Artefact Creative Lead on Systems Thinking Meets Product (Part 3)

Within a systems thinking construct, the societal impact of social media causal loop goes like this:

Mass death of regional independent press → reduction of attention on local news and issues → reduction in local civic involvement → reduction in well-functioning government → reduction in trust in government and democracy → rise of populist government → populist government targeting press → further mass death of independent press.

Identifying root causes

Our research also looked into root causes of the individual, community and societal causal loops. For example:

Time spent on platform → attention to sell → increased ad revenue → further investment in growth of platform → increased user base → increased precision in micro-targeting → sensationalist content driving engagement → increased time spent on platform.

The biggest root causes of the societal impact of social media are time spent on platform and user base growth. It’s almost as if monthly active users is more important than revenue.

Potential interventions

Here’s how one might prioritize interventions within a systems thinking approach:

  • Thoughtful regulation and policy change – Make data privacy a fundamental human right and foster industry competition. We see this already happening with GDPR and calls to break up Facebook. Even Apple’s phone privacy policy now states that data privacy is a fundamental human right.
  • Reforming how social networks measure success – This brings us to the concept of companies that are profitable and good for society. How might companies innovate on the societal impact of social media by seeking long term sustainable growth? This could help prevent them from going to places where they don’t have the right context. For example, maybe Facebook should not be in Myanmar or other places where they don’t have representation.
  • A new philosophy of user experience and behavioral incentives – How might companies design for bridging diverse people instead of polarizing them? How might they use behavior change models to steer towards healthy relationships with their products? Apps are now beginning to provide alerts when you’ve been on their platform for too long. 

Movements like the Center for Humane Technology are taking this to the next level. They raise awareness about the societal impact of social media and seek the development of more ethical technology. 


Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2