Sara Yang/The Daily Gamecock

Opinion: The problem with social media

Social Media Editor Gillian Muñoz and Opinion Editor Dan Nelson argue that social media, despite its immense popularity, has unforeseen consequences for both the individual and the world.

Doubt, stress, insecurity:

In 2017, Instagram had 600 million unique monthly users and Twitter had 317 million. I was surely one of these millions of users, and you probably were too. Every year, social media sites continue to grow, and so do their influences on our lives. 

Social media can have negative effects on how we interact with others and, perhaps more importantly, our mental health. On a whim, I decided to ask my Twitter followers what parts of social media they think are toxic to their mental health and here are some of the responses: 

“I feel like social media makes me compare my worst self to other people’s best selves ... most people only post the prettiest pictures of themselves, then I’ll compare those to my ugliest moments.” 

“It can conjure false senses of importance when use is really excessive I think.” 

“... [I] compare myself to unrealistic beauty expectations that often have been photoshopped and retouched and hold myself to those standards.” 

“I think it’s particularly toxic in the way that you always know what is going on in people’s lives and therefore are comparing your experiences, not just looks, to other people’s.” 

“I think a lot of it projects unrealistic expectations of life, relationships, and beauty ... that can cause a lot of doubt, stress, and insecurity.” 

Social media does have positive sides, don’t get me wrong. There is no denying that. For example, it promotes global interconnectedness and aids the progress of social movements by giving almost everyone a voice. However, at the end of the day, it often weighs on us more than it improves us as people. 

Apps like Instagram can create a false sense of importance, which makes us hold unrealistic standards for ourselves, which most people like you and I can’t achieve. You start by comparing yourself to the “instafamous” model who travels to the tropics every week or that guy who is always at the gym and wonder why you can’t be like them. It’s a mere facade that is taken too seriously and leaves people thinking their lives aren’t as fulfilling as others. 

Another issue is Twitter, which is a hub for all types of information you can think of. In a way it’s wonderful, being able to have everything at your fingertips. However, it can be an overload of information when you’re just there to find a few funny memes during the day. It's near impossible to go through your timeline and not see negative things going on around the world or in politics. Constantly being exposed to gloomy topics can cause you to stress more than you should when you all you wanted to do was see how your sports team is doing or have a good laugh. 

Take my advice, and take a break from social media. It is a great way to cleanse, and the best part, it’s free. Those expensive juices we all convince ourselves to be “cleansed” by? Toss them. Take my word for it, deactivate your Instagram for a week and see how you feel. Delete your Twitter app for a couple of days. Being connected to anything and everything is great, but sometimes you need to put the phone down and take a big look at the world around you. Soak in every moment you might be missing instead of worrying about getting a like or retweet. 

 – Gillian Muñoz 

Harvesting, electioneering, manipulation:

Social media, hate it or love it, undoubtedly carries weight outside of your Twitter or Facebook feed. Virtually all major social media platforms, after all, are run by huge tech companies with a global reach. Their popularity has grown rapidly from their inception and, in many ways, has outpaced our understanding of how they interact with both society and the larger global system. Recent questions over Twitter bots, fake news and Facebook’s backdoor dealings with Cambridge Analytica are all factors in a new paradigm that has massive implications for everyone, users or not.

 Last week, separate reports by the New York Times, the Guardian and the U.K.’s Channel 4 News all revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a U.K. data firm, was far more involved in the 2016 election than previously known. Cambridge Analytica’s involvement initially stemmed from work with the Ted Cruz campaign; however, after his loss in the Republican primaries, Cambridge Analytica and its financial backers, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, threw their weight behind Donald Trump. This would be all well good if Cambridge Analytica was a normal data company – this was not the case.

The services Cambridge Analytica offers go far beyond standard data and analytics and into unabashed electioneering and manipulation. For example, undercover reporting by Channel 4 News revealed that the company was engaged in far shadier practices— bribery, seduction and blackmail — to leverage politicians for clients around the world. But this is not the only work offered by Cambridge Analytica, or even the most sinister. They also offer to provide clients insight into how voters think – not through traditional polling, but through “harvesting” Facebook user data.

All in all, through a process expertly explained by the New York Times, Cambridge Analytica managed to collect the user data of 50 million Facebook profiles, or roughly 27 percent of all North American users, with the help of a quiz app. Utilizing a process outlined in research from 2015, Cambridge Analytica found a way to know more about you after analyzing 300 of your likes than even a spouse, a massive advantage to any politician seeking to tailor their message to the wider electorate.

Of course, Cambridge Analytica and their user data set would be nothing without the complacency and negligence of Facebook. Facebook has roughly 1.4 billion “daily active users,” roughly 18.5 percent of everyone alive. This problematic when you understand that Facebook, like a number of other companies, is selling your data to the highest bidder, but, unlike many other companies, Facebook has taken enforcement of what data can be collected and who can use that data rather lightly. Cambridge Analytica took advantage of this and, despite Facebook’s knowledge that its terms of service were being violated, was not prevented from accessing and utilizing this data.

This is not the first instance of this and it’s not just an issue with Facebook either – this Cambridge Analytica scandal is yet another in a long list of transgressions. Other social media giants have also been lax about enforcing their terms of service, allowing malicious third parties, companies and state actors to take advantage of their growing popularity.

Of particular concern is fake news and the bot accounts that push it. Facebook, Twitter and Reddit were all targets during the 2016 campaign for the Russian intelligence services, who created fake news and bot accounts to spread it. This fake news is hard to stamp out and plenty of people, including our president, have bought into it on a number of occasions. What’s worse, however, is that these bots accounts spreading disinformation are not always a violation of many platform’s terms of service. Even when they do, as is the case with impersonator accounts, platforms can be slow to react, if they do at all.

Why does it matter?

Social media undoubtedly has impacts outside of its immediate uses. The information we put on there can and will be used by outside actors that don’t have our best interests in mind. Many of these actors will use this information, as Cambridge Analytica and bots have done, to manipulate us and turn us against one another. This is a problem, and even a historically divided Congress agrees. This inaction to the manipulation of their platforms for uses beyond their intent is simply inexcusable and irresponsible behavior by these companies – many of whom would rather see a growth of users, real or not, than to provide a real or enjoyable experience for those already there. After all, to them, we are nothing besides bits of data tucked away in a server somewhere to be sold at a later date.

In the end, social media, this age of connectedness, is not what we dreamed it would be when it helped take down dictatorships and corrupt leaders. No, social media will not bring about a better future on its own, it will not curb the desire by companies, governments and rogue individuals from manipulating public opinion or trying to make a quick buck. This is a new frontier for sure, but it’s no future.

Dan Nelson

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Gamecock.