Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have sued Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, accusing it of using features that hook children to its platforms even as it claims its sites are safe for young people. According to Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, “Just like Big Tobacco and vaping companies have done in years past, Meta chose to maximize its profits at the expense of public health, specifically harming the health of the youngest among us.”
If Meta is proven guilty, social media will join a long line of industries that have profited at the expense of public health by peddling harmful products, including asbestos, leaded gasoline, tobacco, and oil and gas.
The harm caused by these industries was often known early, but with duplicity, good PR and even government complicity, the companies involved continued to push their pernicious products and reap their profits.
I have had the undistinguished honour of having worked in two of these delinquent industries.
The first job I had out of high school was as a shingler. Our work consisted of ripping off old wood shingles and replacing them with asbestos shingles. That specific job is now obsolete, for a very good reason. Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma, a deadly cancer.
According to the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, the asbestos industry “systematically developed and then suppressed information on the carcinogenicity of asbestos. … As a result, millions of workers were exposed to the carcinogen and hundreds of thousands died.”
Thetford Mines in Quebec was once the centre of one of the world’s largest asbestos-producing regions. The federal government actively supported mining, sales and export of asbestos even though it was the major cause of workplace deaths in the country. Finally, in 2016 it accepted the science and banned the manufacture, import, sale and use of products containing asbestos. Nonetheless it is still in thousands of buildings across the country, killing hundreds of Canadians every year.
The second suspect industry I toiled for was oil and gas. The oil patch was very good to me: good pay, benefits, and opportunities for education and advancement. I was proud to be helping people heat their homes and drive their cars. But things change. I didn’t know then, although perhaps I should have, that I was also helping heat the environment.
This industry, which revolutionized society, has now become a villain, producing products that threaten civilization itself. Like the asbestos industry, it knew the harm it was doing generations ago but worked diligently to suppress the knowledge. And like the asbestos industry, it has its government enablers.
But back to the case against Meta. As with asbestos and oil, the industry’s product has done much good, but has also done much harm. The plaintiffs accuse it of inflicting yet another kind of harm on society, specifically the corruption of children’s minds. They would seem to have a good case.
According to an article in The New York Times, “Experts who study internet use say that the magnetic allure of social media arises from the way the content plays to our neurological impulses and wiring, such that consumers find it hard to turn away from the incoming stream of information.”
Adults are susceptible, but “young people are particularly at risk because the brain regions that are involved in resisting temptation and reward are not nearly as developed in children and teenagers as in adults.” Furthermore, adolescent brains are especially attuned to social connections.
The plaintiffs claim that Meta’s algorithms are “designed to push children and teenagers into rabbit holes of toxic and harmful content.” They also charged the company with collecting kids’ personal date without parental permission. They are seeking financial penalties and injunctions to force the company to stop using harmful features.
We have learned the hard way that while the Internet promised much, and delivered much, it also causes a lot of harm, including to the most vulnerable. If this case leads to better behaviour by the social media giants, with strong regulations to keep them on the straight and narrow, a much less toxic Internet may emerge.