The Media Today

In 2019, will the tide turn against Facebook and social media?

January 3, 2019

It’s a question that gets asked every time Facebook does something wrong, which seems to happen with rather depressing regularity: could this be the point at which public opinion finally begins to turn and people to delete their accounts, or at least stop using the service so much? Or will the vast majority of users ignore the latest incident, the way they have so many similar events over the past few years? The latest incident, of course, was a report from The New York Times just before the holidays that suggested Facebook provided data access to certain tech giants that went far beyond what it told users, even after the company promised the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 that it would clean up its act.

Although the details of the Times report were exaggerated in some cases (as I have noted), the news was enough to convince certain prominent users and celebrities to quit the network. Walt Mossberg, the veteran technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, announced that he was deleting his account, as did Columbia University law professor and author Tim Wu, and the singer and pop-cultural icon known as Cher. Reaction to the Times story triggered a #DeleteFacebook hashtag campaign on Twitter, one that hit the trending topics section, and a number of news outlets—including The New York Times—wrote articles about how to delete your account (your account isn’t actually deleted until 30 days after you make the request, and it can take up to 90 days for all your data to be removed).

Despite all the scandals, however, it seems unlikely #DeleteFacebook will become a groundswell. While it’s become trendy to hate the social network, many people rely on it for connections to family members and friends, and are presumably willing to make the privacy trade-offs required to do so. (Plus, Facebook and other social-media services like Instagram make their apps as addictive as possible, with all sorts of emotional triggers built in to keep you scrolling and clicking). On top of that, the service is integrated into so many other parts of people’s lives—including logins to other important services—that it’s difficult to get rid of it completely. According to a recent study by a Tufts University economist, you would have to pay the average user more than $1,000 a year to get them to delete their Facebook account permanently.

It’s not just Facebook that has been suffering a backlash. Social media in general has become increasingly controversial, with studies suggesting users of such services tend to be worse off than those who don’t use them, and that in turn has fed into concerns about smartphone usage. A recent New York Times op-ed, “In Search of Lost Screen Time,” made the case that with the 1,460 hours an American spends on their smartphone in a year, they could engage in a number of other activities (including having sex 16,000 times). There are flaws in these types of arguments, of course, including the fact that some of the time spent on smartphones involves doing things required by your job, texting with family and friends, and reading the news and looking up facts—activities that are presumably valuable both to users and to society as a whole.

While most people agree some reduction in screen time and social media would be beneficial, some people—including the founders of these very services—have adopted a more radical approach, especially for kids: Evan Spiegel, founder of Snap Inc., said in a recent interview that he and his wife limit their seven-year-old son’s screen time to just 1.5 hours a week. But is it realistic to think that large numbers of parents will adopt this kind of limit, when many of them are just as addicted to their devices? Not to mention the fact that as more of the internet becomes mobile-first, being able to use a smartphone is becoming an important life skill. Some argue—as NPR correspondent Anya Kamenetz did for CJR—that the fight against screen time is verging on a “moral panic” akin to the age-old arguments against comic books and video games, and that we should be spending more time trying to teach people how to manage their mobile usage, rather than expecting them to throw their phones in the trash bin.

Here’s more on deleting Facebook and the problem of screen time:

  • Be a pioneer: Tech guru and author Jaron Lanier, who has been fighting social media for some time now, recommends that we all delete Facebook so that we can beat the social-media addiction, make a political statement, and reinvent our social life.
  • Well-being: A study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that cutting the amount of time spent on Instagram and other services had “a significant impact on the well-being” of undergraduate users who took part in the research.
  • What a doll: Dollmaker American Girl announced its new Girl of the Year doll for 2019, an aspiring chef who runs a bed-and-breakfast and “needs help finding balance between the digital world and the real world.”
  • Better choices: A psychologist writing in Psychology Today argues that the problem for many younger users is not screen time per se, but making better choices about where and when to use a smartphone.
  • Flawed studies: A new study says that much of the research into the downsides of screen time is flawed because it relies on self-reporting, and most survey participants are notoriously bad at estimating their usage.
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Other notable stories:

  • Zachary Siegel writes for CJR about being arrested and charged with contempt for recording an expert witness during the trial of the Chicago police officer who killed Laquan McDonald.
  • According to Howard Kurtz of Fox News, a new book written by former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson says the paper’s news pages became “unmistakably anti-Trump.”
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan notes that despite the Trump administration’s repeated claims that reports of chaos in the White House are “fake news,” most of that reporting has proven to be true.
  • According to recently released documents, the FBI investigated both The Village Voice and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press in 1976 and considered charging them with espionage.
  • Fox News’s chief Washington correspondent James Rosen, who was forced out after allegations of sexual misconduct, has joined Sinclair Broadcast Group as an investigative reporter in its Washington bureau.
  • Atlantic writer Derek Thompson argues that the media industry as we know it is reverting back to what it looked like in the 19th century, when direct support from readers and rich benefactors was the norm.
  • The New York Times writes about a growing number of Chinese companies that make a business of censoring the internet, removing references to Tiananmen Square and other forbidden topics.
  • Jackson Free Press reporter Ashton Pittman decided to track how media organizations use terms such as “likable” and “unlikable” to refer to male and female political candidates, and the results were eye-opening.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.