My two-year-old daughter was recently spending some of her minimal screentime watching YouTube videos of her favorite Elmo content. Digital “swiping” somehow appears to be innate in children born in the Smartphone Era, and she started clicking some of the recommended videos. I glanced away for a bit, and returned to see she had somehow stumbled on a video titled “Watch Elmo Die.”
It was shocking, and disturbing — and a great opportunity to learn about how parental controls work.
I don’t want the YouTube algorithm to feed that to my children, or to any children. But I definitely don’t want to call my U.S. senator and get him involved in the process of what happens between me, my children and the addictive social media platforms we all frequent.
Last week, the CEOs of some of the top tech companies gathered on Capitol Hill for a bipartisan public flogging before the Senate and the drooling press, all of whom were more or less united in disdain for the leaders of TikTok and X. The entire event was ostensibly about the ways social media companies aren’t doing enough to stop child abuse on their platforms. But, like most hearings where public officials can feel the bright lights of an engaged media apparatus, it devolved into theatrical and broad attacks.
Meta CEO and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was the most targeted of the bunch, the poster child of the capital-P Problem with social media. He was urged by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to turn and apologize to the families of children harmed on Facebook, and he humiliatingly obliged.
There are many serious problems with social media today — and its outsized and still-growing grip on our culture and daily lives make solving them of paramount importance. The senators and the top critics of these platforms have identified some legitimate concerns. But so often these days we begin to slide toward the wrong solutions to real problems — in a direction that gives more power to those who feel it slipping away every time a random person can go “viral” or accrue a significant audience.
And if there’s bipartisan consensus on anything these days, your eyebrows should be raised.
In this case, the boogeyman of the internet has become Section 230, part of a 1996 law that gives online service providers immunity from being sued over what users on these platforms post. Politicians on both sides of the aisle would like to gain leverage over these companies to push further regulation. And thousands of lawyers are surely salivating about what they’ll get to do if these platforms lose their immunity.
Zuckerberg and his management of his powerful collection of social media companies — from Facebook to Instagram to WhatsApp — are not without criticism. He himself acknowledged in the hearing, and has for years, that there are efforts that need to be taken to continue policing the vast amount of content that appears on the platforms.
If anything, we should be grateful that Zuckerberg is a mostly altruistic powerful billionaire who seems to be motivated by a real interest in helping the world and its citizens connect and express themselves, and not purely driven by profit and more nefarious missions.
But the short-sighted approach to removing Section 230 as a salve for the internet outrage du jour will backfire, because more tech regulation and fewer protections will surely lead to more tech censorship. We’ve seen the insidious ways these companies can deplatform and chill speech of those who are deemed unacceptable. The Twitter Files, the Hunter Biden laptop and so much more — Americans would lose their ability to converse freely if the platforms become liable like the users are.
In many ways, the censorship we’ve seen is nothing compared to what could come if the senators in that room got their way. As of now, we’ve experienced what can be described as “retroactive censorship” — getting posts flagged and removed, or bans for what gets posted publicly. Imagine a world where “proactive censorship” becomes the norm — where you no longer hit publish and see your thoughts go out into the world, but instead enter a queue to be vetted before your content is allowed on the open internet.
But at the core of the misplaced anger at Zuckerberg is a series of constituencies that feel power slipping through their grasp. There are the senators and other elite establishment consensus-pushers who are fearful of the “people” gaining prominence, enabled by new tools. The gatekeepers are being sidelined, and it makes them furious — and vengeful.
But it’s also moms and dads in America today. It can feel overwhelming to navigate parenthood in a digital world, raising kids who understand the landscape far better than they do. They see the real challenges and risks of social media — how isolating it can be, the way it can lead to loneliness and vanity, and worse. They want help.
I sympathize with these parents, but there are far greater methods to fixing the problem than pushing for government regulation. Fight the platforms … on the platforms. There are more avenues than ever for parents to mobilize and make a real difference.
Ultimately, it’s parents’ responsibility to police their own children, to encourage positive, safe choices. You don’t sue Elon Musk if your kid gets in a Tesla drunk and hurts himself or others. There’s a way to use a Tesla responsibly, just like there’s a way to use X, or Facebook or any other platform responsibly.
Mark Zuckerberg is not blameless for the social networks he birthed into the world. But I trust him a lot more than my local politician to fix the multitude of problems that exist, with new ones popping up each day, in our increasingly digital life.
Steve Krakauer, a NewsNation contributor, is the author of “Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People” and editor and host of the Fourth Watch newsletter and podcast.
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