A Moral Dilemma with Social Media: Where do we go from here?

        Likely like many people, I’ve been struggling to participate with social media as more information from thinkers like Cal Newport and Tristan Harris have permeated my knowing. In 2018, I along with much of the world learned that Facebook had been selling user’s data to Cambridge Analytica which informed the targeted troll attacks, Facegroup group infiltration and even meme creation by Russian intelligence agencies to create internal turmoil in America. For the first time I began to understand how social media influence is more than just a potential addiction, distraction, and cause of mental health issues in young and older alike.

Social media can be weaponized, it is a tool for both good, and evil forces. It’s used to spread good information and bad information. It can be used as a sales tool for independent artists, and as a persuasive sales tool for corporate America. We all know, marketing can be used for good and bad, the difference now is that marketing doesn’t just come in obvious forms of magazines, television ads, billboards and product labels. Our lives are permeated by marketing tools every single day for as many minutes or hours as you spend looking at social media, in addition to the magazines, television ads, billboards, product labels etc. I start to wonder, how many minutes or hours in a day are our minds free from targeted marketing anymore?


In 2017 I had deleted my Facebook and never looked back. I don’t miss anything about it, honestly.  In addition, since reading Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, I have learned to keep Instagram off of my phone, downloading it when I want to make a post, check on any messages, and give myself an allotted amount of time to watch friends’ stories and do a little catch up. Then when I’m done with that allotted session, I delete it off my phone. It’s been a very effective way to keep the technology compartmentalized and my life less distracted. So, since 2017 the only social media I participate in is on Instagram and it has been a wonderful and mostly enjoyable tool.


Over the last 6 months I’ve been listening to more podcasts and interviews with tech ethicists like Tristan Harris and just last week finally got around to watching the documentary The Social Dilemma. The compiling information has been crushing my conscious. It’s not new information, per se, but it’s been so strongly presented with new data that is helping me really see the bigger picture of this very inconvenient truth. I will list a few of the top podcast interviews I recommend and please do watch The Social Dilemma; I won’t attempt to summarize it all here myself. As a person who really tries to lead an intentional life aligned with my values, how can I continue to support a platform that preys on human evolutional weaknesses for the benefit of the richest corporations that the world has ever seen? Corporations that are now (finally) under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for breaking antitrust laws in their decade long quest to monopolize the sphere of social media and data collection. According to my reading FB has acquired 72 companies including WhatsApp, Instagram, Giphy, Confirm.IO (government issue id verification platform) Bloomsbury AI and many more, in total spending over 23 Billion dollars in these acquisitions. This kind of power and control is unprecedented, and should absolutely be of worry for all us humans who think the internet is a free or democratic space. It isn’t anymore.


Facebook is positioning itself very strategically to avoid class action lawsuits, if you read the Terms of Service of Instagram it clearly states that as a user you forfeit your rights to participate in any class action lawsuit against any of the Facebook services. They know what could be coming, and they know they can sneak those civic forfeitures into a terms of service agreement that most people will never read.


At this point, there is no denying that the economic model of these companies is to design a service and product that will command the user’s attention for as many hours as possible. Our attention is the product they are selling to its advertisers, our screen time is the commodity they are getting rich off of. This I have sort of known, theoretically, but over the last year it’s become clearer to me just how sophisticated the design of this technology is, and how much money these corporations are willing to spend to use human evolutionary behaviors against us, so that time spent on these apps has nothing to do with free will or will power, all our evolutionary propensities are capitalized on to make a profit.


This economic model is right in line with the rest of our society’s acceptance of an extraction-based economy. This is where I am stuck in my moral dilemma. Do I think that I, Cate Havstad, will shift the decisions of the world’s richest and most powerful corporation ever, by abstaining from use of Instagram? No. Do I think if 1 million concerned users could take action and cause a shift (purely because drop in use by 1 million users would cause a profit dip,) maybe. Do I have a “following” to persuade 1 million users into a sort of movement? No. Do other influential thinkers who should be concerned? Yes! So, I know I won’t alone make a difference in this fight that is one I see as having just begun, and there are many very intelligent and ethical people from the tech world that are much more qualified and positioned to make systemic change that might reform a economic model that is without a shadow of a doubt, causing harm in our society and has not been held accountable for it yet. 

When discussing my moral dilemma with my sister, I explained to her I wasn’t sure I could continue using Instagram, and she did a good job holding up the mirror to me and showing me how, while this is totally possible and up to me, it’s sort of giving up the fight and also an extremely privileged position to take. She is right and it got me to thinking about what happens if/ when the well positioned and/or the conscious consumers of our time exit a space and stop engaging in important conversations? What then continues to saturate the attention-sphere?  More butts and profits-over-people users?


