If I gave you three guesses to think of a company that: 1) has deliberately created a highly addictive product; 2) uses aggressive tactics to get more and more people “hooked” on it; 3) has directly contributed to a public health crisis in America; and 4) knew about the dangers of its product but deliberately concealed it from the public, what would you say? Most Americans’ minds would go immediately to a company like Philip Morris, or R.J. Reynolds, two of the top tobacco manufacturers in the U.S. and part of the larger corporate industry known as “Big Tobacco.” But they might be surprised to discover that these same features are shared by Facebook, which admitted two weeks ago that an article claiming that the COVID vaccine causes death was the top-performing post on its platform from January to March. The finding, which was included in an internal report, was kept from the public by senior executives who feared that it might hurt the company’s image. The uncanny parallels between Facebook and Big Tobacco ought to make us reconsider how we think of “Big Tech” and its role in society.
Big Tobacco is a unique industry in American society, primarily because its own success – meaning, profitability – is at odds with the public good. In other words, increasing the companies’ bottom line is ultimately a net loss for society – more people hooked on tobacco means more cancer, more deaths, and more public health costs. Few other industries have such a stark contrast between the benefit of what they produce and the costs they impose on society at large. Sure, the automobile industry has cut safety corners in the past, and the fast food industry is a key factor in America’s obesity epidemic, but in the end, we do need cars, and drive-throughs, used in moderation, ultimately make the average American’s life a little easier. Smoking, on the other hand, is just plain bad, even according to the smokers themselves: The CDC estimates that almost 70% of adult smokers want to quit. It might be more accurate to refer to Big Tobacco as a “sindustry” – an industry that makes money off of reducing its consumers’ collective well-being.
Facebook is not that different. Facebook, like most social media sites, has a revenue model based on advertising. What that means is that they make money by keeping users on the site as long as possible – thereby increasing the chance that the user will click on the targeted ads on their feed. Facebook conducts research to see what keeps users on the site, or returning for more. Do you find yourself unable to stop the endless scrolling on your newsfeed? Coming back to check how many “likes” or comments you have on a post? Well, thank Facebook – they know exactly what creates a dopamine rush that makes you unable to put your phone down. In other words, their goal is to keep you hooked – it’s literally the same brain chemical that some people get from gambling, or doing cocaine.
Even more troubling are the mental health effects of social media sites like Facebook, particularly on young people. As early as 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned of the potential effects of social media sites on teenagers, including cyberbullying, jealousy (based on self-comparisons with the projected image of their peers), and depression. More recently, members of Congress have called attention to the link between social media usage and teen depression and rising suicide rates – a correlation that Facebook has characterized as “inconclusive.” In fact, Facebook has barreled ahead with plans to create a version of Instagram for children under 13 – another echo of Big Tobacco’s attempts to get children interested in cigarettes through its advertising schemes. Facebook’s new initiative has prompted 44 attorneys general to write a letter to the company demanding that they stop.
The latest revelations on COVID misinformation show that the damaging effect of Facebook is now occurring at a national scale. What may have been, until now, detrimental effects at the individual level now have spillover consequences that affect everyone. Much like how the permissiveness of smoking in public places led to adverse health outcomes for nonsmokers due to the effects of secondhand smoke, Facebook’s business model has created a platform that allows, and even encourages, the spread of misinformation – like false claims about the COVID vaccine – which are not only leading to the deaths of the unvaccinated, but helping to facilitate a new surge of the Delta variant across the nation. That Facebook knew that it was complicit in this phenomenon, but chose to hide it, makes the need to hold the company to account feel even more urgent.
Here is where the parallels to Big Tobacco end – for now. After all, Big Tobacco was brought to heel by the law: In the 1990s, 46 attorneys general sued the tobacco industry, seeking recovery for Medicaid and other public health expenses as a result of what it alleged were deceptive and fraudulent trade practices. The Master Settlement Agreement reached by the states required the tobacco companies to pay damages for the public health costs resulting from cigarettes. The companies were also forced to restrict their advertising and participate in public awareness campaigns regarding the health risks of smoking. Unfortunately, the same approach won’t work to reel in Facebook; the litigation option is foreclosed for Big Tech due to a legislative provision called Section 230 (of the 1996 Communications Decency Act), which immunizes social media platforms from liability based on the content they publish. While the current state of Big Tech may have outgrown the original purpose of Section 230, courts have continued to construe the immunity broadly, making civil suits like those brought against Big Tobacco difficult, if not impossible. (Interestingly, the only other “sindustry” that has the same kind of blanket immunity as Big Tech are gun manufacturers – though creative state AGs are finding ways to circumvent it.)
Nevertheless, we can learn some lessons from Big Tobacco and apply them to Big Tech. One is to reframe misinformation as a public health crisis and approach it in the same way we do for infectious diseases. We seem to be moving in that direction, with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issuing a formal advisory – typically reserved for creating awareness around health issues like drug addiction and suicide prevention – declaring COVID misinformation an “urgent threat to public health.” Even in the absence of litigation, Congress could require Facebook and other Big Tech companies to share data about misinformation on their platforms with agencies like the CDC, or require them to add messaging on their sites warning of the dangers of using their products, like tobacco companies do on their product packaging. There may even be creative ways to tax social media companies to incentivize them to change their behavior, the same way that federal and state governments have done with cigarettes. We need to start thinking creatively about solutions to misinformation, because Americans’ addiction to social media is literally killing us.