Ms. Carroll is an avid researcher & freelance writer who writes on a myriad of topics with which she has experience and knowledge.
What Is Social Media?
Social media — precisely what is it? The term is broadly used to define websites or applications that enable users to create and share “content” with one another in a networking type of environment. In 1983, at the advent of the Internet, consumers simply read subject matter or used websites to buy products and services. However, by the 21st year of the 21st century, advances in technology saw “content” transition into blogs, vlogs, chat rooms, surveys, personality quizzes, gaming communities, and other frameworks that build massive online networks: public, private, shared, secret, and even sinister.
There is a long list of social media tools but none so staggering in their usage as Facebook, YouTube, Tik Tok, Twitter, and Instagram. Facebook for example, has 2.74 billion active users; Reddit has 430 million. Each of these platforms has something distinctive to offer the end user. The common denominator is that they give like-minded people a place to share-and-share-alike while providing opposing minds a place to express opposition (whether by polite or impolite means). Some could claim these networks build relationships, while others could argue they destroy them. Caleb Carr and Rebecca Hayes wrote an article on social media in 2014 entitled “Social Media: Defining, Developing, and Divining.” Not even a decade later we may consider social media as “Defining, Developing, and Dividing.” Has social media gone from a place of connection to a place that harbors decisiveness and antagonism? Is social media the hallmark of democracy or has it caused widespread division?
Why Do People Use Social Media?
Human social behavior is as inherent and ancient as history. We rely on the ability to communicate with one another to survive, create, express, share, entertain, or with the simple hope of enjoyment and entertainment during downtime. When differences in language separate us socially, we either colonize or try to overcome those differences. But we also rely on our ability to communicate for more selfish reasons: gratification, eliciting sympathy, espousing our opinions, validating our position, boosting our ego, or something as simple as curing loneliness and alienation.
A paradox of social media is that it can quickly turn a desire to connect into a false, almost mythical sense of connection in the minds of its users. And there is something for everyone. Different features make platforms more attractive to specific audiences. Instagram, for instance, is a predominantly photograph based application, while Twitter is a brevity in expression-based application. Limited to social expressions of 280 characters (up from its original limit of 140), Twitter created the use of hashtags to start a social narrative linking it to other narratives called Tweets. When used optimally, hashtags increase social reach and encourage engagement.
You are considered “trending” if you are socially prominent on apps like Twitter, YouTube or Instagram. Trending is a catchy phrase and it might build self-esteem to “go viral” but let’s take a closer look at the opportunity cost. The Reddit platform is ranked as America’s eighth most popular website. Over 50% of its traffic originates in America and the average user visit on the site is longer than Amazon, eBay, and Wikipedia. Does this mean that Americans spend more time interacting on social media than they do for shopping or education? The elephant in the room here is that Reddit is not a news source. According to Pew Research, it is an opinion platform cited as one of the most toxic on the Internet, yet seven out of ten users obtain their news from Reddit.
Should Social Media Be Where We Get Our News?
Facebook was created in 2004 with the mission of “giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Not too long afterward, Facebook determined that its “News Feed” feature was essential to that mission. Notably, the News Feed uses proprietary algorithms to decide the handful of updates a particular user will receive when they visit the platform. This “proprietary method” is now the manner in which 2 billion Americans view their news, making News Feed one of the most influential sources of today’s information. This means what you are reading on Facebook’s News Feed may be nothing more than what Facebook wants you to read.
Personal user data collected without user consent through a company called Cambridge Analytica in the 2010’s, was used to build psychological profiles on social media users. A whistleblower revealed this misuse of information in 2018, and Facebook subsequently apologized for their role in gathering the data. A $5 billion fine was imposed on Facebook by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations; however, this has not stopped the use of algorithms Facebook uses to decide what you should be reading. Never in history has the Latin expression caveat emptor been more relevant. Problematically, Facebook is free —at least we are not paying for targeted news! But we do willingly submit to it and evidently believe everything we read. Despite strong evidence that foreign powers, corporate manipulators, and data hackers are taking control of our thought processes, we as Americans are doubling down on our right to social media.
How Social Media Made Everyone an Expert
Who does all the talking on social media platforms? Consumers do, generally. Consumer Generated Media is a term used to describe any written content, whether audio or video, that is created by end-users with basic or semi-professional online tools. Vimeo and YouTube are examples of this. Facebook can stream this material and other content. Tik Tok is an application that allows the post of short-videos subject to broadly defined genre’-based algorithms so a user gets the good and the bad content without filters.
Websites that allow consumers to write without credential-checking is another example of consumer generated material. Unfortunately, the latter has also led to the strict enforcement of credentialing for those claiming to be actual journalists or writers. Anyone in America (or the world for that matter) can now make social media presentations in the form of a video, a podcast, an article, a blog or otherwise, and purport to be an expert on the topic they publish. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? Colleges now struggle in their quest for credible online sources in student essays and papers. Corporations struggle to find trustworthy content. Fake news is as being circulated just as much as real news.
