Editorial Articles

volume-28, 12-18, October, 2019

Social Media: impact and significance


Dr. A.N. Tripathy & Gaurav Kumar           

The instantaneous nature of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, among others, has created a new communication channel to connect and share information. Today we interact, comment-upon and share anything, anytime.

The downside of social media platforms, however, is the scope of their misuse to spread misinformation. Since any individual can today become an influencer, it is crucial to safeguard the genuine users from possible threats.

Social Media is a serious business and needs to be recognized as a profession, with the professional immunity available to other professions such as doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants etc. Besides, various academic courses in Social Media Management should be formulated and implemented globally.

Why social media is important?

Social media plays a vital role in our life. We are living in the information age and we visit social media platforms like Facebook or Gmail, many times in a day for the purpose of information as well as entertainment. Social media has become a channel that also helps in our careers. In the wake of technology evolution, we have facilities that place the world at our fingertips and give us the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime. It has given us insight into the world beyond our borders and an opportunity to achieve goals that once seemed unrealistic and too far stretched.

How the social media started?

Before the ubiquitous Facebook, there were other social media platforms/ networks. In 1979, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, two graduate students from Duke University developed Usenet, a platform where you could post news or articles. It was responsible for evolution of newsreader clients. The late 1990s saw the introduction of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), one of the first forms of social media, which were operated through personal computers and were accessible to one person at a time. Later in 1988, we were introduced to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), that enabled users to link and share files. Then came Six degrees in 1997 with more advancements, but unfortunately was shut down in 2001. Other inventions such as Migente, Blackplanet and Asianavanue followed from 1997 to 2001. 2002 was the birth of Friendster, another social media network that allowed users to discover friends and expand their network. From 2002 onwards, these platforms became more professional and in 2003, LinkedIn was founded, allowing users to post and interact privately. Another network that came in the same year was Hi5, where a user could prefer to be seen within their network if they wanted.

In 2004, Facebook kickstarted its journey at Harvard University. But before that, it was known as Facemash in 2003, created by Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. It was designed to help users rate fellow classmates by giving them two photos. Facebook picked up pace, becoming hugely popular by 2008 and is now omnipresent.

Internet was already there with so many offerings such as news, information, music etc. However, what it lacked was a way to share these things with people. There was no platform to connect with, where one could share information with others. This was the major reason behind creating Facebook. This is how a thought turned into something so big and Today, Facebook has grown into one of the largest internet companies in the world with more than 2 billion monthly active users.

Meanwhile, MySpace was launched in 2004, enabling users to customize their profiles, embed videos and post music, while chatting with each other. It soon became the most famous social media platform in the world. Next was YouTube, one of the first major sharing sites and video hosting platforms, that allowed users to instantly upload videos and share these to the whole world. Twitter came in 2006 and, after four years, Instagram in 2010. And the list goes on.

Privacy of an individual should be respected. However, this doesn't happen every time. Many companies take advantage of what people share on social media platforms. They take this information as a commodity to make profits. And users on the other hand, never come to know how their information was collected and by whom and why it was shared with. Some people also use social media as a publicity-generating platform with no regards for privacy. Then we have typical social media users who are more mature in terms of privacy. This category of people expects that whatever they share online with friends and family, are supposed to be viewed only by the people they choose to share with. But unfortunately, the hard truth about social media platforms is that they provide users with a false sense of security in the name of "privacy settings". Especially in the wake of fake news spreading like a wildfire across the internet through social media platforms, it has become an uphill task to get rid of such issues.

Hackers and their supporters have used social media as a conduit for junk news. These platforms have been actively used to manipulate public opinion, though in diverse ways and on different topics. In authoritarian countries, social media platforms are one of the primary means of preventing popular unrest, especially  during political and security crises.

Among democracies, we find that social media platforms are actively used for computational propaganda, either through broad efforts at opinion manipulation or targeted experiments on particular segments of the public. For example, in Brazil, bots had a significant role in shaping public debate ahead of the election of former President Dilma Rousseff, during her impeachment in early 2017, and amid the country's ongoing constitutional crisis. Over the years, this has resulted in increasing cynicism among citizens and parties across the world.

Therefore, it is important for companies to redefine the boundaries of what is private communication and what is public. Social media is a platform that is fast changing and we need to not just evolve around it but also be sensitive. While social media policy is already part of employee contractual terms in many companies, guidelines have to evolve further. This can also help put employers in a stronger position when they want to act against employees doing things they don't approve of.

As any epidemiologist knows, the first step to control a communicable disease is to understand how it is transmitted. Junk/fake news is distributed through automation and the proprietary black box algorithms that determine what is and is not relevant news and information. We call this "computational propaganda," because it comprises politically-motivated lies backed by the global reach and power of social media platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

However, Facebook to combat this issue, has started to examine how foreign governments use its platform to manipulate voters in democracies and before the French presidential election last spring, it removed some 30,000 fake accounts and so on in the British election in June and in the German election as well that took place in December 2017. But this is not enough. Firms like Facebook need to engineer a more fundamental shift from defensive and reactive platform tweaks to more proactive and imaginative ways of supporting democratic cultures.

How social media influences a democratic society?

Many agree to the various advantages of social media such as voicing voter concerns, affordable access to information etc. However, there are concerns. Some pitfalls are already being addressed, others are being examined. Logically, news feeds were designed to seek and understand what type of content one likes and, thus, show him/her more of it. Sounds innocent enough. However, according to a Harvard Law School Professor, Cass R. Sunstein, the algorithms behind these news feeds lead to polarization, which refers to the idea that when someone is exposed to information that goes hand in hand with their own beliefs, this pushes and steers people towards the extremes.

If proper steps are taken to encourage civic engagement, foster electoral participation, and promote news and information from reliable and reputable sources, we can bring improvement in the society at large. These measures are crucial to democracy. And for democracy's survival, it's an imperative for social media giants to redesign themselves.

(E-mail: gaurav.du@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.

(Image Courtesy : Google)