Is social media the new water?

The Huang Fellows takes sides in the debate on whether social media should be regulated like a public utility.

For many of us, the Huang Fellows debate was a throwback to our high school lives. Hours spent preparing, practicing, and waiting for the next big debate tournament. In the art of debate, many of us experienced both our biggest wins and biggest defeats. Translating this to a Science and Society debate couldn’t have felt more natural. However, for many others, a structured debate was a new form of discourse, and an exciting, and perhaps daunting, fresh experience. We spent hours on hours researching, discussing ideas and strategies, and struggling to preemptively figure out what our opponents would be arguing. After days of tough prep work, the time was finally upon us.

We walk into the North Building and go straight to the familiar room in which we have had every seminar and meeting, but this time there is an air of both nervousness and excitement pervading the room. Our two teams stare each other down from across the room, lined up in our best business casual attire and preparing to answer a modern societal dilemma: should social media companies and their platforms be regulated as public utilities? We are prepared to argue with passion and fervor both the affirmative and the negative side of this issue, but in this moment our stance is still completely up in the air.

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Both sides wait anxiously for the coin flip, knowing that a simple heads or tails would mean completely changing perspectives. The coin lands, the sides are decided, and both teams scramble to adjust to our selected stance. The affirmative team begins its introductory statement with the words of a digital humanities scholar, who explains to the room why social media is an essential aspect of life in our deeply interconnected and globalized society. The introductory statements continue down the line with a bay area congressperson, a social media entrepreneur, a political activist, and finally a constitutional law professor. The other team then delivers each of their statements, providing points that directly clash with those of the affirmative team.

The debate continues as we answer difficult questions from the judges and refute our opponents’ arguments. It becomes clear that a large portion of the debate will boil down to a simple semantic difference: what does it mean to regulate something as a public utility? The affirmative firmly advocates that a public utility is simply one that is essential to the public, has a high market share, and has high barriers of entry from competitors. All of these factors would then make it essential for regulation in order to protect consumers and ensure realistic competition. The negative side gives a completely alternative definition, stating that a public utility means a company that is sanctioned as a monopoly by the government, and is thus protected from competition. This simple difference in definition turns out to be one of the driving points in the debate, sucking up a large portion of both the rebuttal and the closing statements.

We paint the picture of innovation, competition, and the role of government in society. After the concluding final statements are made, the judges leave the room to continue deliberating. We all wait with nervous excitement, trying to analyze the competition and figure out how the judges will vote. Although the wait is tense, the atmosphere of the room has changed. We look across the room and no longer see competitors, but again our close friends. We’re able to share some quick laughs and catch up a bit as the judges take their turn debating over the winner. Finally, the judges file back into the room and prepare to give their decision. The judges begin with praising the affirmative side for their skills at debate. As any skilled debater could tell you, you know the decision instantly by who they talk to first. While the praise was high for the affirmative side, the judges simply could not believe that the current administration would be able to effectively implement regulations that would not have potentially harmful unintended consequences. The debate is over, and the negative side is deemed the winner.

For many of us, the Huang Fellows debate was a throwback to our high school lives.

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I am a deeply competitive person and a former debater. I have to admit that the loss stung. However, for me and, as I was to find out, for other team members, this decision was for other reasons very hard to digest. I just felt that the judges’ decision was not entirely and absolutely based on simply the arguments presented in the debate. The results of the debate taught me an important lesson that I may not have learned otherwise. A complete and unbiased review of presented arguments may make things simple and straightforward in an organized debate. However, in the real world, it is unrealistic to think that those we are trying to convince will look only and exclusively at our apparently inarguable and perfectly structured arguments. There are always other elements that play a role in their decision. While unbiased review may be an accepted and optimal truth of the debate world, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect a decision maker in a real-world context to ignore all external facts of the world in making their decision and to be completely unburdened by personal or professional bias.

Ultimately, the debate forced us to get out of comfort zones and practice new skills while discussing a topic that many of us were unfamiliar with. Most of us are on the premed track or considering other careers in the biological sciences, so it was strange to think of social media regulation as “science and society” in the way that we had been used to. It took us some time to realize that the intersections of technology, economics, and politics would be something that we would have to learn how to navigate in whatever career we chose. Social media is such an integral part of life, as thousands of years ago only water, air or crops used to be. Gaining the skills and vocabulary to discuss such complex issues pertaining to the use of social media will certainly serve us well in the future.

And, as technology continues to develop and as we grow increasingly dependent on social media and related technology, we will have to continue to answer these difficult questions.

Ultimately, the debate forced us to get out of comfort zones and practice new skills while discussing a topic that many of us were unfamiliar with.

Daniel Sprague, Huang Fellow ’18

Daniel SpragueDaniel is studying neuroscience and biophysics. He plans to pursue a career in both clinical and research-based medicine.