Social media has revolutionised our way of communicating. Since Six Degrees was established in 1997, a site widely regarded as the first recognisable social media network, digital communication has evolved rapidly, transcending geographical barriers to become a crucial part of many people’s lives. Today, there are 3.2 billion social media users worldwide equating to around 42% of the population. Social media giants Facebook and Twitter remain hugely popular, with Instagram and Snapchat used more by the younger generations. The impact of social media on society is a contentious issue, with some criticising the way it has made many people into digital addicts and others defending it as a networking tool capable of bringing together people from different backgrounds. Undoubtedly, social media has shaped society, giving a voice and a platform to many people who may have otherwise remained on the fringes of society. While some, including Jon Ronson, would argue “the great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people”, this perspective disregards the problems that social media has brought into society. The power to broadcast your voice can be used for good or by those wishing to spread messages of violence and hate, resulting in both positive and negative outcomes.
The positive impact of social media can be seen in Hashtag Activism, with movements using the internet to gain publicity. In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted write #MeToo” and within hours the tag went viral. While the original #MeToo movement was started by Tarama Burke on MySpace more than a decade ago, Milano catapulted the movement to new levels. Thousands of people shared their stories and this incredible response demonstrates how social media has given people the courage to come forward and share what they have been through. Social media has facilitated a conversation not only about workplace sexism but also “a movement of accountability on violence against women” – Carmen Perez, co-chair of the Women’s March.
The #MeToo movement is just one example of Hashtag Activism. Other movements that have gained prominence on social media include #BlackLivesMatter and #HeForShe, highlighting deeply rooted issues in society. The trending hashtag of #BringBackOurGirls following the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in Nigeria in 2014 showed how the general public were using social media to put pressure on their governments. It was essentially a faster way of petitioning the government; whilst not official, it still had the power to show how people stand together. Hashtag Activism has also highlighted the plight of individuals, as is the case with #IStandWithAhmed which started trending on Twitter following the unjust arrest of a young Muslim boy who had made a clock and brought it into school to show his teacher. Through social media, members of the general public and high-profile figures alike shared their disgust at the way Ahmed was treated. This shows how an incident which may have otherwise been overlooked became a national issue. These are just some examples of how social media has allowed people to share their stories in their own words almost instantaneously.
On an individual basis, social media can be used to share and promote creative work and has become a popular tool for budding writers, artists, and musicians. In industries where it is difficult to be noticed, social media provides creative minds with a way to gain support online, particularly for those who are unable to pursue their career through traditional avenues. For example, Eli Waduba Yusuf is a Nigerian artist who shared his drawing of Kevin Hart online; it was brought to Hart’s attention and he commissioned Yusuf to create more pictures, opening many new doors for Yusuf. Social media has not just given a voice to the voiceless, it has provided a platform for people to promote their talents and potentially start or further their career.
However, in the same way that social media can be used for good, it can also be utilised by individuals or organisations looking to spread their message of violence, hate and destruction. Increasingly, social media is being used by extremists to radicalise vulnerable people; it is giving a voice to people who may have otherwise been on the fringes of society. A worryingly high number of young people in the UK have been targeted by ISIS to join the so-called jihadist war. Social media has made geographical barriers redundant for recruiters and allowed terrorist organisations to extend their influence on a global scale. Live streaming on social media has also been used to share the horrendous acts committed, as was the case with the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand earlier this year. The footage of the terrorist attack was streamed live on Facebook showing how social media has given terrorists a platform to share the outcome of their crimes. This is an appalling use of social media but is unfortunately a very real result of social media giving people a voice.
For some of the younger generations, social media has brought with it new problems in the form of cyberbullying. Where once bullying was restricted to the playground, children are now struggling to leave behind the taunts when they return home from school as social media allows constant communication. Recent surveys suggest nearly 40% of children aged 12 to 17 in the US have been bullied online, the majority through Instagram. 87% of young people say they have seen cyberbullying happening to someone else. It is evident that social media has given a stronger and louder voice to bullies, particularly as it allows people to hide behind a screen. The problem of cyberbullying is not limited to children; many adults also face abuse online. In the UK, there has been a rise in death threats against MPs due to rifts caused by Brexit and social media has allowed this to happen. This growing crisis has had a damaging effect on many people and is a key problem with social media.
These examples show how social media has negatively impacted society by giving everybody with internet access a voice, allowing people to spread hatred and violence. While it should fall to the social media companies to regulate their platforms, the sheer vastness of the internet makes it difficult to police successfully and situations often escalate out of control without being brought to the attention of moderators.
While the idea of “the greatest thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people” is an optimistic outlook, it also romanticises the reality of life in the digital age. To recognise only the positive impact of social media would be both naïve and unhelpful as it would not put pressure on social media organisations to solve the issues that undermine the impressive way digital communication has changed society. The great achievements of social media cannot be denied but neither can the problems that it has brought. Social media has indeed given a voice to voiceless people but this power needs to be kept in check.