The fact that social media is all-pervasive is universally acknowledged. It holds the limitless power to influence public opinion, and this at once is a boon and bane.
Now even though social media has been instrumental in giving modern (and digital) twist to the freedom of speech and expressions, a certain section of the society has misconstrued the meaning of this freedom. This has invariably given rise to many malpractices and mayhem that is becoming widespread in different parts of the world.
A classic example of malpractices on social media would be an incident that took place a few days ago. As published on the New York Times, A Facebook group named ‘Black Elevation' that championed the cause of racism in the US turned out to be a fake group that was originally created as propaganda against the Trump government. According to the report, the Facebook page had garnered a massive follower base through paid promotions and conducted many successful campaigns on racism. This page is among the 32 popular pages that have been taken down from Facebook in the last month.
This is just one of the plenty of instances how social media has been used to spread negativity. Now let's delve further into the how social media has been the hotbed of many malpractices.
Social Media - The breeding ground for misinformation
Social media has made it exceedingly convenient to disseminate information instantly. A host of other content is also shared in the form of memes and images, which may or may not be providing accurate information. Of course, memes are created to be funny and induce laughter, but then there is some content intended to influence our opinion. In fact, real articles often provide to be misguiding.
Also, there has been a steady rise in the number of fake pages and news stories. The satirical sites that publish parodies and humorous content on the current social situations are not the ones we are talking about. But then there are pages that don't come with clarity on the content that they produce. This leads to a lot of confusion among the users and consumers. Social media has made it hard to distinguish between the real and the fake and, it has become increasingly difficult to determine which one to believe.
Now, this also indicates a clear ignorance on the part of the users as well. Most people usually don't spare the time to open those misguiding links to the news stories, and only judge the content by its headline. Opening these links would help them understand whether they were fake or not.
Many websites post fake news in a clickbait format. Such format is intended to get as many clicks as possible so they can sell more advertisements. There are also sites with a strong (and often regressive) ideological perspectives. These could be extreme right wing, left wing or promote conspiracies.
Such false information can have a rather negative impact on our society as a whole. In this case, let’s talk about the presidential election campaign, for example, many inaccurate or questionable news stories were doing the rounds on the social networking platforms. One of the prominent incidents that happened during the campaigns was going on in full swing. At that time, a new story was spread that associated Hillary Clinton with a pedophilia and human trafficking ring, and it was widely circulated on Facebook. It ultimately turned out that the mayhem was caused due to a single unwarranted post on a conspiracy forum, which was then shared on thousands of other websites.
It’s a natural tendency for social media posts to go viral. The more outrageous and newsworthy a piece of information is, the more likely it is for people to share it. Specifically, during election campaigns, people are often impelled to post or share anything that supports their favourite candidate, or more likely slams or demeans the opposing candidate. Such tendencies are the reason why false stories get highlighted. Even when the false stories are identified and reported, the damage is already done. By the time damage control measures are initiated, millions of people have already formed their ideas.
Such incidents also raise a pertinent question, is social media becoming a tool for propaganda?
The link between social media and propaganda
Social media comprises of online forums that produce and share content. It's also common social platforms to raise a substantial income by offering space to advertisers and propagandists.
Aside from these paid promotions, the users themselves are a part of the problem here, as most of them have their prejudices, and they love to post things, including the information that’s biased and misleading, which emphasizes their worldviews. So this way if the propagandists want to spread lies, they can do without getting involved directly. As long as the content is accessible somewhere, at least some people would be willing to share it.
According to experts, tailored ads can make propaganda even more damaging. This doesn’t impact the vast majority of people who are thoughtful and informed about the sources of information. But this affects the section of people who’d be quick to react without verifying. So it calls for considerable efforts in gatekeeping to regulate the flow of information that gets circulated.
So what would a better gatekeeper look like? Typically the best advice would be to employ plenty of actual human editors, who would go by transparent policies in determining what is appropriate and should be promoted, as compared what should be restricted. Networking sites like Facebook would need to pay these people, which would mean reducing their profit margins.
The role of social media in fostering the cyber-bullies
Cyberbullying has turned into a behemoth of a phenomenon among youths in the last couple of decades, as the new age bullies are making use of the technology to humiliate the victims. Bullying is considered an aggressive act that is often initiated by a group or an individual repeatedly, against a person who cannot easily defend himself/herself.
In the case of cyber-bullying, the aggressive behaviour is manifested through the virtual realm, with the help of the Internet and especially through social media. The bullies on the cyberspace are efficient enough to conceal their identity and often pose as someone else. These cyberbullies operate through false identities to strike panic among their victims.
