel in economics (www.nobelprize.org)
  23. ^ millions of users (www.theguardian.com)
  24. ^ capture users’ attention (www.washingtonpost.com)

Authors: Joseph Bak-Coleman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington

Read more https://theconversation.com/the-thousands-of-vulnerable-people-harmed-by-facebook-and-instagram-are-lost-in-metas-average-user-data-172119

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Metropolitan Business News

Take Advantage Of Local Seo Services In The Australia To Increase Your Visibility

The services that come under digital marketing include Search Engine Optimization(SEO), Pay per click management and website designing that's managed by Digital Agencies that provide local SEO ser...

Metropolitan Digital - avatar Metropolitan Digital

Top 5 Reasons to Hire an Accountant Rather Than Do Your Own Taxes

Running a business involves countless tasks and responsibilities that are not necessarily related to the activities that generate revenue. Trying to get a good pulse of the company and keep things...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

Boost Your Organic Traffic by Following These 10 SEO Tips

The parameters for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) evolve constantly and optimizing your website to meet these parameters is essential for increasing the organic traffic directed at it. The follo...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

What Is an SEO Agency and Why Should I Use One?

We’re glad you asked - SEO can be a confusing topic, but it is essential for growing site recognition and promoting your brand awareness. Essentially, SEO helps to amplify your business’s site, ma...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

Great Advantages of Shopping and Buying a Home from Display Homes

Buying a home is a lifetime investment that needs proper planning and due diligence. Using experts to get a fabulous home makes your work easier and may save time searching for a quality home. Dis...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

Are views important on Instagram?

Instagram influencers make their jobs look easy. One would think that all you need to do to be successful on Instagram is to post your content and wait for the views and likes to start rolling. Unfo...

Anna Prits - avatar Anna Prits

Writers Wanted


NewsServices.com

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion