The creators and practitioners of social media tech are themselves on a learning curve even as they try to rein in the creation.
For all its goodness of allowing us to communicate with friends and family, social media has also let us express our latent biases and gang up with other prejudiced minds. FBs and Instagrams of the world are not to blame for our inherent dislike and hatred for other groups, they are guilty of creating a mammoth and not knowing where it is headed in their pursuit of advertisement riches.
The power of social media is phenomenal, be it Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn. But like a lot of phenomenal things, there are both good and bad aspects, depending on how we use it.
I think Donald Trump election was made possible because of the bad side of social media. Trump has exploited social media playing on people’s fears. Many say he would not have become President without the social media.
Even the creators of social media aren’t sure where it’s all headed for. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is now its chairman and chief executive officer, says the world is more divided today despite social media, a communication tech tool that aimed at connecting more people and making things more open.
The tech giants had not anticipated this kind of divisiveness. Nobody has fully understood the power of social media. Not me, not the people at Facebook, not the people at Twitter.
If the people who run social media truly understood its power, there would be no Russian digital interference in other countries; there would be no fake news; there would be no trolls. And there would be no President Trump (who, as comedian Dave Chapelle has pointed out, is basically an Internet troll himself).
There’s a lot of criticism these days (including from me) about Facebook and the world that Zuckerberg has created. But many don’t appreciate the world we live in today, and the way we can post and share and like content around the world. And the way we are better connected, generally, with friends and family everywhere. And it’s not just FB. The company owns Instagram and Messenger and WhatsApp, the service that allows me to do this interview right now.
But it is equally true that the world is more divided than before - though it’s not just because of social media. People were already divided, and many people have all kinds of hate towards other people; all of this is being exaggerated by social media.
So when you look at someone like Trump and the problems he has created in the world, it isn’t the social media that has created them. He harnessed the power of social media to do some of those things. He accentuated divisions already there in the world.
Facebook has a page to show how it has promoted peace in the world and if you go to Facebook.com/peace you can see it. There they try to show you that Facebook connects people from all over the world - including those considered to be enemies. How many friendships formed in just one day this week? It shows some 2.6 million friendships between Pakistanis and Indians.
It has hired 20,000 people to monitor fake news and go after bots. That’s a good start, but not enough - they have to spend more money, time, energy and resources. This problem is going to get worse before it gets better. Two billion people are involved and so are some very nasty people who are trying to do wicked things.
It is also true the social media hasn’t been proactive in checking and using effective filters against inadmissible content, which even led to the criticism that they were slow to act to let the ad revenues flow in. They have been forced into a corner.
If you look at any of these social network platforms, they had an opportunity to rectify once things went off the rails. It is fair for everyone to think that they could have done more, protect us against this. I don't think they have understood the gravity of the situation. They should definitely have done more than what they did.
Now the question is what can you and I do, when up against this kind of tech problems. We are the part of the problem. The way we use social, we trust everything, we blindly share information.
One of the biggest problems in India is the fake news which is shared on WhatsApp every morning. There is fake news about people - terrible things are being shared on a regular basis. That is part of the problem. So is the fact that people share fake health tips and advice as well.
I think the scenario as it unfolds is that there will be more attempts to fight all the problems and once you have state actors who are hell-bent on causing havoc, it is very hard to eliminate unwelcome things. Just we want to fix it does not mean we will.
The companies need to do more; we need to hold their feet to the fire, they have the need to be better corporate citizens. This is not the fault of the companies only, but also the human beings who are using it. Some human beings will use tools the worst way possible if you let them, so they need to fight.
There are also concerned citizens coming together - for instance, The Centre for Humane Technology, to mitigate the impact and perhaps make social media behave. There are lot of efforts like that. They are important; they are going to be part of solution. But they are not going to be the only solution or instant solution. So we had better be prepared ourselves.
(The author was a full-time professor of journalism at Columbia University and is a leading social and digital media consultant and trainer. He has served as Chief Digital Officer of New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is creator of three popular social media learning opportunities: Social Media Weekend, Social Media Day and Social Media One-Night Stand)
‘I owe it to social media, I’m a better teacher’
Social media has changed my life, given me opportunity to meet people and do things I could never have imagined without social. I have the opportunity to share my thoughts here because of social media. I am working as a consultant to the new Louvre Abu Dhabi and to the UN Refugee Agency because of social media. A paper published my tweet about Srideevi and Shashi Kapoor at the Oscars - something that wouldn’t have been possible once.
I believe I have personally benefited from social media in so many ways. It has helped me become a better journalist, better teacher, better person, have better connections with my family. I think that overall it has been good for us but we never talk about the good things in our lives. We always want to complain and sometimes we should complain.
(This article has been a spinoff of a WhatsApp interaction with the author)
The world is today more divided than I would have expected for the level of openness and connection that we have today.
Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chairman of Facebook