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Analysis: Recent headlines reveal the two truths about social media

Two things have been made even more apparent in recent days: That social media can be exceptionally corrosive to society and that people will still continue to use the products in mind-boggling numbers. The storm of recent headlines might be tarnishing the reputation of Facebook and some of the other industry giants, but the numbers these companies are reporting in their earnings reports show that people will continue to use their products regardless.

Yes, there is a lot of huffing and puffing going on right now about how dangerous these products are, how unethical they behave, how for years they have poisoned the public conversation with hate and misinformation and outright lies and conspiracy theories. And yet, it must be asked: Has that compelled sizable numbers of users to logoff? To hit the delete button? To walk away from the toxicity?

All evidence points to no. People continue to use these platforms while also understanding how destructive can be. Seriously, ask yourself: Are you still scrolling through Facebook? Double-tapping photos on Instagram? Watching videos on YouTube? A betting man would be unwise to guess that you have abandoned the online universes that these companies have constructed. And you’re not alone…

Take YouTube, for instance: The company — alongside Snapchat and TikTok — was grilled on Capitol Hill Tuesday about child safety and whether it does enough to keep kids safe online. It was the only platform on Tuesday that would not commit to releasing internal research about how it affects the mental wellbeing of teenagers. Not exactly a great headline for the company.
But headlines like that don’t appear to be standing in the way of the company posting eye-popping profits. YouTube said Tuesday that in Q3 it generated $7.2 billion in advertising revenue, amounting to an annual increase of 43%. For context, Netflix posted $7.48 billion in Q3 revenue. Which puts YouTube right on the heels of the world’s largest streaming services…

Twitter gains 5 million users

The size of Twitter pales in comparison to a mammoth like YouTube, but the company also reported advertising revenue in the billions on Tuesday. Twitter said that its Q3 advertising revenue totaled $1.28 billion, up 37% from last year. And, while the company also reported a one-time litigation charge of $766 million, it said it had added 5 million daily active users from the second quarter. It also said Apple’s privacy feature hasn’t had a “lower than expected” impact on its business…

“What the hell happens now?”

That’s the question Charlie Warzel posed in his Tuesday newsletter. Warzel was writing specifically about Facebook and the Facebook Papers. But the point he made is applicable to the broader industry. “Big Tech has largely succeeded in re-imagining and re-making parts of our culture, government … and economy,” Warzel wrote. “But Big Tech doesn’t just act on these institutions/forces, they are all horrendously interwoven, making each node in the tangled ecosystem…worse? More complicated? You can make Facebook or YouTube safer. But you can’t necessarily change the ways all this s**t has changed us or the ways it will continue to distribute/re-distribute money, power, influence, culture, and information. You can probably find ways to ameliorate the inequalities some but ‘fix’ is an impoverished word when it comes to Facebook. Fix…what exactly? And how exactly?”

Warzel went on to write: “I’m also worried because it’s going to be hard to untangle Facebook and the rest of the platforms from, well, everything else, including the way these platforms have changed us — the way that the architecture and nature of these platforms act on us and how we, even reluctantly or unwittingly, absorb some of their characteristics. That reckoning will be particularly painful and I’m not sure we fully possess the language or countervailing institutions or historical hindsight to start that work in earnest right now.”

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