In case you’re wondering, the fourth deadly sin in the classical lists of seven sins is envy. Sociologist Anne Hendershott has written a whole book about it—The Politics of Envy—and the editors of the Spring 2021 issue of The Human Life Review excerpted part of a chapter that shows how social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram leverage this particular deadly sin to their advantage.

But not always to the advantage of the users, it turns out.

First, let’s distinguish between envy and jealousy. Although the two words are now used almost interchangeably, envy originally meant the feeling of resentment or anguish one person has when faced with another person’s superior possessions or characteristics. Envy requires a specific person to be envied, while a jealous husband, for instance, may not be worried about any particular other man interested in his wife—he’s just suspicious of all of them.

Hendershott points out that while envy has always been a part of the human condition, in times past it was limited to people you knew or knew about. But in the digital age, there are as many targets of potential envy as there are people on Facebook, and the opportunities for envy are multiplied indefinitely.

Covetousness is related to envy, but in addition has the honour to be prohibited explicitly by God in Commandment No. 10 (or 9 if you’re Catholic). Advertisers have been exploiting covetousness for centuries, but until recently they had to do the tedious work of creating an artificially attractive and enviable portrayal for each ad: “Here’s this good-looking guy who just got the gal, and if you used his kind of toothpaste you could be where he is now.”

But with social media, all the Facebook techies have to do now is provide the proper tools, and people will naturally put their best faces forward in what Hendershott calls the “highlight-reel” version of themselves: the best-looking picture taken at the party, the most expensive vacation setting, etc.

And envy is a strong motivator for certain other kinds of people to go and look at the enviable types, eat their hearts out, and in so doing add advertising revenue to the coffers of big tech.

What does envy do to the envious?

One would not expect a lot of positive effects, and several studies bear this out. Hendershott says that a 2015 study carried out by a Denmark organisation called the Happiness Research Institute found that people who take a break from social media report being happier.

Apart from studies that show a general inverse correlation between social-media use and happiness, another study of Danish teenagers found no strong correlation between the hours of social-media use and happiness. Digging deeper, the researchers did find that the way social media was used did influence happiness.

When they divided the users into active ones who posted a lot of material themselves, and passive ones who just poked around viewing the postings of others, then a big difference showed up. The active users tended to be happier than the passive ones who just looked at friends’ pages without posting much of their own lives.

Certain aspects of modern life seem to be inextricably tied to certain classic sins in a way that defeats their separation. Where would modern capitalism be without greed, for instance? Or advertising without covetousness? Does this mean we simply have to shrug our shoulders and accept the harm caused by media-induced sin? Or could something be done about it?

Just in the last week or so, I have read in different places some proposals to regulate social media, or at least the artificial-intelligence algorithms that are used to train users to be more reliable and complacent consumers of targeted advertising. And I have also read strong arguments against such regulation, based mainly on the idea that any regulation of social-media content beyond what the private platform operators do themselves violates the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

But when someone makes a one-to-one correspondence between, say, Patrick Henry making a speech before a crowd of fellow Virginians in 1774, and Cristiano Ronaldo, a professional Portuguese athlete who plays “football” (soccer in the US) and is currently, according to Wikipedia, the most-followed person on Facebook today with 149 million followers, I’d say we’re definitely in apples-and-oranges territory, or maybe even apples and geodes.

What the comparison leaves out is the incredibly sophisticated AI-based machinery that Facebook and company use to train and otherwise manipulate both followers and leaders in modern social media — machinery that was entirely absent in the days before the internet and electronic media in general.

The comparison that makes more sense to me is one between what the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does today and what might be done by a similar governmental entity in the future. The FDA came about largely because the sophisticated chemical adulterants used by manufacturers in the early 1900s were not something that your average consumer was even aware of, let alone could defend himself against. So the FDA was charged with using the same advanced chemical and biological science available to the manufacturers to make sure that the foods and drugs sold to the public were not harmful, using a negotiated and agreed-on definition of harm.

It seems to me that given enough political good will (always a scarce commodity, but especially so today), we could define objective levels of psychological harm: depression, anxiety, even rates of suicide. And we might be able to determine to what extent these conditions were attributable, not simply to the user posts on social media, but the sophisticated methods used to heighten their impact on certain people who are thereby harmed.

And then we could go in and say to the tech companies, “This set of algorithms is okay, but that set is off-limits, because it leads to X suicides, Y instances of depression, Z cases of porn-induced erectile dysfunction, etc.”

In order to do any good, the regulatory agency would have to have a cadre of sophisticated techie types just as smart as the ones the private companies have, and that might be hard. But only such types can see through the opaque fog of algorithms to tell what’s going on, and which ones are harmful.

Republished with permission from Engineering Ethics.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...