Perils of Unfettered Social Media A daunting challenge we must mount


Perils of Unfettered Social Media

A daunting challenge we must mount

Qasim Dhillon

In 2017, a research conducted in 33 countries revealed that Facebook-owned platforms reached 86 percent of their internet-users between the ages of 16 and 64. If not the internet itself, these platforms effectively acted as a gateway to the internet there. Today, by all means, outreach of social media is gargantuan. These platforms also provide a stage for democratic debates. However, early optimism about the potential of social media for providing unhindered access to information, and giving voice to those who were traditionally marginalized or censored, is eroding. Owing to its unregulated nature, a number of perils have attached with it. Vulnerability to political exploitation, spreading mis- and disinformation, facilitation for hate speech, targeted marginalization of minorities, exacerbating polarization of civil society, and unprecedented capturing of personal data are some manifest plagues. Nonetheless, there is also a bright side of the story. The same platforms do also provide global connectivity to people, offer access to information, ensure freedom of speech, and facilitate working from home or running businesses online. However, owing to the growing abuse of social media, concerted efforts from all concerned quarters to transform social media into a safer platform are need of the hour.

Being unregulated in nature, social media platforms are vulnerable to political exploitation, especially by populist leaders. The motivation behind this is the manipulation of voters’ choices. Apart from populist leaders, established democratic governments have also spent public money to manipulate opinions over social media. This manipulation violates democratic norms and poses a grave threat to democracy.

Widespread ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’ are adding fuel to the fire. In recent months, social media were littered with false information on Covid-19. Such information is created and disseminated by state s well as non-state actors to achieve their underlying motives. Although the use of false information to influence public opinion is as old as the newspaper—Ben Franklin used the tactic to generate opposition to Native Americans during the American Revolution—dynamics of media have changed now. Social media, today, act as accelerant, and at-scale content platforms and distribution channels. Due to their massive outreach, they have the capacity to harm the interests of a larger segment of society with false information that is circulated on them.

Another peril of social media is the facilitation of hate speech. SM platforms are often appreciated for their promise and power to promote free speech. It’s true to the extent that they have facilitated people in repressive regimes to raise their voice and show their concerns. Arab Spring is a perfect example to prove the point. SM platforms have also allowed individuals to speak freely about issues like gender, representation and identity. However, it is also an undeniable reality that social media provide breeding ground for hate speech, public humiliation, racial discrimination and sexual harassment. For example, in Myanmar, a major chunk of the Facebook content is said to be divisive and hateful. Resultantly, minorities in Myanmar, especially Rohingya Muslims, are undergoing great torment.silence-by-free-speech

Moreover, SM platforms are relentlessly used for targeted marginalization of disadvantaged or minority voices. Demeaning ‘hashtags’ have become an organized mechanism to target a certain group. For example, #snowflake is used to denigrate liberals in America. Similarly, #Presstitutes is a commonly used slur in Philippines and India to troll those who speak unfavourably of the populist governments. Due to constant online abuse, members of frequently targeted groups, especially women and minorities, may self-censor or opt out of participating in public discourse. Presence of such content in abundance and absence of grievance-redressal mechanism can significantly change generally accepted norms pertaining to what is right and permissible.

Biased design of social media has also exacerbated polarization in society. There is no disagreement that whatever is visible to individuals in terms of search results, newsfeed and advertising offers is an outcome of their digital footprint. All this is controlled by the ever-evolving non-neutral algorithms of SM platforms. The user preferences are prioritized in a feedback loop. Subsequently, users are shown similar posts to exacerbate and reinforce their preferences. On platforms such as Facebook, this tends to promote self-segregation into like-minded groups. These groups then use all means, fair or unfair, to achieve supremacy over other groups. Resultantly, fissure among different strata of society is deepening.

Lastly, SM platforms are being actively used to capture personal data for behavioural profiling. This is unprecedented in nature. Today, SM companies’ databases are replete with personal data of users. This data is strategically used for behavioural profiling and micro-targeting. Through this data, governments can secure support on political grounds from masses by influencing their political opinion. Similarly, businesses can bring interests of consumers in line with their products and services. Data analysis coupled with behavioural and demographic analysis has allowed firms—not just Google and Facebook, but reportedly also Cambridge Analytica—to “decode” users’ personalities and target them with tailored messaging to drive behavioural shifts.

However, despite all that, the picture is not as gloomy as it seems. SM platforms are simultaneously offering numerous benefits to masses. Today, we can interact with members of our family, relatives and friends who live thousands of miles away from us. Moreover, they also offer lucrative opportunities to earn money and show their talent. For instance, many talented youngsters are making bucks by uploading informative content on YouTube.

This shows that if positive and constructive use of social media is promoted, it may bring huge benefits; but there is also an urgent need to curb the negative use. The aforementioned perils require all concerned stakeholders to carve out an overarching policy to fix prevailing loopholes in SM design. Social media firms have a predominant role to play in this regard as they are primarily responsible for rectifying the errors. And, to do this, the social media firms must first improve the working of algorithm to make it neutral Secondly, they should allocate sufficient resources to ensure community standards; equal priority should be given to formation of effective grievance-redressal mechanism. Thirdly, they must strictly adhere to self-generated industry standards to minimize the unintended consequences of social media technologies. Fourthly, social media firms can go into partnerships with institutions to find solutions for critical issues. In this regard, Facebook’s decision to share information with the International Fact Checking Network and with Germany’s Corrective to combat the spread of mis-and disinformation is appreciable. Lastly, SM platforms should also commit to greater transparency about how information is shared and targeted.

In a nutshell, the absence of appropriate regulations over social media is impairing its ability and potential to serve the masses in a positive way. Instances of negative use are rising with every passing day. Faltering democratic norms, increase in online or cyber crimes, adversity among different factions, misuse of private information and seclusion of marginalized groups are conspicuous. A responsible, inclusive and consecrated framework must be chalked out by all concerned quarters. This is the only way forward to reap the fruits associated with formidable power of social media.

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