The Dark Side of Social Media:
For nearly two decades we have lived in a bubble of ubiquitous social media. An entire generation has grown up not knowing how life was before it. Their aspirations and self-image have been firmly moulded by it. While social platforms have changed and adapted, social media has remained a constant fixture of modern society showing no signs of vanishing. For many it has been a great tool for human communication facilitating friendships and romances, spreading news and organising social movements. Yet for all its advantages, an increasing number of negatives are coming to the fore in the ‘influencer’ age. We take a look at few of these disturbing trends.
Rewarding negativity and the sensational – a toxic combination:
As social media algorithms have developed over the years, they have sought to boost the visibility of posts that receive higher engagement. On the face of it, serving the most relevant content to the largest number of users seems harmless enough. However, there is little distinction between positive engagement or negative engagement leading to ‘clickbait’, deliberately provocative posts, and the amplifying of extremist voices. This has also encouraged dogpiling on individuals who have a controversial opinion or find themselves caught in the eye of a ‘tweet storm’, sometimes an entirely unjustified one. For example, unfortunate social media users who share the same name as public figures and politicians have received barrages of misdirected abuse.
In general, social media posts are as likely, if not more likely, to go viral for negative reasons rather than positive ones. Brands misstep, celebrities and politicians make gaffes, but sometimes ordinary social media users can be subjected to a torrent of abuse for their perceived behaviour or just on a whim. There is no impartial judge in the court of social media, and laws legislating online abuse remain patchy and difficult to enforce. This is compounded further by the issue that when interacting online commenters are unable to see the impact of their actions on real people, making trolling and sociopathic behaviour all too easy.
All safe behind a screen:
Human psychology and social interactions are heavily dependent on being able to observe the reactions of others in real time – whether face to face, or increasingly via webcams and mobile devices. Yet in the world of social media, comments can be made without ever seeing how the impact others. Cyberbullying, especially amongst teenagers and even younger children has become a significant issue, meaning that victims can’t get away from their tormenters even outside school and the playground.
The issue is not just confined to children, however. Discussing political and social issues online is famously fraught and abusive. People are quick to throw insults and make accusations that they would be very unlikely to recreate in real life. In fact, this habit may be contributing to our increasingly polarised society. It has been noted that social media users of the same political views tend to congregate in ‘echo chambers’ and rarely interact with those outside. And the validity of information social media users are receiving about politics and current affairs has become an issue of hot debate in itself.
Fake news, ‘hate’ and misinformation:
The 2016 election of Donald Trump brought social media platforms under the spotlight as allegations of Russian troll farms attempting to influence US voters abounded. Yet even before the panic over election meddling, both satirical and malicious fake news was circulating around the web, informing the actions of people in the real world. The live streaming of the 2019 Christchurch shooting on Facebook was however a turning point for social media giants, which spurred them into action to fight conspiracy theories and online hate. Yet the implementation of this has been met with criticisms from many corners.
The question of whether private companies are entitled to regulate the free speech of individuals, organisations and politicians is a contentious one. In an era where social media is all pervasive and a megaphone to connect with the electorate, the denial of access to platforms could be interpreted as a form of electoral meddling in itself. This point was brought into sharp focus recently when Twitter decided to hide several of President Donald Trump’s tweets for ‘glorifying violence’.
The backlash against social media:
For all these reasons and more, many people are becoming disillusioned with social media. With unprecedented commercialisation, data breaches, concerns around privacy and the vapid nature of the influencer lifestyle, increasing numbers of people are going dark and disengaging from social media. Countless individuals have had their mental health damaged as they compare their lives with the idealised versions they see on Instagram feeds and YouTube videos. Others still have had their career and personal reputations dragged through the mud by online outrage mobs driven by broken algorithms and a lack of empathy. Social media undeniably has its advantages, but it has come under increasing scrutiny for the ills it causes, and the soul-searching looks set to continue. We can only hope this creates a future in which platforms are more responsible, transparent, and accountable. If this will transpire remains to be seen.