With my time at MediaPost coming to a close — I’m leaving at the end of November to focus on my primary duties as a papa — it would be nice to give my near-decade of writing Social Media Insider an effusive, or even generally positive, sendoff.
Instead, I regret to say that social media looks more dangerous than ever – and we haven’t even begun to realize how dangerous it really is.
In short, if we are prepared to consider that malevolent foreign forces tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election with both organic social-media content and paid advertising campaigns, many clearly pitched to amplify American social tensions, isn't it plausible the same forces might use the same techniques to instill antisocial values in children?
After all, they are a much more pliable, easily influenced audience.
My concern was sparked a few weeks ago by a cartoon my 3-year-old daughter happened to be watching on YouTube Kids. It was seemingly some flotsam from the veritable universe of crappy, user-generated kids content you encounter as a parent. It was of unknown provenance, apparently cranked out overseas by small groups of people looking to cash in on kids ads.
So far, so good — but something was a bit off with this cartoon, and it’s easier if I just explain it.
A mostly wordless animation featuring cute characters who make funny little noises, it showed one cartoon character (I recall it as a panda) tying another character to an office chair and pushing it down a hill, causing the second character to scream in terror as the chair hurtles toward a thorn bush. The chair stops just in time, before the hapless victim is pushed into the thorn bush. Then the first character comes up and pushes the chair into the bush with a laugh.
And that was it, on to the next cartoon. In other words, the cartoon presented casual cruelty and violence as not only acceptable but enjoyable, making it seem normal to cause someone else pain and revel in it.
The content was so offensive, and its presence so alarming, that we are on an indefinite Internet hiatus. It seems reasonable to assume that if it’s on YouTube Kids, it’s probably everywhere.
As always, in a world increasingly defined by gaslighting, this dark content makes you question your own judgment and perceptions. For example, is it ridiculous — paranoid even — to think that foreign governments might have an interest in promoting antisocial values in American children?
I don’t know the answer to that question. But as my time with this column comes to a close, it felt irresponsible not to at least raise the possibility. And don’t take my word for it. Someone smarter and more eloquent than myself said this.
The revelations of foreign influence campaigns in the 2016 election should be a warning call — this is just beginning.