Social media as we know it is a concept that, merely thirty years ago, was alien in comparison to the basic bulletin board system or forum site. In the advent of things like Myspace or, hell, even Facebook in its early days, the idea of “social media conglomerates” were preposterous as these new, shiny sites didn’t have strong enough of a reach in our day-to-day lives, yet. There were whispers of trouble lurking underfoot from those with a more cynical perspective as these sites’ growth became more prominent, but their concerns were mostly unheeded as speculative, tinfoil hattery.
Alas, hindsight is 20/20. We now have seen the power that these mega-sites have on not only our own lives, but even on entire countries as well. Take, for example, the Myanmar genocide. The furor was stoked on Facebook via Myanmar military personnel, with them helping to inflame anti-Rohingya fear and hatred among their population by posing as pop stars and regular citizens online. What started as a Facebook hate campaign quickly turned into a full-scale genocide as many Rohingya found themselves fleeing massacre and persecution in Myanmar. By August of 2018, Facebook had decided to ban a large majority of the accounts responsible for fanning the flames, but it was too late. Many were dead and millions fled. Even the Tatmagaw’s own Facebook page was banned in the sweep. However, blame cannot be entirely pushed upon Facebook, even though its response was heavily delayed despite world-wide knowledge of what was occurring. It started to—again—raise questions of the influence that social media has on the world, and whether that was something that we wanted or not.
Let’s bring this down to a more individual level. It is well-known among those with children or young family members that social media can be a scourge on their behavior. For many, its just a form of escape and a way for teens to connect with friends outside of school. For some, however, it blurs the border between school and life by becoming a portal for the abuse they face in public to leak into their private lives as well. Bullying has never been easier nowadays. Simply make a sockpuppet account, or use your own, get your friends to make hateful posts about a person, and ta-da. You’ve now created a miniature abuse campaign in just a few easy steps! This is so prevalent, in fact, that is has earned its own name in the past few decades: cyberbullying.
Despite its prevalence in society since the Internet age, schools are still struggling to combat it, with many administrators throwing their hands up in the air in defeat. There are laws in some countries to help provide a punishment for cyberbullying, but these laws aren’t perfect and in many cases in the U.S., the offending party doesn’t even get charged or gets a slap on the wrist due to their age. The most that they might face is being force to move to another district or a suspension, but that doesn’t stop the abuse since they still retain access to the Internet most of the time. With the popularity of sites like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and “anonymous” social media app Whisper, it has never been easier to spread rumors like wildfire, even beyond school grounds or city limits.
Hearing about people’s and children’s lives being ruined by social media harassment is not uncommon. Sometimes, you even hear of the occasional case of a young teen or even preteen trying to or successfully committing suicide due to the abuse that is hurled at them every day. You may say “well, just stop using social media or ban it from your child,” and that may be true, but when you’re the only one avoiding it, you still have to face hell every time you step into your school or university and find out that more and more of your peers have turned on you. This type of endless torment that surrounds you no matter where you go—digitally or otherwise—is a rather new-age phenomenon.
Moving to privacy, are we sure that we want to share our personal information on services that seem to be incapable to keep their leaks sealed? In April of 2021, 533 million accounts and their personal information, including phone numbers, were leaked. This leak occurred from an issue with the service that was first detected in 2019. The issue has since been fixed, but the damage has been done. Over half a billion accounts have been compromised and 2.5 million had their email addresses included in the leak. The number of accounts revealed in this leak total to around 20 percent of Facebook’s estimated user population of 2.8 billion in 2020. To put it into perspective, the number of leaked accounts equals to just under the combined populations of the United States and Indonesia, the third and fourth most populated countries, respectively, minus around 70 million. Partial blame can be put onto those who chose to disclose their data to Facebook in the first place, but that is an entirely different conversation. What’s concerning is that a service can get hacked and data can be leaked that contains more records than there are people in most countries in the world. Facebook’s userbase alone accounts for more than twice the amount of people living in China: the world’s most populated country.
These leaks are not exclusive to Facebook, however. Countless services from across the world have been hacked and data leaked at one time or another. It’s truly frightening to visit HaveIBeenPwned’s “pwned websites” list and continue to scroll endlessly. What’s even more frightening is that these sites account for a small-ish percentage of what security experts estimate for the total amount of compromised services. It’s even more likely that some sites are compromised as you’re reading this post and have gone undetected, either by the site’s administrators or the general public.
