We've seen social media sell our personal data and spread misinformation and hate, and our personal data. But we still can’t break up with it.
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Social media has taken a central role in our lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and we currently average more than two hours a day on approximately eight different social networks.
It has served as a much-needed source of connection and community to ease our loneliness, allowed us to join like-minded individuals in campaigning for political change, and kept us informed at a time when the news of the day could literally mean life or death.
But while these communities can make us feel loved and understood, they have also polarized us. We generally believe that the information in our feeds is true and accurate. However, if we do question what we’ve read, we turn to outlets within our echo chambers, scrolling until we emerge with confidence that we were right all along.
We’re now faced with a unique conundrum: We can connect at any time, but the divisions and vitriol among us have grown. Instead of connecting in positive ways, misinformation has led to the deterioration of our collective mental health and our democracy.
“We first noticed the weaponization of social media to fuel hate during the War on Terror and our understanding of Taliban and ISIS recruitment,” explains Kent Bausman, a professor of sociology at Maryville University. “By 2016, we learned how social media could be used and weaponized through Facebook to sway elections by promoting false information in a very targeted manner. However, what is quite striking and overlooked is just how social media was used in the 2000s for recruiting and radicalizing young Muslim men to the cause of ISIS. Now we are seeing its repeat in the United States with the rise of the Proud Boys movement.”
And despite all of this, we still cling to these platforms. Why? Why do we feel the need to scroll and share and connect with people who we may not even know in real life?
For one, it’s addictive by design.
“Social platforms are basically artificial intelligence (A.I.) systems,” says Roberto Anzaldua, a data scientist at Satalia in the United Kingdom, a company that specializes in enterprise A.I. “They are extremely complex systems designed by a variety of experts in various fields, such as product managers, domain experts, machine learning experts, etc. The domain experts are human experts – people who know how to press our emotional buttons. They create features to keep us on their platform, such as friend suggestions or notifications when our best friend posts.”
Platforms have tweaked and perfected their design to prey on our emotional needs, creating what Ryan Hanson, who oversees the digital use disorders program at Caron Treatment Centers, calls an intermittent reinforcement model.
“Typically, if you do something one time and it doesn’t work, you stop doing it,” Hanson explains. “But with intermittent reinforcement, you don’t get reinforced every single time, which actually encourages people to try harder. It’s how every slot machine is built.”
For some, this can turn into a serious addiction in which a person increasingly isolates themselves from “the real world” as they attempt to meet their emotional and intimacy needs through social media. Hanson says those who are treated at Caron have often spent years inside their homes.
“If they’ve been on a ‘date,’ it’s been a virtual one with someone they’ve met online,” he says. “They’ve never asked somebody to a dance, flirted with someone they saw in class, or learned how to engage socially and have their relationship and sexual needs met. When they come to us at 22, 24, 30 years old, they have to learn those things for the first time.”
Despite its addictive nature, social media’s strength is in its ability to build communities. And finding your tribe online can actually build your confidence.
“Some of our marginalized communities have found a lot of safety in online resources,” explains Hanson. “If they felt isolated, didn’t know who to talk to or where to turn, then social media can be an incredibly safe and important way for them to start finding their community and receive support. The Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among LBGTQ+ youth, is a great example. They’re a wonderful resource for kids who don’t know where to turn and aren’t sure if their family will be safe or accepting.”
This lure of social media has mostly served us well during the pandemic. It’s helped us stay connected to friends and family who we aren’t able to visit. And it’s also filling a void.
“When society changes very rapidly, it’s very destabilizing, but what helps us navigate that change is a sense of belonging and communities,” explains Bausman. “Typically, three big institutions perform those functions: family, work, and religion. But when family lives far away, we no longer spend our careers in one or two jobs, and there’s been a steady decline in regular church attendance, then we need to fill that void. Social media is now replacing those institutions.”
Michael Rich, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, began researching how screens influence physical, mental, and social health in the nineties and is also the founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) and the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders (CIMAID). He says that during the pandemic, people are using social media to connect with those they normally wouldn’t.
“They’re channeling their collective anxiety and concern into concern for others,” Rich explains. “Neighbors are able to check in on each other and some are volunteering to help the vulnerable people in their community. They’re going shopping for them or helping in other ways. There’s been a lot more giving in terms of effort versus writing checks because people now have time on their hands that they’ve never had before.”
But, there’s also a downside to social media during the pandemic. “Right now we’re all isolated, so more people than ever are reaching out on social media for human connection,” says Rich. “But in many ways, they’re expecting too much. They’re expecting it to fulfill and sustain them the way real-life sustains them. Yet social media will leave them feeling empty because the conversation is asynchronous.”
Social media also provides the perfect opportunity for people to get drawn into the lives of public figures. Unfortunately, some of these people are bad actors who use social media to fuel hatred, further divide our country, and even sway elections. During and after the 2020 election, social media served as a main source of misinformation about election tampering and stealing as well as false voter fraud claims.
“You can see just how important social media has become to various groups’ intentional spread of misinformation,” notes Bausman. “For example, when Twitter started to flag and delete purposely misleading tweets, people turned to different social media platforms, like Parler, to serve as the next vehicle of misinformation spread.”
Parler, which was founded in 2018, has more than doubled its number of users since the election—it now boasts over 10 million accounts. They’re specifically marketing to conservatives with a promise not to fact check or become “editorial bullies trying to tell you what to think.” Those who felt “censored” when Twitter and Facebook began regulating political content and false statements are now leaving those platforms altogether, opting instead for a safe space where they’re surrounded by others who share their views.
Those who study social media find this worrisome because as right-wing extremists promote QAnon conspiracy theories and misinformation, and as each person tries to be more extreme than the last, the echo chamber can create extreme thinking that leads to dangerous actions, such as the recent plot to kidnap and kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
While social media won’t transform everyone into an extremist, it’s still rarely portraying the truth. Most people have developed a different online persona—who they’d like to be instead of who they are. And when you attempt to depict an image of yourself that isn’t authentic, it can be harmful.
“One of the big reasons we have problems with social media is because we are using it wrong,” Rich explains. “We use social media exactly the way the corporations do, which is to market ourselves to the world. We show everyone our beautiful children, hot new girl/boyfriend, or our amazing vacation. We might have 967 Facebook friends, but can we cry on their shoulder at three in the morning? Those are the true friends, the ones who love us, warts and all. True friendship stems from our vulnerabilities and our recognition that we need each other. But that’s not the stuff we’re posting online. We’re not posting that we’re feeling sad. We lost a lot when ‘friend’ became a verb.”
So what can we do? Anzaldua says he doesn’t see social media platforms changing their ways, and therefore, it’s up to us as a society to make that change. “We need to increase our emotional intelligence and awareness so we don’t fall victim to the issues that come with using social platforms,” he recommends.
One of the ways to increase our awareness is to take an honest assessment of how much time we spend online. Hanson says that most people underestimate that amount. Review what you’re doing online, too. Are you really making the effort to stay connected to the people you love and care about, or are you just scrolling?
Rich acknowledges that we can’t put this genie back in the bottle, but we can learn to dance with it.
“If we can take a step back and be courageous enough to be authentic on social media, I think social media can actually be an instrument of peace,” he says. “For example, if you have an American 17-year-old and an Iranian 17-year-old connecting on social media, and their respective leaders say they’re the enemy and we want you to go to war against them, they’re going to say, ‘No way. I know, this kid in Iran way better than I know you.’ I admit that I’m a perpetual optimist, but I really believe that if we can put these ideas in front of people and give them the courage to try, we will be a whole lot better.”
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