The Irish Times view on 20 years of social media: power without accountability

In its early days, it offered an optimistic vision. But the picture soon darkened and disregard for potential harms has been a recurring feature

In February 2004, a 19-year-old Harvard undergraduate named Mark Zuckerberg launched an on-campus social network with his roommates. He called it after the student directory, or “face book”, which the university distributed at the start of each academic year.

Turbocharged by the arrival of cheap broadband and the spread of smartphones, Zuckerberg’s network spearheaded a social media revolution that would transform human communications so profoundly that it has been compared to the invention of the printing press. Today, Facebook is used by one-third of the world’s population, with billions more coming daily to competitors such as TikTok and X. Meta, the company Zuckerberg now leads, also controls Instagram and WhatsApp.

From the beginning, people were intrigued and delighted by the potential of this new technology. In those heady early days, social media offered an optimistic vision of a future in which people would be more connected and where access to information would be democratised. That promise appeared to bear fruit during the Arab Spring, when pro-democracy activists used Facebook and Twitter to achieve political reform. But the picture soon darkened as the platforms became tools used to manipulate, misinform and sow division in countries across the world.

There is little doubt that social media has contributed to a coarsening of political discourse and that it amplifies personal abuse or worse. Its algorithmic reinforcement of pre-existing prejudices has deepened polarisation and mistrust.


It has also concentrated immense power in the hands of a small number of individuals whose pursuit of profit was rarely constrained by ethical concerns. By harvesting the data generated by their own users and selling it to the highest bidder, they invented a lucrative new surveillance economy that upended the global advertising market, usually at the expense of local businesses. It was an extraordinary financial triumph. But the companies paid little heed to privacy rights until forced to do so by regulators, who struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change.

Disregard for potential harms has been a recurring feature of social media’s history, giving rise to deep unease about its psychological consequences, particularly for the young and vulnerable. At a recent US Senate hearing, Zuckerberg apologised to families for Instagram content they said had caused their children to self-harm. It was the latest in a long string of such apologies over the years; scepticism seems justified.

Meta and others will face further attempts to hold them to account. But the speed of change is accelerating, driven by artificial intelligence. Who knows to what strange places a smart kid’s idea 20 years ago in a Harvard dormroom will take humanity in the next 20?