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Op-Ed: US schools lose hundreds of social media ‘addiction’ lawsuits

Maybe the society could be coaxed into growing up?

The EU fears deepfakes and other AI-generated risks on social media could sway upcoming elections
The EU fears deepfakes and other AI-generated risks on social media could sway upcoming elections - Copyright AFP Brendan Smialowski
The EU fears deepfakes and other AI-generated risks on social media could sway upcoming elections - Copyright AFP Brendan Smialowski

LA Superior Court has dismissed lawsuits by hundreds of school districts nationwide against top social media platforms. The schools claimed social media platforms are designed to “addict” kids, and that they had to deal with the fallout.

The social media companies responded that they weren’t responsible for third party content. The judge stated that there must be limits to liability.

On face value, this seems to be a straightforward Yes or No issue. In practice, it looks like both sides need a reality check.

A few points:

Social media is not “avoidable”. It’s very much part of the environment, particularly for kids of school age.

Social media has become the default whipping boy for America. There is rarely any suggestion that the media reflects the society. Would a hyper-polarized, hyper-aggressive society post lullabies on social media? Maybe not.

None of many similar lawsuits have achieved very much if anything. Maybe it’s time to rethink what’s supposed to be accomplished?

Liability exists when a court decides that there is a liability. A limit, sure, but not to the extent of total exclusion of liability for all social media forevermore.

These cases were apparently dismissed because they didn’t make much of a case for themselves. People do like social media.The “addiction” part of the case was a misnomer, off-topic, and an own goal.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996 was cited in coverage of the issues in this case.

This short but particularly unsatisfying bit of verbiage states:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

 Which sort of raises the question of who’s ultimately responsible for the content, doesn’t it? It lets social media off the hook to a degree, It does not state that any crime is OK if it’s on social media. A better legislative option would be “…subject to the determination of any liability or offense by a court”.

This is not a great place for a Get Out of Jail Free card. The sheer number of complaints and scams on social media shouldn’t be a no-go zone for the law. The social media platforms do moderate and manage these issues, but they can’t do it all themselves. There needs to be a big stick available.

Social media platforms are not law enforcement agencies, and nor should they be. They’re stakeholders in their own businesses. They can’t be impartial. It’s unreasonable to expect them to be babysitting the global public.

Most of the problems on social media are bots and trolls. I’ve seen many fake profiles on Facebook. These guys exist specifically to create problems for users. The law, social media, and the schools would be well advised to target them, not throw legal rocks at abstract issues.

Turning to practical fixes, there are plenty of simple remedies.

Social media should simplify their complaints protocols to identify the issues. I’ve tried to complain on behalf of other users and groups and found it impossible, at least on Facebook. I tried to complain about a breach of copyright, and there wasn’t even an option.

Simple demographics should be enough to identify serial offenders. If you can try to sell me John Deere tractors for so many years after I did an article on them, that shouldn’t be too hard.

The results of the invention of the phone were obscene phone calls, phone marketing, and political fundraising calls. A completely different medium, the same problems.

Maybe the society could be coaxed into growing up?


The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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