Immersed in our online lives, we risk the fate of Ralph, Piggy, Jack and Simon

Immersed in our online lives, we risk the fate of Ralph, Piggy, Jack and Simon
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If the congressional hearings featuring Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Maxine Waters says her committee will call in Zuckerberg to testify about Libra Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE are any indication, Facebook is responsible for the exploitative sharing of our data and catastrophic damage to our democracy — winning and losing elections and threatening our First Amendment freedoms. Not to mention the less obvious ways Facebook feeds us news and tries to influence how we think. While no one except  Facebook is privy to this automated ranking process, it nonetheless shapes the social lives and reading habits of more than 1 billion users.  

As we become more aware of all the ways in which Facebook and other social media platforms affect our lives, we are beginning to look for answers to the problems we face. The trouble is, we may be looking for our answers in the wrong places.

Although it is fair to ask Facebook to give us greater transparency into how it determines its algorithms and to whom our data is being sold, as well as to secure some disclosure of the source  of political ads, we should also be figuring out how we as people are changing because of our use of social media — including what our use of social media tells us about ourselves, and what we should do about it.    


Online, we are not unlike the British schoolboys stranded on an island in the 1954 classic novel, “Lord of the Flies,” free from the moral order of society and subject only to the rules they create. We know how the story ends: savagery, children dying, and an ironic and unsatisfying rescue. As on an unnamed Pacific island, online we face a certain freedom from the usual societal and familial roles and relationships that ground our morality. We create our own “moral” communities, organized around the content we love and hate.  

These online “relationships” influence our sense of morality and the things we might say and do online and off. They even alter what we believe to be true about ourselves — and not always in a good way.  

The question we as a society and as individuals are not addressing is how social media shapes our moral behavior by altering our perceptions of reality, which serve as the basis for our moral behavior.  Social networking technologies not only limit our perception but also direct our attention in ways that affect how we see the event, understand it and react to it.

Our exposure to content and people on social media influences our sense of morality and immorality. Consider how a tweet can generate a cyber mob, such as that experienced by Ashley Judd when she tweeted a comment about a rival basketball team during a game. Some other cyber mobs can be far more persistent and detrimental. When graduate student Anna Mayer (who used a pseudonym) blogged about her struggles with her weight, depression and other personal issues while she was in school, she became the target of a cyber mob, which followed her even after she completed her studies and started her first job.  

It seems satisfying to point the finger at the technology companies or insist that Congress fix what is wrong with social media platforms, but the blind spot we have when it comes to technology is that we think we are fully in control of using it or modifying it to serve our societal, political and moral objectives. Missing in our attempt to control technology is that we tend not to see how technology is controlling us — and by this I do not mean that we are checking our phones nearly 100 times a day.

The judgments we form in reaction to what and who we encounter online, and how we understand it, are not unimportant when it comes to our morality and the actions and decisions we take in relation to it. Our online interactions and communications are shallow, organized around snippets of content and galvanized by others with whom we interact.  

When we are online, the superficiality of interactions and the relationships we form, the asynchronous quality of the content to which we are exposed, and the inability to know the consequences of our actions and decisions on others, indelibly affect the kind of moral judgments we make.    

While social media platforms themselves and policymakers have their roles to play, let’s not allow ourselves as individuals — and collectively as a society — to escape responsibility. This moment should force us to reflect on the form that our morality should take and to claim responsibility for it. There is no British Navy coming to rescue us from ourselves.

Lisa Nelson is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and an affiliate scholar of Pitt Cyber. The author of the forthcoming book,“Social Media and Morality: Losing our Self Control” (Cambridge University Press), she was a co‐principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to explore the societal perceptions of biometric technology. From 2011-2013 she was appointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Committee.