It’s long past time to regulate social media like any other utility.

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Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash.

As disappointing revelations about beloved companies go, the disastrous mess at Time’s Up being one of the more surprising and the dark underbelly of the Lincoln Project being one of the least, Facebook barely registers.

Of course Facebook has a toxic work environment. Now that we have a more convenient label for that sorry state of vocational life, plenty of disgruntled employees are laying claim to it, some with better reasons than others. From the office of the Vice President of the United States to the boardroom of your local chamber of commerce, you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a toxic work environment.

Cliches like “toxic work environment” are often cliche for a reason. Toxic work environments are penultimate, ubiquitous; they transcend space, time, culture. An employee being hotly abused by their boss is immediately recognizable in any language.

Of course Facebook is terrible for us, our relationships and our mental health. Of course Instagram is bad for young people; of course Facebook knows that.

They know- in case you’ve missed how tailored advertising has become to your browsing habits- everything about us.

Of course Facebook has a secret list of celebrities, politicians and other luminaries who are exempt from the same ill-defined “community standards” the rest of the plebes must obey on pain of permanent banishment from the public square.

Of course Facebook plans to fix all this by suppressing criticism of Facebook on Facebook via “Project Amplify.” Facebook users, in the world according to Mark Zuckerberg, should only hear- and presumably share- pro-Facebook news on Facebook. Project Amplify is really just a good-hearted effort to make the world a better, more positive place. (For Facebook.)

But hey; a private company should do anything it likes, right?

Like electioneering.

Which is why Ben Schreckinger’s latest book was a bombshell for the social media masters of the universe who blocked access to a major story involving one of the presidential candidates during a hotly contested election.

Electioneering by social media companies, no matter how much the left likes it now, is bound to come back to bite them sooner or later. If nothing else, other countries might have noticed two all-powerful American social media companies could probably pick their next president, too.

Without Facebook, there would probably have been no President Donald Trump. Before they were against him, they were fine with him.

Democrats in leadership, and their likeminded colleagues in other industries- including the tech industry- wanted Donald Trump to win the Republican primary in 2016. They helped him. The Law Partners of Hillary Clinton & Co. thought he’d be easier to beat than a mainstream Republican like Jeb Bush.

Before they banned him, Donald Trump used social media to best advantage in ways no candidate had ever done before. So without Facebook and Twitter bans, there might be no President Joe Biden, either.

LuLaRoe, that leggings-purveyor turned pyramid scheme turned subject of an Amazon documentary “LuLaRich”, certainly would never have existed were it not for Facebook.

The rise of LuLaRoe, and the fall of LuLaRoe- like the rise and fall of Donald Trump- came via the same trojan horse: Facebook.

Facebook Live expanded the marketplaces of the average LuLaRoe vendor, who theretofore had been limited to essentially hosting pop-ups at her house. Facebook Live, and the prevalence of social media helped fuel a viral, scarcity-model marketing strategy.

Like Trump’s election in 2016, and Biden’s in 2020, it was a perfect storm; for LuLaRoe, issuing only one-of-a-kind, limited edition prints created a sense of consumer urgency. In a post-industrial, post-technical revolution utopia such as ours, the novelty of consumers not being able to buy something as ubiquitous as leggings and tunics created a buzz around LuLaRoe.

It isn’t unlike the Beanie Baby craze, or the Cabbage Patch kid craze before it. Technology played a role in the rise and fall of LuLaRoe- but human nature played a bigger one.

Using supply-side economics to create a demand isn’t a new strategy. Diamond wholesalers have long used it to keep the market from becoming oversaturated with diamonds, thereby driving down the value, which is tied to their supposed scarcity.

Dutch tulip growers struck it rich during a rare tulip craze, when flower enthusiasts in grip of its madness paid thousands for a few tulip bulbs.

Like everything, save the diamonds for some strange reason, most of these economic hiccups fade in time, suddenly or slowly. The higher they rise, the harder they fall.

Eventually- on Facebook- disgruntled LuLaRoe sellers stuck with mountains of leggings they couldn’t sell, of diminishing quality, were able to share their horror stories with each other, collaborate on solutions, and air their mutual grievances until someone typed the magic words: Class Action Lawsuit.

Had LuLaRoe not adopted such a disastrous compensation strategy for its vendors- paying more for recruiting new sellers than for selling new merchandise- LuLaRoe would probably still be turning a brisk trade.

If Donald Trump hadn’t been banned by social media giants in 2020, he might still be president today.

Weighed in the balance, it is hard to call any of that a win for Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Donald Trump might never have been president without them in the first place.

Being the moral arbiters of the social media universe isn’t working, electioneering isn’t working- or rather, it’s working too well. Facebook can’t save humanity from itself, and Zuckerberg et al are unwise to try.

For the sake of a future over which, in spite of their best efforts and mountains of money, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have little control over, social media platforms need to be regulated like the utilities they have become in the modern age.

Like any other public utility, a certain portion of the population is going to abuse it to lie, cheat, steal, defraud people and break the law; it isn’t the system, it’s the nature of humanity.

When criminals do this by phone, the phone company isn’t responsible; nor is the phone company responsible for investigating potential crimes or enforcing the law- that’s what the police department and the legal system are for.

The phone company isn’t responsible for making the laws through establishing some kind of murky “company standards” either; that’s what our democratically-elected lawmakers at the federal, state and local level are for.

Social media companies may be trying to help. That they have no idea how best to do this, not knowing the future, doesn’t seem to phase them. In the post-industrial age, we have learned one immutable fact about companies:

They are incapable of regulating themselves responsibly.

There is only one reason we have child labor laws; we need them. If we didn’t have child labor laws, someone would send little children down into coal mines for $30 a week.

Without proper regulation, companies almost always make a big mess of things. When the mess becomes impossible to ignore, government regulators step in.

That time has come and gone. The best time to do something would have been ten years ago; the next best time is now.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)