This could be trouble for Meta, and potentially every other social app that utilizes an algorithmic feed.
Today, a coalition of 42 U.S. attorneys general has launched legal action against the company, accusing it of utilizing addictive processes to hook young users on their apps.
As reported by CNBC:
“Attorneys general from 33 states filed a federal suit against Meta in the Northern District of California, while nine additional attorneys general are filing in their own states, according to a press release from New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office. Besides New York, the states that filed the federal suit include California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Washington and Wisconsin.”
The action accuses Meta of deliberately designing its algorithms, alerts, and notifications in order to keep young users in its apps for longer, and to get them coming back to its apps repeatedly.
In addition, the various filings also allege that features within Meta’s platforms negatively impact teens’ mental health through social comparison, while also accusing Meta of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) through the collection of personal data on users under 13.
The states are seeking to put an end to such practices, while also calling for adequate penalties and restitution.
Which could be a big blow for Meta’s business, depending on how the case is handled. Meta, of course, will likely be able to outline how it is operating within the law, and has various safeguards in place to protect younger users. But if the case does advance, that could still see Meta hit with new penalties, and potentially face new restrictions on its operations.
It’s the latest in a rising trend of legal action being launched against social apps for infecting young users.
Earlier this month, the state of Utah filed legal action against TikTok over the app’s use of algorithmic sorting, based on user engagement, to create an addictive experience.
Back in March, Arkansas also launched legal proceedings against both TikTok and Facebook over mental health impacts and privacy concerns.
A key challenge within each instance, however, will be proving that social networks are “addictive” to the letter of the law, with much of the terminology around addiction relating to substances, which doesn’t directly relate.
A key linkage here will likely be the triggering of dopamine, which would be the substance in question within this terminology, with social platforms implementing features that trigger the release of dopamine, leading to addiction.
There is legal precedent for this, including the use of drugs that have sparked negative side effects through the activation of dopamine receptors. But it could be a stretch to suggest that social media apps are able to induce the same level of response, and subsequent user action, based on algorithms and in-app incentives.
But there’s a growing range of academic insight that points to the negative impacts of social media usage, and presumably, this collection of attorneys-general have a solid case.
Could that see younger users banned from social apps? Could it eliminate the use of algorithms, or force the platforms to provide an algorithmic opt-out, as is now the case in the EU?
The latter is probably more likely, though the subsequent legal debate could carry on for some time yet.