Rampant social media misuse puts future of popular platforms at risk
Social media was once seen as utopian and idealistic. Now some are saying it's 'tearing society apart'
It wasn't supposed to end up like this.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were designed to help us keep up with friends and share photos, to unite diverse people with distinct ideas, and democratize the way we discover new information. Instead, they've fostered the rampant spread of propaganda and untruths, enabled cyber bullying, and amplified social divisions.
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While these ubiquitous platforms have fundamentally changed the way billions of people around the globe connect and communicate, it's arguable that this change hasn't necessarily been for the better. And as the repercussions resonate with users the world around, it could signal the beginning of the end for the social media giants.
A decade ago, the expectations of what social media could do were utopian and idealistic. According to Buzzfeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman, the hopes were that they would usher a new age of more human communication and bring about transformational change in every aspect of society. "Social media was supposed to be the layer on top of the internet that truly enabled people to connect globally, to democratize news and information, and to also unleash new ways of doing business."
And at first it worked "miraculously well," says Elena Yunusov, the founder of digital marketing firm Communicable.
In the early days of Twitter, she explains, the platform brought people together from across traditional barriers. Users had long conversations with people they might never have had the opportunity to engage with otherwise, discovering discussions through hashtags designed to make a given topic searchable and inclusive.
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"Facebook was interesting too," says Yunusov. While Twitter was great for getting to know new interesting people, Facebook was "really was about keeping in touch with friends and family. Social networks thrived on creating connections and communities, and while it's hard to imagine now, they didn't push notifications, didn't serve ads every other second, didn't spam users."
But now, she says, "we see more research come out on the adverse effects on people's mental health, memory, attention spans, and ultimately, productivity and human connection and basic ability to communicate with each other."
'Stark misuse of social media platforms'
And that psychological toll is just the tip of the iceberg. As Nick Bilton wrote in Vanity Fair, we're now seeing mounting evidence social media platforms are "tearing society apart, being used as terrorist recruitment tools, facilitating bullying, driving up anxiety, and undermining our elections."
From election meddling to fake news to racist algorithms, the harm done by these seemingly innocuous social tools is profound and far reaching.
"We have seen stark misuse of social media platforms for the spreading of deliberate and targeted disinformation," says Katina Michael, a professor in the faculty of engineering and information sciences at the University of Wollongong and Editor in Chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. "We have also witnessed consumer exploitation and calculated economic manipulation based on an individual's documented traits and characteristics on social media."
According to Michael, the algorithms being used to profile you based on what you post, comment on and share online are then used to sway your sentiment "and have purportedly been responsible for the Brexit vote, led to President Trump's election victory, led to an increase in the polarization of people's beliefs to extremes, and contributed to instability and citizen anxieties about the now and future."
For example, last year, the firm Cambridge Analytica, hired by the Trump campaign, used people's Facebook data to build psychological profiles of them. Using data scraped from the social network, such as age, location, occupation and hobbies, as well as religion, income and voting history, the company claims to have been able to match specific voters with targeted campaign messages. That's all thanks to how those people used Facebook.
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So how did things go so far astray from their idealistic origins?
Scale plays a big part in how things veered off course. The bigger these companies grow, the harder it is to manage the vast number of people that use their sites, and the even larger amount of content that people create and share. As a result, software has become the arbiter of what is right and wrong as automated systems make decisions about what is and isn't allowed on the platforms.
Without human oversight or intervention, these platforms have been manipulated and abused by the people and organizations on them, says Silverman, who adds that "platforms like Facebook operate at a scale that is unheard of in human history, and so we are only now beginning to see the good and bad of what that means."
But while that unprecedented growth has been the cause of many of these platforms' negative consequences, some claim the dark side of social media can be traced to its very origins.
Anatoliy Gruzd, an associate professor at Ryerson University and director of research for the university's Social Media Lab concurs, saying that "the roots of the current issues with social media can be traced back to the mid-90s, to when the first pop-up ads appeared on the internet. By choosing advertising as the vehicle to fund the growth of the web, we set the stage for the current issues."
'Major changes are on the way'
Facebook co-founder Sean Parker even admitted recently that the platform was designed to exploit a vulnerability in human psychology, and "consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible."
Roger McNamee, another Facebook investor, recently said: "Facebook has the largest margins of any company of similar size in the American economy. They're functioning like a drug company without doing clinical trials."
While Gruzd says that more still needs to be done, he notes that "major changes are on the way."
"In the wake of the on-going election manipulation scandal, Facebook has already come out in support of some limited changes to the current political advertising laws," says Gruzd. "Twitter, in the wake of all their abuse, trolling and ISIS propaganda problems, has slowly come around to making major changes to their platform."
According to a comment filed with the Federal Election Commission, Facebook has said that it supports measures to promote transparency in online campaign advertising, including requiring political advertisers to disclose who is paying for the advertisements.
Twitter also announced that they will "clearly label" political ads, and regularly updates its terms of service to try to mitigate the platform's rampant abuse and harassment. In their updated rules, Twitter claims that "everyone should have the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers," a statement that echoes the early ideals of social media, despite how it has veered off course in recent years.
So is this the beginning of the end for the likes of Facebook and Twitter? Certainly, there's more chatter these days about social media burnout and "digital detox" than there is buzz about people clamouring to join.
Faced with ugly truths ranging from election manipulation to the spread of misinformation, Grudz says these companies "will have to shoulder much of the responsibility to ensure that their platforms are safe for users and advertisers," which is a far cry from the hopeful origins of the social media platforms.
So while the current crop of social media platforms may not be going the way of Myspace just yet, this could be a moment of reckoning, as they are forced to acknowledge that the tools they have grown into are not the idealistic ones they were first intended to be.