Sam Hiner

Across the globe, there’s been a backlash to the harms that social media has on individuals, particularly the most vulnerable populations. In the U.S., as demands for change to laws that shield social media giants from being held accountable for the harms of its platforms, legislation to actually change that has been unable to move.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Young Defender Sam Hiner is a youth activist at the frontline of a youth-led movement to demand change from policymakers. This past year, while also being a full-time student at UNC Chapel Hill, he and his peers at the Young People’s Alliance have spent much of their free time at the North Carolina General Assembly, crafting policy and convincing legislators of why now is the time to act. In discussing his work, Sam begs the question: “Why wait around for adults to make change, when they don’t have anything to show and us young people clearly bear the biggest brunt of these harmful algorithms?”

Sam started the Young People’s Alliance while he was in high school with one of his friends. Starting out by meeting with legislators and launching voter registration drives, he realized in these meetings that he could actually do more to affect change in policy making. No more evident was this during COVID where lobbying lawmakers was no harder than sending a Zoom link.

After shifting these efforts from the high school hallways to campus lawns, no issue was more present on the minds of students than the impact that social media was having on the personal and social lives of young people. Frustrated by the indifference of the platforms causing political extremism and seeing his friends struggle with body dysmorphia because of the content that the algorithms feed children and youth, the group of new activists knew that there more must come of each news cycle than outrage. Right away, with the Young People’s Alliance (YPA), Sam began to work with legislative staff on designing regulation to reign in the limitless abuses of addictive and profit-hungry algorithms.

Within a month, the Young People’s Alliance introduced its first piece of legislation, NC House Bill 644, with the help of a bipartisan group of legislators, which included over half of the chamber – 62 House members to be exact – signing on to the measure. The legislation would prioritize data protection for youth users of social platforms and limit how algorithms can be used to attract the attention of its young users.

“What I noticed in the legislature was that simply going in there as an individual young person wasn’t enough to lend us a voice [in shaping policy],” he said. “However, having a full-blown organization with grass-roots support and the financial backing we were able to begin pushing the conversation forward on multiple issues.”

Sam had the opportunity to interact with the exact companies he sought to regulate during the legislative process. He noted the stale language from the companies claiming that the company was taking action on the harms that Sam witnessed his peers go through were not happening. Furthermore, rather than the companies working proactively to design a policy to incorporate youth perspectives, they claimed that any regulation would “break the algorithms” and refused to engage in meaningful efforts to improve the lives of its users.

“We’re not trying to destroy these companies,” Sam said. “However, there is little effort on their part to change anything, and that vast amount of resources that can be spent to lobby lawmakers shows they have no efforts to change their own behavior.”

The lack of effort on the part of the companies has further convinced Sam that these companies will not reform themselves, and regulatory changes are the only way forward. Sam and his peers will continue to build on the momentum they had during this legislative session into the future. With over 30 students in the organization leading on their own policy interests, Sam hopes to take their passion and translate that into policy.

Sam is proud of the work that he and his peers have done over the past year, but notes that in no way could he have done it alone.

“So much of my success I owe to my peers and the different perspectives they are able to bring. My friend and colleague Kathryn has taught me so much about being an effective communicator when meeting legislators and the importance of being genuine and sharing your perspective rather than trying to “sell” to encourage change.”

He also discusses how the issue of the impacts of social media algorithms are inextricably tied to human rights and the condition of young people. He emphasizes that until people and legislators begin to take notice how the harms of social media are tied to the dignity and quality of human life, we will continue to suffer from the liberties taken by these tech giants.

Profile written by Graeme Strickland.