The Reality of Social Media
Not too many people could have imagined, 10 years ago, social media becoming what it is today. Facebook started out as a networking site for Ivy-leaguers, and Twitter was a place to share what’s happening. Now social media is not just a space to connect with family and old friends, it’s where people follow news from all over the world, some of it true, much of it fake. Then there’s Instagram, which contributed to the rise of influencers and access to celebrities’ lives. Social media has created thousands of new opportunities for individuals, while also becoming an open forum for people to openly express their opinions, influence others with their ideals, start movements of fighting injustice, and in extreme cases, broadcast crime. While all this is happening, data collectors are taking users’ information right under their nose, including Mark Zuckerberg’s. The rapid growth and evolution of social media is causing us to question whether it should be regulated, and if so, how?
Social media groups and forums are one way to network and meet new people. Users join groups to discuss topics within communities of the like-minded. Since the rise in protests of police brutality and open opposition (and support) of the 2016 US Presidential Election, more groups opining on these topics have been made public. Take alt-right groups for example: many see them as dangerous, and members have committed hate crimes. By contrast, members of those groups see themselves as exercising their 14thAmendment in a controlled setting online. But when a user influenced by the group goes out into the real world and commits a crime, such as Dylann Roof who killed 9 African-Americans in the 2015 Charleston church shooting to “ignite a race war,” information shared in the group can be used against them to classify their crimes as a targeted hate crime. By logical extension, are social media sites aiding and abetting crime? Should social media sites shut down all groups associated with the movement that inspired Dylann Roof? In May, Facebook announced its plans to ban far-right media personalities in their pledge to eliminate hate speech on its platform. Included in the ban was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Twitter has also done this recently with many accounts. The bans have created backlash over political bias according to conservatives and could subject these companies to penalties under antitrust law over speech censoring.
Since 2015, Facebook has been struggling to find solutions to filter out false and misleading content, while maintaining user’s freedom of speech. During the presidential election, thousands of Russian-sponsored ads circulated on the site to spread propaganda on popular topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Years ago, we would have had little reason to use “Facebook” and “politics” in the same sentence. Now, Facebook has to deal with and answer to Congress. The Federal Trade Commission also pursued Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for dealing with and protecting Facebook user’s privacy, taking $5 Billion in a settlement.
The current president of the United States is also very active on social media, namely Twitter. During President Trump’s inauguration, it was announced that he will continue to use his personal Twitter account as president. Every tweet he makes on his account is now considered an official statement by the president of the United States, even if some include misleading and controversial information about targeted groups and organizations.
Early one morning in 2017, I received a text from the University of Maryland’s police alert system of a serious assault. I did not think much of it, as incidents of robberies and indecent exposures often get sent through the alert texts. A few hours later, another text read “UMD Safety Notice—Homicide.” I was shocked. A boy was stabbed by a drunk UMD student for no reason. Details of the student revealed itself as days and months passed by and uncovered that the suspect was a member of “Alt-Reich” Facebook group. The contents of the group “spews hatred toward minorities ‘and especially African-Americans’,” according to CNN and University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell.
In New Zealand, a gunman live-streamed on Facebook an attack at the Christchurch mosque that killed 51 people and injured 49. The attacker was motivated by Islamophobia and white supremacy. The video was up for the entire duration of the attack, and Facebook was not notified of any complaints until 12 minutes after the live-stream had ended. By the time they removed the video, it was distributed throughout multiple social media platforms and websites.
Social media is growing faster than developers and officials can keep up with what is being shared and how it can be regulated. Memes and edited photos and videos are passing as real news to those who lack social media literacy. Real people are hiding behind hate groups, some advancing agendas and others becoming brainwashed and encouraged to act out on information being fed to them. Dylann Roof was inspired by the white nationalist group Council of Conservative Citizens and their website. The New Zealand shooter drew inspiration from Dylann Roof. The student at UMD was possibly inspired by the Facebook group he was in. As users, we have a responsibility to follow the guidelines of social media and laws as citizens, but with so much access to information at our fingertips, it’s harder to not be influenced by anything. Social media sites must also do their part in re-enforcing their policies and creating a sense of trust and transparency for its users. The sad truth is—people will find an avenue to distribute their own propaganda. The consequences are real and permanent and painfully destructive. We need to evolve policies, procedures and our individual awareness of the new reality social media has wrought.