Social media is a double-edged sword

Here’s what’s been happening to social media brands in the past few months: Facebook’s been on the defensive for its user-data policies and invasive use of this data by third parties such as Cambridge Analytica and Instagram has deployed a full-blown ‘Wellbeing Team’ to improve its impact on the mental health of its community. And Snapchat. Snapchat’s taken a few blows, one big one to it’s market value after Kylie Jenner declared she “doesn’t open” the platform following its redesign. Ooph.

So many of us use social media channels every single day and don’t actually give much thought to the hoards of data they’re able to collect on us. Our “likes” indicate our preferences for brands, celebrities, news outlets and political beliefs. Our photos are monitored by facial recognition systems that can recognise us from many different angles, not to mention our friends as well.

Android users were shocked to learn Facebook had been collecting data on their phone call and text recipients. We are scrambling to ensure social media contributes to society rather than acts as a detractor (due to fake news, terrorism networks and mental ill-health) to feel better about our rampant use. Instagram is balancing a tight rope between promoting self expression and censorship of harmful posts. Facebook’s also hired a “small army” to keep watch for violent content and Pinterest and Tumblr have banned self harm blogs.

Tech CEOs sing praises to the qualities of free speech and egalitarianism their platforms supposedly champion. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg defined the purpose of Facebook as “making the world more open and connected”, but since it’s come under scrutiny for not doing enough to curb the spread of fake news and inappropriate content, has changed it to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. This was done to position it in a positive light- doing good by reinforcing meaningful connections within communities.

But, saying social networks are built for the positive and lofty goals outlined above is somewhat insincere. Facebook originated from Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard and Instagram started as Kevin Systrom’s part side hustle and part passion project- not as mediums to bring a disparate world together.

While Facebook has stepped up to articulate the good it can do for society, Twitter’s lacked a purpose (reason for being) for the past decade. In 2017 it decided to define its purpose to “Twitter is the place to see what’s happening” to give the company a definition as many people were confused as to what Twitter was really for. Its purpose is far from inciting social impact, but rather it’s straightforward.

While it’s common for people to say social media is a typical by-product of the free world, it simply exercises our freedom. But at what cost?

Retrofitting policies to tackle the challenges these tech behemoths have generated is like plugging a leaky dike with a cloth- sooner or later it’s going to leak again in another place. Some pundits say the technology is larger in its scope and capability than the software engineers who created it intended and can deal with, and that’s what should scare us.