Over the last 2 years, I have proven to myself that I don’t need this space for my business to survive. Before any of these bigger existential concerns, I began to worry about changes to the platform that might limit my visibility or if it became a pay to play space, if my business would suffer. So, 2 years ago I began building a mailing list and for 2 years I have sold out of my custom hat commission spots and my workshop spots just via the mailing list/ newsletters. I haven’t needed to post on Instagram to sell anything.  This reassurance is one I’m glad I made for myself and my business because it’s given me the freedom to use Instagram to my heart’s desires. I post when and what I want to post, sometimes intermittently and without a worry that my inconsistent engagement equals less visibility (we know this is how the algorithm works now.) In this way, I feel a little freer as a user, mostly enjoying this space to follow artists, farmers, musicians and writers I admire. I can use this space as a place to learn, and share what I’m learning, and occasionally some hatmaking and farming life snippets that I’m proud or excited to share. Sometimes, and only very discerningly, I use this space to illuminate social or ecological issues that I want to raise awareness around. I’m careful with this use because I am consciously not wanting to overload my fellow humans with too many heart wrenching concerns if they are issues we ultimately have no control over.


The way social media has been leveraged by Russian troll AI to cause societal turmoil and disharmony is informing my engagement, seeking to not make it more of a space that will impact mental health negatively or turn into a battleground of vitriol. The aim of social media attacks by foreign forces has been with the expressed purpose to cause internal turmoil, confusion, anger and hatred. This unraveling of the social fabric of a society is a strategic tactic to weaken a “democratic” state, and we must all rebel against this in our personal engagement on social media. When inflammatory information is put in front of your eyes on social media, first ask yourself is this content created to inflame? Do I need to engage and fan the flame? Does arguing and spreading vitriol benefit my fellow humans? Does attacking a person publicly lead to great conversations and cohesion? Does “canceling” a human being, even make sense?

These are questions I’m asking myself as inevitably, the divisive and reactionary content comes across my feed.


As Tristan Harris points out, we live in a world in which a tree is worth more dead, a whale worth more dead, and humans are worth more when we are angry, confused, addicted and mentally unstable. The economic model is so, so broken, I’m not sure how we get out as a society, I only know how I personally have been seeking to unravel myself from the damaging extraction economy as best as I can.


So, here are the ways I’m trying to rebel against the current economic model that drives social media:

  • Severely limit my time on social media/ screen time overall. I keep Instagram off of my phone unless I want to make a post or check in on something/ someone specifically. For the most I check in via my laptop, the computer view is far less addictive than the phone model. Set a limit to this session’s use, delete the app off your phone once you are done. That way, you aren’t tempted to just pull it up when you are bored. Boredom is actually really important for creative thought and innovation, as well as for mental wellbeing.


  • DO NOT BUY ANYTHING from the targeted ads. If you see a product you actually want to buy, use the search engine GoDuckGo to look up the company/ product and buy directly from their website. This way Google and Facebook aren’t profiting off their very effective targeted advertising and they can’t save that data to sell you more shit. In all reality, if you actually stop and wait a couple of days you may not want the thing anymore. This is good! We need a world of less consumers, less consumption. Studies show that with delay, the impulse to buy goes away. Save that money for something really meaningful, made by an artisan or musician or small business in your community.


  • Unfollow users that inspire unnecessary consumption. I’ve had to unfollow artists who I once admired because they have become ad machines for other companies. I understand there are many who think they need to make a living as a paid influencer selling other companies goods, I just don’t want to come into this space and be constantly sold things so I choose to not follow artists who are ad machines. You don’t need to consume so much shit in this world.


  • Do not engage in hateful, divisive battles, and don’t spread inflammatory news articles on your social media. If you aren’t 100% sure it’s truth, don’t spread it. If it’s harmful to another human, don’t spread it, even if it’s harmful to a human you really don’t like, it’s still validating dehumanizing behavior as acceptable in our society.


  • If you’re raising young humans, I really don’t think they should have access to social media until their brains are more fully formed. Even then, if you have a teen with social media and you don’t think you can control their use, at least watch The Social Dilemma with them and have a conversation about how they think it’s impacting them, what their goals are in life, what kind of human they want to be, and whether their use of their phone is getting them closer to the person they want to be, or making them unhappy. Here is a link to a product called the Light Phone, if I had a teen who was driving and I wanted them to have the ability to call me and friends, I would get them this phone and not an iPhone or Android etc. https://www.thelightphone.com/

I’m thinking about getting this phone for myself, and just using my desktop computer for other engagement.


  • Talk about these topics in your community, loud. Is this technology designed to serve its users, or extract from us? Are consumers being fully conscious of the ways they are being manipulated and molded, and actively rebelling against those mechanisms? I think there are ways to rebel while carefully structuring use of these services as tools. It takes active, conscious effort to not be a cog in the wheel. The above are my personal suggestions that have come from listening to experts in the field of technology ethics.


