This is an opinion column.
Something bad is happening to our children. Something horrible enough that someone should really sue him.
But where is Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall? Once again, he’s looking in the wrong place – or rather, looking for his political interests, not the interests of Alabama.
But before we get to Marshall and where his attention has wandered off, let’s look at the right place.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported something sociologists have been ringing for some time: Depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide have increased among teenage boys, especially teenage girls – a marked increase the researchers plotted back to 2012. Those same researchers blamed the increase on smartphones and social media, and one platform in particular – Instagram.
But what’s new in the history of the Journal is that Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, knew these effects. Over the past three years, the Journal reported, the company has conducted its own research and secretly came to the same conclusions, even though they have publicly denied them.
Internal Facebook documents obtained by the Journal showed that nearly a third of teenage girls said Instagram made them more ashamed of their bodies. Some said it made them consider suicide.
Again, Facebook knew it, but as recently as May, the company downplayed the effects it has on teens, calling them “little.” In a statement following the history of the Journal, the company said the Journal “focuses on a limited set of findings and presents them in a negative light.”
In short, the company said one thing internally, and something completely different from the rest of the world – a level of duplicity not seen since tobacco companies said Joe Camel’s ads did not target children.
In a decent world, where responsible adults run things, Facebook executives would ask, “How do we stop this?” “
But in this world, Facebook executives have apparently asked, “How can we make Instagram – but for little kids?” “
Instead of adding new age restrictions to Instagram or creating social incentives that are safe for mental health, Facebook has started development of a new version of Instagram – one made by one.or even younger and more vulnerable children.
It is not difficult to find words for such behavior – indecent, sociopath, reckless, vile … It is more difficult to know where to stop.
Earlier this year, a group of state attorneys general also had words for Facebook.
In a letter written in May, 44 attorneys general cited the stack of public research showing Instagram is bad for kids, and told the company it should ditch its new Instagram for kids project.
“Facebook has historically failed to protect the well-being of children on its platforms”, the National Association of Attorneys General wrote in the letter. “Attorneys General have an interest in protecting our youngest citizens, and Facebook’s plans to create a platform where children under 13 are encouraged to share content online run counter to that interest. “
It’s a good start. At least they’re putting their attention in the right place.
Unfortunately, the Alabama Attorney General is not one of them.
Two weeks before these other AGs signed their names on this letter, Marshall withdrew from the National Association of Attorneys General. The organization, he said, had moved too far to the left.
Marshall said his annual dues, paid by the state, could be better spent on consumer protection, which would be good, except for what happened next.
Marshall also took aim at social media giants last month. Its only interest is not the harmful effects on children and adolescents, but on political censorship.
“Big tech is not the Ministry of Truth,” Marshall said in a press release.
Let’s be clear. The First Amendment protects against government interference in speech. There is no constitutional protection against a ban by a private company from posting anything on a company’s website that violates its user agreement.
Marshall is smart enough to know that. But leveling off with angry conspiracy theorists and aggrieved anti-vaccines doesn’t sell well in Alabama, so he’s instead using state resources to indulge their fantasies.
Last month, Marshall’s office created a website where the public can file complaints against tech giants. It’s unclear what Marshall intends to do with these complaints once he gets them. Legal experts said there was little he could do.
But that’s not his point.
Marshall isn’t really fighting for the Alabamians with his online complaint box, nor is he saving money by ditching his domestic peers.
Being effective means less to Marshall than being popular. The Alabama attorney general cares less about what he does for Alabama and more about how he looks at voters.
It’s tense and bogus. It’s superficial. It’s for the show.
It would be perfect for Instagram.
Kyle Whitmire is the Alabama Media Group political columnist, winner of the 2020 Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ Award for Opinion Writing and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins Award for Political Commentary.
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