My appearance on Education First NC podcast hosted by Sloan Rachmuth, regarding holding social media companies liable for designing manipulative platforms that are deceptively addictive, using mass tort products liability legal approaches: “TikTok seems like the crack cocaine of the internet.”
We interrupt the insane political news cycle for some even more depressing news: Social media is destroying us, particularly the youth.
There are multiple lawsuits against social media big tech companies for designing manipulative platforms that are deceptively addictive. Using mass tort products liability legal approaches developed against tobacco, a lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of school districts is working its way through federal court in California.
Now there is a suit in North Carolina, which was the impetus for my appearance on the Education First NC podcast hosted by Sloan Rachmuth. I’ve interacted with Sloan for many years, she is a tireless fighter for parents rights and protecting children from all forms of malicious ideology that have been injected into K-12.
Here is Sloan’s write up of the podcast appearance:
North Carolina’s second-largest school system is suing social media companies for harming students’ mental health.
In a statement last Friday, the attorney for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board said social media companies like Meta, Snapchat, and TikTok intentionally design their platforms to get young users addicted and exploit their developing minds for profit. The litigation seeks to force companies to fully address platform harms.
On last night’s podcast, EFA invited Cornell law professor Bill Jacobson to provide insights into these lawsuits. He highlighted the complexities involved in establishing causation and liability.
Professor Jacobson and EFA president Sloan Rachmuth discussed comparisons between social media lawsuits and vape lawsuits.
While tobacco products are inherently damaging, social media affects individuals differently. He notes that the lawsuits are speculative and the courts will have to determine the validity of the claims.
These lawsuits are similar to class action suits alleging defective products, and one of the challenges is quantifying social media damages. For instance, in the case of vaping, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the product caused nicotine addiction, thus leading to economic and medical costs that should be compensated.
Rachmuth raised the concern about blaming social media for Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school’s shortcomings and suggested that the lawsuit may be a way to shift blame. Jacobson acknowledges this and suggests that the lawsuit defense may involve addressing these factors.
Partial Transcript (auto-generated, may contain transcription errors; sorry, no time stamps)
Sloan: Well, it reminds me of the vaping, the anti vaping lawsuits that were taken on by attorneys general across the country. North Carolina was chief among them, where, you know, a big settlement was reached and, you know, the, the money I guess went to causes like stopping tobacco, et cetera. And so what’s the difference, if any, between a product that’s like an actual product that can be linked to causation, for instance, and a product as diffuse as social media?
WAJ: I think that’s a great distinction that the courts are going to have to grapple with. I did check in on the California case and there has been a motion to dismiss filed that does not look from the docket like it’s been decided yet. And there’s of course a lot of parties in that case, and the court’s going have to decide, is social media the equivalent of vaping products, the vaping cases? There was an allegation that it’s inherently damaging that it will damage your lungs and maybe cause other physical damage. And that’s similar to the tobacco cases. The tobacco cases were groundbreaking, but we know medically, we know scientifically that a certain percentage of the people who smoke tobacco are going to get cancer whether they get it this year or they get it 20 years from now. So that medical science is there. I don’t know if it’s there for the social media, I just don’t know. And but this is something the courts are going to have to grapple with, is social media the functional equivalent of tobacco?
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The issue in social media is going to be, there’s a lot of intervening factors. With tobacco, you can make the direct causation between your cancer and the smoking of tobacco, maybe vaping too, whatever the physiological problems are. Here, you’ve got so many complex problems that there’s social media, there’s social peer pressure, there’s parental pressure, or parental inattention. There’s so many things that can influence the impact that going on Facebook has on you that it’s much more diffuse than tobacco. You know, tobacco, they can study, a certain number of people will get lung cancer, a certain number of people will get other cancers. So I think that’s another thing that’s going to make these more difficult. That doesn’t mean they’re impossible, but the courts are going to have to grapple with whether an internet product basically is the equivalent of a product you can hold in your hand and put a match to and smoke, whether they’re the equivalent. And I just don’t know how that’s going to come out. But I would not be shocked if a court says, well, wait a second here. While we can say for a total population, there’s a likelihood that some people will have problems with social media. There’s a ton of intervening factors that would implicate whether a particular person gets the equivalent of cancer. And those factors are not really present for things like tobacco.
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Sloan: If there are damages awarded, how would that, where would that go? Would it be disbursed? I mean it’s a school board, so would it go back into the district? Would it go towards rehabilitation programs? Would it go to the victims? I mean, we don’t know. And that’s what makes it, in my mind, you know, if you’re, if you’re having a pecuniary interest, if they’re alleging that for the social media giants, you could come right back and say, well that’s the school boards, because they just want the money in their district as well.
WAJ: Yeah. And that was a problem in the tobacco litigations. It may not be a problem in terms of winning the case, but the distribution of the funds, there was a lot of abuse where a lot of municipalities got tobacco settlement money and used it for other things. They didn’t use it to treat people who have lung cancer. They didn’t use it for non-smoking campaigns or they didn’t use it substantially, they used it to fill gaps in their budgets.
So at one level, my kids are grown, but even back when they were kids, the earlier days of social media, there’s no question that social media is addicting you. Everybody knows it. The question is, there are a lot of things that may be addicting but doesn’t necessarily give you a legal right to sue over it.
Sugar is incredibly addicting. that you’re sugar craving, can you sue the sugar companies? Maybe it’s been tried, I just don’t know the answer. But my point is just because something can be addicting, so is TV before the internet, the kids used to be addicted to the cartoons on TV. Do we sue the networks? Where does it stop?
And I think, again, tobacco is different because it’s a product, it’s something that you have a direct harm. Nobody, I think I’m safe in saying this, nobody gets healthier from smoking tobacco. How damaging it is might be a different thing, but nobody gets healthier from it. And that’s very different than social media.
People use social media for a lot of different purposes. And whether it’s good or bad, I think it’s one of the worst things that ever happened to our society personally. But, there are upsides of social media. It’s not all downside.
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I think social media is one of the worst things that ever happened to our society. I don’t think people are worse nowadays than they were before the internet at all. But the internet and social media has given them an ability to find other worse people and get together and do bad things and to reach out and touch you. So rather than just whispering rumors about you in the school yard, they now can spread things far and wide, very destructive. But it’s here, it’s not going away.
I do think though, the social media companies from everything I’ve read, do tweak their algorithms to make them more addictive. And maybe if the one thing that came out of this was not just money for school districts, but forcing the companies to stop playing mind games with our kids. And stop manipulating the kids through algorithms and artificial intelligence … But don’t manipulate people. And we all know they manipulate us tremendously….
TikTok seems like the crack cocaine of the internet. And so the rest of the hard drugs and narcotics are bad enough. But I’ve never used TikTok myself. I won’t put it on my phone ’cause it’s basically spyware. But you see replays of TikTok elsewhere, you know, and it does seem to be the crack cocaine of the internet, that people just get this high from being TikTok personalities more so than they did about being Twitter personalities or YouTube personalities. There’s something about it, the way it’s structured, but from what I’ve read, that’s not the way it’s done in China.
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