The Complex Problem of Social Media

In 2017, researchers coined the term “eco-anxiety” in response to the rise in severe anxiety levels as a result of our relationship with the environment. Issues surrounding privacy regulations, management of big data and personal data protection may lead to a similar anxiety disorder to evolve, and eventually become an established problem for the near future.


Our increasing use of social media, I believe, will inevitably pose a global issue affecting millions, especially with its ability to spread large amounts of controlled information and misinformation. Although social media can provide individuals with an outlet to express themselves, access sources for learning, become connected with the wider world, receive help and so on. These benefits can be outweighed by the oftentimes ignored negatives. The way that social media outlets are utilised today means that every user has the ability to share what they want and follow who they want. What happens when the posts and recommendations one views become more personalised and controlled? Social media platforms can be echo chambers (where we follow and receive only what we like, based on our previous activity) and work via filter bubbles (where anything that doesn’t match up with our own views are filtered out). This calls into question the ethics behind the data science of social media; should we really be using this data to, essentially, censor what people encounter online? Should social media platforms decide what we should and shouldn’t view? Will this cause a divide amongst online and real-life communities due to their differing views, the only views that they have been exposed to?


In 1996, MIT researchers Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson warned of a potential dark side, despite the huge benefits, to our newly interconnected world: “Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.” (Grimes, 2017)


Here, Alstyne and Brynjolfsson hint at the effect that these groups can create within a society, potentially leading to disruptions in political activities and elections. (‘Pros And Cons Of Big Data’, 2019) This can already be seen through the rise in activist groups and the lead up to the US Capitol breach in early January 2021: a result of disinformation and misinformation enabled by platforms, encouragement from politicians and influencers, and a lack of trust in the news. (Donavon, Friedburg & Dreyfuss, 2021)


Step one of solving these problems is acknowledging them. As humans, we sometimes have the natural instinct to shut down new ideas and leave things as they are because “that’s life”. Although we are able to begin discussing them, calling out norms and questioning ethics, how will we be able to educate others? Even within friendship groups it is difficult to start these conversations and many people wish to be blind to them – these conversations should be a way to open minds to new perspectives and engage them, and not be something they are too scared to acknowledge. Perhaps by helping individuals question the norm, can we begin to discuss and implement solutions. The rise in technology and social media has helped society move on in so many aspects, but they are also so unpredictable and sometimes a distraction from real-life issues. As citizens and members of society, we have the responsibility to contribute to it and make it better. When we recognise a problem, we shouldn’t be afraid to question or speak up against it, we should feel empowered with the position we have in society and work towards a greater good for ourselves and our future. (Benfadhel, 2020) In terms of social media and big data, this could mean demanding for more rights and access when it comes to large corporations using our data to grow user consumption.


However, as with many complex problems, more arise: if we are able to generate more awareness amongst individuals, is there a possibility of making them too aware of the amount of control that we don’t really have, especially in the face of social media and in society? This hyperawareness could potentially lead to a more pessimistic and glass half-empty type of people as a generation, as individuals may feel exposed and vulnerable to the way that large social media platforms operate with regards to data handling.


Solving the problems surrounding social media through individuals’ efforts is only one way of tackling this complex issue. We can begin to become more proactive social media users and netizens and make the conscious decision to follow accounts and ideas outside of our own beliefs, expanding our knowledge on opinions that we’re not often exposed to. In addition, by continuing to observe its effects, we can find solutions that take them into account, for example through law (data protection acts) and psychology (how people are affected and how we respond to these impacts).


This topic opens up a discussion on evaluating both benefits and challenges of social media. It is up to us to recognise what we have free will and control over and what we believe needs to be changed.


By Haadiyah Cassam, Year 13



Bibliography:


Donavon, Joan, Brian Friedburg, and Emily Dreyfuss. 2021. “The Capitol Siege Was The Biggest Media Spectacle Of The Trump Era | Joan Donovan, Brian Friedberg And Emily Dreyfuss.” The Guardian. January 11, 2021.

Grimes, David Robert. 2017. “Echo Chambers Are Dangerous – We Must Try To Break Free Of Our Online Bubbles.” The Guardian . December 4, 2017.

Karim Benfadhel. 2020. “4 Reasons Why You Should Be An Activist.” UNIKORN . November 17, 2020.

“Pros And Cons Of Big Data.” 2019. Ciklum. June 27, 2019.


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