It’s nice to see that TV has been displaced by Facebook, Twitter et al. as the villain du jour when it comes to social ills. It wasn’t long after TV became ubiquitous, sometime in the 1950s, that “experts” decided that TV was making America dumber, more violent, too sexy, fatter, materialistic, less sociable and generally unhappier. Now social media are the bad guys.
I confess it. I’m experiencing a little of that sweet schadenfreude as I watch and read about the growing criticism of social media.
For the first time in 70 years, TV is not the bad (or baddest) guy. It’s social media and their enabling smartphone technology, we are told by sociologists, psychologists and self-appointed reformers, that are responsible for how screwed up the country is.
A few weeks ago, on his HBO show, Bill Maher featured tech investor and pontificator Roger McNamee. He was on a mission, sounding the alarm about how Facebook and other social media were far worse than other advertising media.
They hold your attention for the advertiser by “throwing things at you designed to make you either afraid or angry,” he said with Maher egging him on. They’re like processed food. “Think of this technology as being full of sugar, salt and fat, and it’s got an addictive thing like cigarettes.”
He and like-minded critics now have a term for the evil social media do: brain hacking.
Last month, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya shared his regrets in making Facebook so big. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said during the Stanford talk in December. “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.”
Others have complained about how social media sicken the body politic by creating information bubbles where people hear only what they want to hear and “fake news” becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.
Politicians are up in arms, too, having discovered that social media can be easily manipulated by the Russians to undermine our democracy.
Can regulation of the social media be far behind?
It wasn’t long after TV became ubiquitous, sometime in the 1950s, that some “experts” decided that TV was making America dumber, more violent, too sexy, fatter, materialistic, less sociable and generally unhappier.
These charges, true or false, never let up. You name a negative personal attribute and I bet I can find someone saying that TV has caused it to flourish. You name a social ill and I bet I can find someone tracing it to too much TV.
There was never any doubt that TV was powerful. It conferred instant celebrity and wealth on anybody pretty enough and smart enough to master it.
This power, along with all the testimony about how bad it was for people, scared parents, educators and policymakers. Together, it justified tight regulation and “public interest” programming mandates on broadcasting.
Other media have had their scapegoat moments. Theater was outlawed in some colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Books were banned in the 19thcentury. Movies were subjected to strict censorship in the 20th century.
Just before TV became the all-consuming force it did, it was comic books that threatened us all. In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a series of hearings on how crime and horror comics were fraying the morale fiber of the nation’s youth.
Music — from “race music,” to Elvis, to the Rolling Stones, to just about any rapper you can name — has drawn plenty of righteous ire. Remember Tipper Gore’s campaign in the 1980s to impose ratings on records after her daughter was exposed to a Prince song?
Just this week, with everybody flailing about for a solution to school shootings, President Trump fingered video games, movies and the internet.
“We have to look at the internet because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds and their minds are being formed, and we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it,” he said.
When it comes to corrupting our youth, as Gilda Radner might say, it’s always something.
But none of the other media has drawn the continual disapprobation over the years that TV has.
Given all this, it’s kind of nice that social media are taking the heat for a while.
Beyond just making broadcasters feel good, the country’s current obsession with social media has practical benefits for them.
The FCC of Chairman Ajit Pai is racing ahead with plans to eliminate some of the last meaningful structural and content regulations of broadcasting and there doesn’t seem to be much passion on Capitol Hill or anywhere else to stop it.
By this time next year, broadcasters may not have to air three hours of children’s programming anymore and they may be able to own stations in every market in the country.
The issues surrounding social media also distract attention from political advertising on TV, a vital source of broadcasting revenue that has often been the target of reformers.
With all due respect to the Russian social media mavens, they are amateurs when it comes creating divisions in our electorate. American politicians are the true experts at slicing and dicing it, and they have been doing it for years using television.
If a political ad is not simply smearing an opponent, it is exaggerating some wedge issue and portraying the opponent as being on the wrong side of it.
But with Facebook and Google on the hot seat, I don’t hear any talk about imposing any new regulations on political TV ads or requiring broadcasters to provide free time or play a role in fuller disclosure of who’s paying for the ads.
The advent of cable TV in the 1980s and 1990s allowed broadcasters to continually lower their standards of good taste. The advent of social media (and the anything-goes internet in general) insures those standards can go even lower with impunity. Let’s just hope they don’t.
So, the next time you hear some academic or politician raise hell about Facebook or Twitter, smile and whisper to yourself: “There but for the grace of God go I.”