In summary, something big has to change about the current economic model of not just social media companies, but our entire Extraction Economy. I don’t think I personally will be the one to shift it by disengaging from talking about the things I like to use Instagram to talk about. Perhaps the FTC will hold Facebook more accountable. I’m skeptical that any government agency actually has the good of us people actually at the heart of decision making, but perhaps other concerns will force them to check this monopolization of the minds of humanity and the mining of our minds for corporate and political gain. Perhaps a large social movement in which millions and millions (hopefully billions) of users radically reduce their screen time hurts their extractive economic model. Hopefully other large companies like Apple will leverage their wealth and position to impose ethical technology changes that would provide us with an alternative model of social media that is less damaging to society.


This is what my life is seemingly becoming more and more focused around, doing work that in a small way rebels against the Extraction Economy. Our work on our farm is directly tied to the creation of sustainable local food economies, this work must permeate all communities and shift food consumption from the ground up. In a similar way, my work in hatmaking has always been focused around conscious consumerism. I promote the buying of heirloom items made by humans trying to do good work in the world, using lifetime quality materials so you don’t buy 10 crappy hats over the course of your life. You only need a few and you can have them cleaned up, reshaped and rebuilt out of the same original material over and over and over again by me. I want you to consume less. In the beginning I waved this as a proud flag that I’m a terrible business person (for this was all somewhat accidental) but in fact, as time has shown me, my business model is the very reason I have been successful. I have a really wonderful clientele of conscious consumers who seems to like the social commentary I can’t help but spread via the platform of this hat business.


The greedy won’t stop being greedy, the narcissistic won’t stop being narcissistic, human evolutionary behavior traits like negativity bias, emotional reactivity, and propensities towards things that cause a flood of dopamine like social approval won’t go away. The only way I see us having any little bit of power right now is in clearly understanding how this technology preys on us, and doing everything we can to not play into its extraction model. I will do my part. 


I want to acknowledge the great privilege I’ve had in building two businesses and enjoying using Instagram as a tool along the way. It’s a great pleasure to follow and learn from so many inspiring artists, and I especially love following my fellow farmers and ranchers who I actually can learn a lot from via thoughtful sharing on social media. I love keeping up with the musicians I admire and promoting their albums, please be sure you are going to their websites and buying their records and not just streaming their music, musicians make next to nothing off the extractive streaming model.


Thank you for reading if you made it this far, thank you for thinking critically about what it means to be a consumer in an extraction economy, thank you for thinking twice before you mindlessly scroll for hours of the day, giving the monopoly more profits off your addictions and taking away from what you could be creating, rather than consuming. Thank you for engaging thoughtfully on social media, and not further creating more divide and more hate, and certainly for not spreading inflammatory news articles and clickbait that counts on your clicks and shares. Thank you for shopping with small businesses in your community, not with Amazon and big box stores. Thank you for buying the record, in addition to making that dope playlist on Spotify. Thank you for buying heirloom goods meant to last a lifetime, and made by a human whose life will be made better by your support. Thank you for considering where your food comes from, and what the true cost is of food coming from damaging conventional modes of agriculture. Thank you for buying a chest freezer and buying your meat direct from a farmer/ rancher, saving yourself money and strengthening the resilience of your community. Thank you for consuming less and rebelling in any way you can against the Extraction Economy of our minds, our soils, our oceans, of our mental and physical wellbeing. Thank you for protecting our youth from the damaging effects these addictive services have on young minds, for we need a future of critical thinkers who can actually focus for long periods of time without picking up a phone for a dopamine hit.


Viva la resistance

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  • When I started reading your post I was expecting something different. I guess it is my bias that a young woman, living in Oregon would be much more “out there”, if you understand. Anyway, I thank you for your post. It was calm, quiet, intelligent, non-confrontational yet extremely powerful. I just wanted to say thank you and maybe there is hope in this world with young people like you. And just as a side note no more Stetson’s for me!

    • Tom Hayes
  • I found out about your work through Marlboro. I like that there is no agenda on your or Marlboro’s part other than to inform me, and others of your beautiful work. As I dove in to your website to learn more I found myself reading your thoughts on Facebook and other company’s who are hell bent on making sure I buy stuff I don’t need.

    While I agree with your thoughts and positions what impressed me most is that you have your own, well thought out thoughts and opinions. You gave me reason to pause and reflect and I appreciate that.

    You are an interesting, and talented young lady. Bravo to you for being a thinker and bravo to your parents who I’m sure helped form the person you are today.

    No doubt in my mind you will have huge success in any and all endeavors. I will be following your posts as infrequently as they may be.

    Thank you for being what I wish more of us were.

    R. Morton

    • R. Morton
  • Thank you for your courage!! It is contagious.

    • Nathan
  • This is by far the most eloquent article I’ve read on the why and how of disengagement. Thank you so much for writing and sharing your views.

    • Catherine Chandler
  • Well said ! I have really felt the pull to come into full alignment with my beliefs! We cannot afford to live like this any longer! Viva la Resistance!

    • Rebecca Ulizio