Harvard University initiative proposes social media reboot within three years

The Institute for Rebooting Social Media proposes aims to help reset social media over the next three years.

social media apps on a smartphone.

An offshoot of the Harvard University has proposed a reset of toxic social media over the next three years.

The Institute for Rebooting Social Media is a new initiative from Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society (BKCIS), being funded with $2m (£1.5m) from the John S. and John L. Knight Foundation, as well as Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

BKCIS co-founder Johnathan Zittrain said that “few would defend current the social media environment”.

BKCIS analysis has shown that social media is no longer fit for purpose and that engines for democracy and truth appear to have facilitated the spread and acceptance of lies, division and physical harm.

For example, social media was recently used to promote the use of ivermectin, a drug used to deworm livestock and which the FDA considers dangerous to humans, as a Covid-19 treatment.

The BKCIS researchers have also suggested that social media has contributed to a decrease in confidence in institutions and elections, and the growth of ethical conflict. However, despite its downfalls, social media has clear benefits worth preserving with, and part of the new institute’s work will be to strengthen these benefits while minimising its potential for harm.

Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said: “We need to amplify the good part of social media. There is a consensus, even among people who run social media companies, that there are growing problems with the way we interact and communicate, and share information online.”

However the scale and reach of social media makes it difficult to reform.

Karen Kovacs North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, said: “It’s not as easy as saying there’s a problem at a company, let’s figure out how to change its culture.”

Current social media tends to exaggerate differences in people, to outrage and to radicalise, said Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List and Craig Newmark Philanthropies

Therefore, the new institute believes collaboration must be baked into the new design. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, corralling participants across industry, government, civil society and academia could build a portfolio of research, projects, programming and educational opportunities to improve the digital social space.

John Sands, director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation, hopes the institute can create a space for deeper discussion among people from a variety of backgrounds.

“Normally the folks who need to discuss these issues and hash out solutions are only together [for] a day or two at conferences,” he explained. “This institute offers an opportunity for extended engagement.”

The reboot project will look at the psychology behind social media interaction.

Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a public policy think tank, said: “It requires an interdisciplinary approach because it’s not really, or at least not just, social media that’s broken. It’s human psychology and social institutions, and the broader media ecosystem.

John Carroll, a media analyst and journalist based in Boston, noted that the biggest challenge for initiatives like the reboot project is to break through to the public at large.

These groups can come up with tools, approaches and habits that could help people – if they reach them,” he said. “But the reach of a technology centre at Harvard University is pretty limited in the overall scope of things.

“They have laudable objectives,” he adds. “The only question is how realistic are they?”

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