One focal point I see discussed in relation to trying to “fix” social media is addressing the prevalence of hate speech and influence. It’s no question that, so long as social media exists, hate speech will continue to thrive on it. However, I don’t believe that outright banning people who spout hateful rhetoric, nor banning social media altogether, will ever fix the issue, as they will continue to spread to sites and communities that will welcome them with open arms, as in the case of Parler. It’s a step in the right direction if your intent is to push them away and protect your community, but it isn’t a solution to the idea of hate itself. Hate speech has been a thing on the Web since long before social media was commonplace. Forums and bulletin boards used to have dedicated communities for white nationalists and separatists for years. So long as the Internet and technology to host communities exists, there will be hate groups, and there will always be the need to chase them away.
As much as I believe that the term “cancel culture” is nothing more than a dog whistle used to deflect genuine criticism and translate it to “oppression,” it is unsettling at times when people who dare to criticize governments, corporations, or other status-quo-protected groups without targeting the marginalized can be taken away from the conversation at the drop of a hat. I do not wish to imply, however, that every person who has been banned and cried “cancel culture” are victims, mainly because many of them continue to talk on nationally-syndicated television shows seen by millions or sell books about their “oppression” like hotcakes, which doesn’t exactly scream “canceled” to me. However, many political dissidents who use Twitter, Facebook, and others to get their message across have found themselves banned, and therefore unable to carry their message nearly as far because they don’t have strong support from questionably large media companies, leaving them in the dust.
While I will argue that political discussion on the Internet is equivalent to nothing more than two people on a bus screaming at each other, annoying those around them and accomplishing nothing, bringing to light injustice done by the most powerful organizations or groups in the world is important, and the Internet has both aided in as well as stifled this act. In the real world, many people are disappeared by governments or organizations for attempting to bring truth to power, but it is much easier to do on the Internet, a place that many activists consider to be a safe-haven as they can get a message much farther out to people who may be able to do something about it, or at least spread it beyond their original reach.
I would also like to address the issue of separating the fake from the real. Social media has made it nigh-on-impossible to tell satire from reality or bots from flesh. Many unscrupulous “news” sites or bad actors utilize this nature of the Internet to sow discord and disbelief, as mentioned earlier in relation to the Myanmar massacres and more pertinently, coronavirus and the pandemic. Try as you might, many of us get tricked from time to time in believing, even if for a minute, a story that was later found to be a complete falsehood. It is almost too easy to gather a botnet together, compile some convincing scripts to tweet out, and cause mayhem. If you use the collaborative power of online communities, like 4chan, you can skip the botnet part altogether. This is more so a flaw in human nature rather than social media, although it is amplified on the Internet. Think about it, if a few people walk up to you on the street and tell you that a small pizza shop in the city has a secret dungeon where they keep child sex slaves for puppets of the deep state, you’d probably not take them very seriously and you might even laugh them off.
However, if you are someone who already has a disposition to conspiracies or tall tales and you stumble across a large subset of the Internet who is repeating the same theory told earlier, you would more than likely start to believe in it. This is a flaw rooted in human nature, but abused by the Internet and inflamed by the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Social media sites are still responsible for the content that appears on their site and the excuse of “we can’t moderate it all the time” isn’t good enough. Isn’t it concerning that, no matter how many content moderators you hire or advanced AI algorithms you use, a site can be so large and influential that all of its efforts are seemingly in vain?
The golden question, and one to which I do not have an easy or convenient answer to, is do we, the general Internet-surfing public, wish to let social media grow its ever-present influence further, or should we reconsider how and why we’ve allowed these services to have such a stranglehold on our day-to-day lives? I don’t wish to fear-monger as I do believe that social media and the growing presence of Internet users in the world does serve some good, but there’s a proverbial “tumor” growing on this amazing technology we use for everything. Should we let it continue to grow unattended, try to address and minimize its damage, or cut it off before it gets bigger? There are no easy solutions or cure-all’s that I can pander to you. I don’t think the blockchain or federated networks can fix it by themselves. While there is definite benefit to federated networks like Mastodon, namely in the lack of central influence and freedom to create sub-networks to your liking, it will be hard sale to people who’ve already grown accustomed to using “normal” social media in their lives. I’m sorry that this post seems to be a cop-out in the sense that I provide no guess as to what we can even do, it is worth thinking about. I feel that if we were to attempt to curb social media’s influence, it must start at the individual level.
I’m not asking for everyone who cares about this topic to be a hero, all I’m asking is that we reevaluate the power social media has over us and make a choice if we’re going to do something about it or not. Support organizations who take to task people like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. Convince your friends and family to curb their social media dependence and change the way they consume news and media on the Internet. Change always starts at the bottom.