Psychology studies have acknowledged to a certain degree that social media use can be bad for users’ mental health. Studies have found that spending time on social media platforms, like Facebook, “passively consuming information” can leave people “feeling worse”, especially in the case of younger people. So how did our bargain for “checking up on” our high school classmates’ vacation spot turn into a downward spiral of bad mental health? Well, social networking sites have created a phenomenon of “alone together”. More than two billion people now use Facebook.
In other words, the company has achieved its mission of making the world more connected, which is technically. There is an illusion that we are more connected on social networking sites, but they were meant to enhance connections, not replace the way we ordinarily communicate, which is what’s happened in our fast paced world. A status update is not the equivalent of a phone call or in-person hang out. Personally, my phone calls have become for emergencies or my parents. But even parents who were averse to texting are happy to WhatsApp; a company that was also acquired by Facebook.
Despite benefits associated with social media platforms such as self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support among others, it has also been found that social media posts set unrealistic expectations and create feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Why is my friend’s trip more fun? But it gets more sinister; the effect of these platforms extends beyond our health and is also manipulating our democratic process. In a recent leak, mined user data was not only used to micro-target people with ads – that one time you bought a pair of shoes online, and opened Instagram to get a barrage of shoe ads – but manipulate them with political propaganda too. The Cambridge Analytica scandal estimates that 50 million users’ data was pulled, without consent, to create a propaganda machine to sway such elections as the 2016 US elections and 2017 Kenyan elections.
The ploy of social media propaganda is not persuasive messaging, like advertising where you are consciously aware of being persuaded directly, but rather you’re being influenced, moulded and shaped without even knowing or considering it, with more efficiency and less cost. Social media has been engineered to be massively addictive. How many times have you been retweeted? How many new friends, followers do you have? Ping, buzz, update. So our compulsive use of social media networks such as Facebook has made us vulnerable to disinformation, propaganda, and half-truths which in turn affects who we elect and our democratic process.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data, and has pledged to take steps to fix this issue. But more than anything, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed that though most social-media companies go to great lengths to seem harmless, there’s always a person behind the curtain controlling the show. Over time, social media platforms have turned into institutions. Case in point, in a court of law Facebook was described as “the modern public square”. As such, social media platforms ought to be governed by the concept of cooperative responsibility even when this responsibility does not align with their commercial interests. Obviously this is far from straightforward for companies that were built on making a buck, but as active users we have a role to play in preventing the erosion of public values on these platforms and holding them to their end of the deal.