Recent studies reveal that nearly 20-35% of adolescents admit their involvement in bullying either as a victim, or a bully or both. Further research has highlighted that one in four children complained of being bullied on the Internet. These instances often leave the adolescents with deep mental health issues and have even resulted in suicide.
Today, news about students at different grade levels indulging in derogatory behaviour that prompts suicides are not uncommon. Such unfortunate events among our youth of today have given rise to several debates and discussions regarding the side effect of social media. In fact, according to psychologists, bullying can trigger many mental illnesses.
The connection between online bullying and suicide specifically among young people has gained the attention of the government authorities. Now sending hostile messages on the Internet is now considered a crime. Measures are also taken to maintain harmony within the cyberspace. Several countries have also laid down well-defined laws against cyberbullying in order to safeguard the victims.
Social media as a tool for terrorism
Another concern that has emerged due to the rising popularity of social networking sites, the rampant practice of terrorist activities. In fact, such activities have created a stir on a global scale in the last few decades.
There were several reports on news portals and organizations on how various terrorist groups are using social media for their benefit in order to accumulate information, for appointing members, for fundraising, and for propaganda schemes.
According to researchers, after 9/11, many terrorist groups operated through the cyberspace. Terrorist groups are using social media sites to spread their propaganda and raise funds, as well as to recruit and train new members. Social media makes it easy to communicate within their network and recruit new members. Since a majority of the users fall into the category of impressionable young people, they become the easy target for the terrorists. The terrorists take advantage of the fact that young people tend to be emotionally weak and vulnerable.
Social Media can be a convenient tool for propagating cyber terrorism where the perpetrators circulate fake information using the Internet. For instance, on April 2013, the hacker group Syrian Electronic Army attacked the Twitter account of Associated Press and tweeted a message to millions of followers of the news agency which said, "Breaking News: two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured." Although the news was fake, this action caused the stock market to take a nosedive almost instantly. The New York Stock Exchange suffered a whopping $136 billion of losses. This type of cyber terrorism can pose a threat to the economy and security of a nation and can cause turmoil globally.
According to psychologists, most perpetrators often use social media as an outlet for their crimes. The reason is, they tend to have an innate tendency to send out a message.
So, what could be the probable solution for this? Aside from the measures and laws enforced on the use of social media, the solution has to come from an individual level. Since it’s difficult to monitor the individual use of social media, the responsibility falls on the users to be sensible with what they consume. In the case of minors, parents should monitor how their children can use social media and educate them about the aspects of privacy and appropriateness of the content they are consuming.
Now just like a coin has two sides, social media too is no different. So it would be wrong if we didn’t point out the positives, just as we highlighted the negatives.
- Fosters positive social change: There are a staggering number of social movements in the past that have taken the virtual world by storm and even made the world leaders sit up and take note. The classic example would be the March For Our Lives campaign that protested against gun violence and demanded a clear reform in laws regarding gun control. Then there was the #MeToo movement, which raised awareness of the crimes against women worldwide. These movements are a testimony to the fact that social media is capable of bringing positive social change.
- Helps to unleash the creative side: Social media has been actively used by artists to showcase their creative sides. Social platforms like Instagram or YouTube is buzzing with the creative content created by many budding talents and even established artists. And since social media orchestrates instant feedback from the consumers, it becomes all the more convenient for the artists to use.
- As a potent tool of marketing: Social media has a huge role to play in establishing a solid online presence for any business. Such is the power of social media that today no internet marketer can bypass social media while developing strategies to promote their products and services. Since visibility is everything in the age of the internet, every business is adopting appropriate Social Media Optimization techniques to ensure that they can reach out to their target audience through social media marketing. The brands use social media to communicate and form a relationship with the consumers and even address their grievances.
- Social media as a tool of learning: Since sharing information is what social media is best known for, the educators today have realized its importance to foster a positive and futuristic learning environment that extends beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom setup. Teachers today have adopted various methods that allow interactive learning through the virtual world. Educational institutes today have their dedicated online forums where students can help each other learn about different subjects and disciplines. In fact, social media has also facilitated the students to interact with experts across the globe, despite their geographical boundaries. They can even hire online coursework helpers for guidance with their school or college papers. Going forward social media will continue to play a major part in the educational reform in future.
- Helps with community building: Since our world consists of people with diverse religions and beliefs, social media is instrumental in developing and fostering a community of different religion and faiths to discuss and learn about it. Similarly, people of different communities and shared interests can connect with each other through different forums to discuss and share related insights on the same subject. For instance, book lovers can join community specifically dedicated for the readers and book lovers; gamers can join online portals and forums associated with gaming and so on.
To sum in all up, let's all agree to the fact that social media holds an immense amount of power, and we all know the famous saying, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So, it's important that we educate ourselves on every little aspect of social media so that we tread cautiously while using it.