On Tuesday 14 March, ACU’s PM Glynn Institute launched its first in a series of public discussions about ethics and the future of Australia. The topic of the inaugural discussion was ‘Harnessing social media for the common good’ and was presented in collaboration with Loreto Kirribilli Catholic girl’s school in Sydney.

The conversation was facilitated by Walkley Award-winning journalist Helen Dalley and featured editor-at-large of The Australian, Paul Kelly; ACU’s Dianoia Institute for Philosophy director, Stephen Finlay; Loreto Kirribilli principal Anna Dickinson; and Loreto Year 12 student Gemma Chittendon.

A range of opinions came together to explore the ethical challenges that confront young people, society, and the future of Australian democracy in the face of social media and Big Tech giants.

If you weren’t able to watch it, here are some key take-aways:

A force for good?

When it comes to the beneficial dimensions of social media, several were pointed out. The most obvious, from recent experience, was the interconnectedness people found through social media during COVID lockdowns. Principal Anna Dickinson said this interconnectedness not only pulled the world together but helped young people through a very trying time:

Social media is a communication platform, and they’re communicating in ways that have never been done before.’

Year 12 Student Gemma Chittendon affirmed this, saying that during lockdowns social media showcased ‘the power of just how connected we can be.’ She believed that social media was a place where young people could authentically be themselves in a comfortable environment.

It was also observed that social media has proven enormously beneficial in providing aid in times of calamity, witnessed not only during Australia’s recent natural disasters but with the situation in Ukraine, also. The scale of relief being provided wouldn’t be possible without social media being harnessed in the way it has been.

Algorithms, age, and anonymity

Still, significant negatives were highlighted throughout the discussion. Firstly, the algorithms themselves, which are known for being addictively designed. They are created to feed someone their likes and interests and keep their attention for as long as possible for the sake of advertising.

Secondly, the lack of regulation in regards to age. Gemma noted how children as young as 10 are able to sign up to platforms like Tik-Tok without a hitch because there are no ID checks. They can simply lie about their age, gain entry, and have a wide range of material for viewing, plenty of which is harmful.

Thirdly, the problem of anonymity. Stephen Finlay noted, ‘What stops the worst tendencies in human nature typically is the shame of being recognised as the guilty party. But what you have with social media is people being able to act completely free of being recognised or seen.’

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(L-R): ACU’s Dianoia Institute for Philosophy director, Stephen Finlay; Loreto Kirribilli principal Anna Dickinson; Loreto Year 12 student Gemma Chittendon; Editor-at-large of The Australian, Paul Kelly and Walkley Award-winning journalist Helen Dalley Supplied by ACU

Major institutions under threat

One of the biggest problems identified was the threat social media poses to major institutions of society, like the democratic model of politics.

Social media should not be treated as an ordinary technology, Paul Kelly said. It is a ‘revolutionary technology’ and will require the collaboration of educational institutions, law, politics, and the individual to ‘get the benefits of the digital age and minimize the damage.’ In fact, he shared that in a recent poll conducted by The Australian, 56 per cent of people believed that the damage done by social media greatly outweighs the benefits.

He said:

The fundamental challenge is whether democracy, and how it functions now in the West, can survive in its current form.’

As an example, Kelly pointed to the 2018 Wentworth by-elections, which saw mass email campaigns targeting members with abuse, lies, and fearmongering. The hacker responsible for this was only discovered and apprehended two years later, after multiple sabotaging cyber campaigns and hundreds of thousands of emails sent.

He also pointed to the situation in America, where he said 40 per cent of people believed that Joe Biden had stolen the presidency and Donald Trump had actually won:

It seems to me that this could not have occurred without the triumph of the Big Tech companies and the digital age.’

The kinds of malignant forces that are at play on social media are not something we know how to deal with, he said.

While he recognised the enormous benefits that social media technology offered, he admitted to being cynical about it for a variety of reasons.

‘I think a lot of people who enjoy social media and enjoy it as a very effective communications tool don’t recognise they are being manipulated,’ he said. The systems have been designed to be addictive, he went on, and therein lies another challenge for the future: ‘the freedom of the mind.'

We know how it works. And the model is, your prejudices and your views and your likes and your dislikes are to be reinforced. And this is completely contrary and anathema to the principles of a free society in which we can have a proper debate and test our opinions.’

Stephen Finlay said that when it comes to social media, ‘There’s no going back. We have to learn how to live with it.’

What this means is ‘imposing order and rules’ on an essentially unregulated world, which is all the more important now that social media is ‘our shared world.’

Possible reforms

Kelly said that one of the biggest challenges is the attitude of the Tech Giants themselves. They do not take any responsibility for what occurs on their platforms, believing the nature of their existence as a platform frees them from being held accountable.

As was seen with the 2021 Facebook whistle-blower, he said, Big Tech knows what it’s doing, knows the harms it’s causing, and is unwilling to do anything about it.

Finlay said that the twin problems of algorithm and anonymity need to be targeted. The feedback loop of information, reinforcing one’s own opinions, will ‘lead to hyper-polarisation and the complete failure to under one another’s perspectives,’ entailing the death of democracy itself.

There also needs to be a way in which Big Tech can regulate the tendency of people to remain anonymous and so give way to their worst selves.

Anna Dickinson believed that educational institutions have a huge role to play, but perhaps most importantly, parents. While she believed that parents would not win the fight of limiting screen-time, she said that parents need to be actively involved in having conversations with their children from an early age about social media so that they are supported and protected:

They need to engage with these social media platforms to understand them so that they can have those rich conversations and really support their children.’
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Photo: Supplied by ACU

You can view the recording of the discussion using this link.