Nevada joins the fight against Meta

Attorney General Aaron Ford has sued Meta and other social media giants for harms to children and teenagers.

In a legal move that follows the steps taken by more than 40 other states’ attorneys general, Nevada has initiated legal action against Meta, alleging the social media giant’s negligence has endangered children on its platforms. The lawsuit filed by Nevada’s Attorney General, Aaron D. Ford (D), and targets Meta’s subsidiaries including Instagram, Facebook, and Messenger, alongside TikTok and Snap. It was filed on January 30, 2024, just one day before a critical Senate hearing addressing child safety concerns online. Nevada’s legal action adds weight to growing concerns surrounding online youth safety.

The core of Nevada’s lawsuit against Meta lies within the company’s strategies to commodify and exploit the data of users through collecting personal information to use for targeted advertising and manipulating the content in social media feeds. Attorney General Ford’s legal action highlights the revenue model of Meta and the impact of the attention economy on younger audiences particularly through targeted advertising, data harvesting, and increasing user attention because the time spent on Meta’s platforms directly translates into profit. This attention-driven model leads to addictive design features aimed at maximizing user engagement, especially in young users who are more susceptible to manipulation, and continues to cast a shadow over Mark Zuckerberg’s constant self-proclaimed “commitment to user safety” on Meta platforms.

Meta’s Revenue Model and the Attention Economy 

With multiple social media giants profiting from the pursuit of human attention, online users are often left distracted and with a shorter attention span. The complaint filed highlights how Meta earns revenue through the exploitation of attention and data of users. When a platform has more data on an individual, it curates an algorithm with addictive designs that will keep users’ glued to the screen allowing them to show more targeted advertisements and profit from the excess screen time of users. 

“If you use our Products for free with ads, we don’t charge you … Instead, businesses, organizations, and other persons pay us to show you ads … that we think may be relevant to you and we use your information to help determine which ads to show you,” says Facebook’s Terms of Service.

Social Inequalities and Disproportionately Affecting Teens of Color

Another aspect of the lawsuit… Attorney General Ford shows the disparity in social media usage among racial demographics, with Black and Hispanic teenagers exhibiting higher engagement rates compared to their white peers. Economic factors play a pivotal role, with smartphone accessibility outweighing computer ownership in lower-income households. The addictive nature of social media adds to this trend, diverting teens’ attention from offline activities while perpetuating existing social inequalities. Black and Hispanic individuals make up 40.8% of Nevada’s population, according to the 2020 Census, so this lawsuit urges to protect these groups from systemic harm increased by social media usage. Statistics from Common Sense Media reveal a concerning trend of increasing screen time among adolescents, with teenagers averaging over 8.5 hours of daily screen time, along with a decline in engagement in traditional activities, such as reading, sports, and other extracurriculars.

Addictive Features 

Nevada’s suit further explains Meta’s utilization of “Low-Friction Variable Rewards,” which prompts compulsive usage among young audiences. By intermittently showing “rewards” such as likes, comments, or follower notifications, Meta capitalizes on the dopamine-driven feedback loop, ensuring sustained user engagement. Meta’s founding president Sean Parker discussed the deliberate exploitation of human psychology to maximize user attention and content contribution in 2018:

“‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social-validation feedback loop.”

Meta, especially founding members and executives, precisely know the harms they’re posing to young audiences, but they continue to exploit teens’ vulnerabilities for profit. 

Social Manipulation

Youth audiences are especially vulnerable to manipulation from the attention-driven algorithms on social media. The quest for validation through likes, comments, and followers contributes to a detrimental self-perception and unrealistic social comparisons. Meta’s platform design amplifies these social feedback loops, accentuating metrics of popularity and social reciprocity to maintain user dependence. The subtle coercion of online etiquette reinforces users’ engagement within Meta’s digital ecosystem, using strategic manipulation of social dynamics to encourage sustained platform engagement. Nevada provides the example of the online etiquette of following people back—reciprocating likes and comments—and the social pressure to respond to a message because the other person knows that their message has been seen.

The Takeaways

Nevada’s suit against Meta emphasizes a growing concern regarding the safety of children on social media platforms By exposing Meta’s strategies of data exploitation, addictive design features, and social manipulation tactics, the complaint challenges the company’s professed commitment to user safety, especially vulnerable youth. Nevada’s legal action is a crucial step towards addressing the systemic harms posed by digital platforms and advocating for better protection of underage users.