Consumer generated media is particularly prevalent among companies or corporations branding their products or services. At first glance this seems like innocent marketing. However, this practice capitalizes on social media platforms by sponsoring or advertising their products and services. They may be considered as big a thorn in an Internet surfer’s side as tracking cookies are. Here is the real rub. Not only do companies make money from these types of social media placed advertisements, but a company then tracks a user’s interests and propensities to develop an even more detailed marketing approach. Are we even thinking for ourselves when companies are anticipating our needs and wants before we do? Is this targeted marketing actually subliminal messaging or brainwashing?
According to Dilip Mutum in his book entitled Consumer Generated Advertising in Blogs, blogs are the most attractive social media tool available to marketeers — and the revolution is growing! A blog is a website or forum that that contains the regular posts of end users organized in reverse chronological order. But blogs are not the works of experts or even well-researched users. To be a blogger, you need only be an employee marketing your company, a professional with a title such a veterinarian or aromatherapist, or something as benign as a person with an interest in a particular topic or topics. Conversely, a writer, journalist, or author is someone who has conducted considerable research on a topic and by the standards of accountability and ethics in their trade, someone who has cited credible sources on that topic.
How a Presidential Election and a Pandemic Changed the Social Media Landscape
The number one fear most American’s have is the fear of rejection and with that fear comes a correlating need for acceptance. Social media grew and it grew fast because it provided an opportunity for those fears to be quelched. How? Social media forums offer a chance for the stifled hearts and minds of a spiraling democracy to be heard, as well as a place for shared concerns to be collected and common interests to be catalogued.
Unfortunately, social platforms also provide an opportunity for false messaging to be spun and believed en masse. It can provide a false sense of connectedness when there are no ‘real’ persons in the room. It gives breath to many non-constructive, misplaced, unresearched, and somewhat deleterious comments. There are no greater illustrations of this than the political narratives associated with the Trump Presidential campaign and the ensuing four years he spent in office. He was dubbed American’s first “Tweeter-in-Chief.”
In the Spring of 2017, Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow reported in the Journal of Economic Perspectives how 62% of American adults relied on social media for their news, while popular fake news stories were extensively shared on Facebook. In other words, it is conceivable that the entire 2016 presidential election was predicated on falsehoods. But are falsehoods false if people believe them? As Abraham Lincoln once said, “How can a man be wrong when in his heart he believes he is right?” Herein lies the greatest weakness in social media, or as those seeking to manipulate data might argue, its greatest strength. Allcott and Gentzkow further pointed out, over half of the people who read false news stories believed them. It is well established in psychology that a person is more likely to believe what they hear when positively predisposed to it (the “halo effect”).
Despite clear indications of false narratives, true believers in social media seemingly stand ready to die for their conviction. Covid-19 added to the woes of false narratives with life-threatening misinformation. Reporting in Frontiers in Psychology, author and psychology professor Sander van der Linden, et al, noted that the spread of false news about Covid-19 even led the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic.” Everything from bogus cures to the conspiracy film entitled “Plandemic” epitomized Covid falsehoods. The leader of the free world, whether by design or victimization of the falsehoods himself, accentuated the problem. At one point, it was even propagandized that wearing a mask actually activated the virus and social media users took that as fact and ran with it.
What Is Misinformation?
A lack of information is not always misinformation. But espousing unverified, credulity-lacking, politically motivated information for any purpose other than that which serves the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for all of mankind is misinformation. When people who could be praying for healing in our nation and for the Covid-19 virus to stop mutating are instead contending the entire virus is a hoax, well — America, we have a problem. When there are five or six routinely scheduled vaccines for school-aged children and seventeen different vaccines required for American military personnel, we must ask ourselves why any percentage of America’s population vehemently opposes a single life-saving vaccine. The goal seems to be avoiding the truth rather than finding it with arguments that range from outright denial that the virus exists to alleging the medical industry is using the vaccine for ill-intended purposes.
A New Revolution Is In Order, But The Right Kind of Revolution
As great minds of our past have pointed out, it takes more than a fiery sentiment to start a revolution — it takes organization. Social media has certainly started a revolution of the most precarious kind. But can it create the organization needed to sustain it to the point of a successful insurrection? Will social media settle into the annals of history’s pages as a tool of information, misinformation, or some admissible mixture of both? Can misinformation ultimately overshadow our destiny like the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Can truth and lies, fact and doubt, live side-by-side? Facebook now faces antitrust litigation because of its recent purchase of competitors Instagram and social application WhatsApp. How big will the monster get? And how much control will consumers lose over what they read in the process?
Good is good and evil is evil. Blending the two characteristics bears a watered-down mixture of reality and that’s where we now stand in American history with misinformation. One of the most famous paintings capturing American history is Friberg’s painting called “The Prayer at Valley Forge.” Reverend Nathan Snowden was an eye witness and reported on President Washington’s prayer as follows:
“I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world. 'Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying...”
We won that war and it should not go without noting that Washington’s small pox vaccination was a part of the road to winning that war.
Where is our George Washington in the war against fake news? Where are our silent prayers for divine intervention? The search for truth always has been and always will be a solitary journey, yet social media seems to be trying to convince us that it can provide a collective answer, if nothing more than a false one.
Social media may have a place in sharing experiences and outcomes, but it has no place in deciding whether news is fact or fiction and who will or will not be privy to that news. Choice is the role of a consumer and it is merely free enterprise’s job to provide viable options. Those options should be quality checked and factually based just like tenants of the American legal system require of journalists and journalism.