Today's post is by Paul Formosa (Macquarie University) on his recent paper (co-authored with Siavosh Sahebi at Macquarie University) "Social Media and its Negative Impacts on Autonomy" (Philosophy and Technology, 2022).
Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of many people. It can entertain, inform, influence, and even transform who we are and what we believe and care about. This can include both more extreme cases of radicalisation, where a person is led down rabbit holes of misinformation that can fundamentally rewrite who they are as a person, to more mundane cases of being pushed by an influencer to buy a new pair of shoes you didn’t really need.
But whenever technology has the potential to change who we are, what we do, and what we care about, it raises important questions about our autonomy. When technology changes us or leads us to act or believe in a certain way, does that technology and its use constitute an authentic expression or extension of our autonomy, or does it override, constrain, or disrespect our autonomy? There is, of course, no single answer to these questions.
To try to partly answer them, in a recent paper written with Siavosh Sahebi and published in Philosophy and Technology, we set out to explore the negative impacts of social media on autonomy. This is not to deny that social media can also have positive impacts on autonomy, such as helping us to build authentic social connections with others or realise our ends, but only that we wanted to focus on the more important negative aspects.
After reviewing various accounts of autonomy, we take autonomy to be broadly a matter of: 1) developing autonomy competencies (e.g., having the ability to reason and imagine different possibilities, and being able to maintain appropriate self-attitudes such as self-respect; 2) having authentic ends (i.e. ends that upon critical refection you would endorse, acknowledge, or take responsibility for) and some control over important aspects of your own life (e.g. who your friends are); and 3) not being manipulated, coerced, and controlled by others.
Social media can impact negatively on all three aspects of autonomy through the control it can have over its users’ data, attention, and behaviour, since these platforms are (mostly) designed to generate enormous amounts of data, and use that data to fuel algorithms that direct our attention, which in turn can impact our behaviours and beliefs in ways that we are often not aware of and would not endorse if we did. The excessive extraction of data from us by social media platforms can constitute a form of exploitation and an expression of disrespect for our autonomy as we typically do not, and cannot, offer informed consent for all the data that is captured about us, and which is combined with the data of others to drive the platform’s algorithms.
These algorithms in turn are used to focus our attention on content that will keep us on, and engaged with, the platform. This can end up pushing us toward various political extremes without our knowing it, expose us to false views we can come to accept as reliable, and erode our autonomy competencies, such as self-esteem, through exposure to unrealistic or harmful norms and standards.
Finally, social media can manipulate and control us and our emotions by exploiting our vulnerabilities, such as our FOMO (fear of missing out), towards the achievement of its own ends for us (i.e., our continued engagement with the platform and its advertisers) at the expense of our own authentically endorsed ends for ourselves.
Whether the benefits of social media use justify any autonomy harms that it may inflict on individuals is a personal issue, and one that can be partly addressed through the cultivation of relevant digital virtues. However, these autonomy harms also raise broader political questions about the impact of social media on the health of our democracies that demand collective solutions, and various forms of proposed regulation of social media, such as rating the reliability of information, better privacy protections, banning targeted advertising, and stopping the infinite scroll of new content, are all steps in the right direction.