Social Media And its Utility in The Age of Misinformation

By Ms. Kanika Y
Winner of Diversity Essay Scholarship

Content on social media is as much a creation of big business as it is a reflection of what is happening in society. As society morphs into an amalgam of interconnected cultures, social media supports the fact that everyone is different while bringing millions together by its inherent democratic structure. It does so by allowing people from various backgrounds to share their experiences, giving the public new perspectives and ways of thinking.

This essay opposes the argument that social media promotes diversity, elaborates on the introduction of legal regulations around the world, and concludes by countering opposing arguments. It firmly holds that social media, governed with effective laws, can be a powerful tool for promoting inclusivity and diversity in society.

Populist voices are amplified or muffled by the individual political system in which we operate. The ideological background against which the social media debate takes place is rather uneven. A study showed that misinformation from politicians actually expands their vote banks, with people seeing obvious liars as “more authentic.” It also showed that 1warning labels to social media posts disputed by fact-checkers actually convinced that information without a label is true. The MIT Sloan research team found that 1false news is 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth.

Private firms need to be held accountable. Popular consensus trusts that social media companies are objective and impartial in providing a platform and services. Recent antitrust cases against Facebook and WhatsApp already mute that point. Even their supposed impartiality presupposes hierarchies of interest set against an ethical/ideological background. This background is big business’ profit motive, leaving them with little incentive to self-regulate content. Social media’s algorithms are also coded to maximise ‘hits’, amplifying falsehoods and extremist propaganda, as well as instigating reactionary thought in users. ‘Doom-scrolling’, a zeitgeist of contemporary pop culture, provides a persistent supply of skewed information and also reinforces these views. This pushes users further down the rabbit hole of entrenched human biases like confirmation bias and affinity bias, allowing demagoguery to thrive.

Unfettered expression on social media is not essential to human liberty in the way security is. Critics will argue that checks on content is “moral policing.” But misinformation is proven to have the power to manipulate and radicalise people’s opinions, giving rise to safety concerns. When populist voices control public narrative, dissidents are forced to disappear. A striking example is a Russian journalist who was fired from her job for daring to call out false propaganda being doled out on State TV. Former US President Donald Trump’s frequent activity on Twitter often touted misleading information that ultimately culminated in a violent riot.

Social media aims to give everyone a voice in the name of free speech, but doesn’t come pre-programmed with prioritising public interest, rather the private interest of companies with the profit motive. This has led to countries, from the European Union to India to Australia, to introduce legal regulations on social media to protect its citizens. Information/content regulation is its most contentious issue. To believe free expression is inherently a force for good leaves it vulnerable to corruption. Just like a functioning democracy requires checks and balances to serve everyone, so does social media require legal intervention.

Regulations under the European Union’s ‘Digital Services Act,’ requires that social media companies strictly monitor and remove illicit or harmful content within a certain timeframe or risk billions in fines— up to 6 percent of their global revenues. This is meant to increase firms’ accountability and capacity to remove hate speech, malicious misinformation, misleading propaganda and illegal content.

India’s Intermediary Liability rules of the Information Technology Act also aims to make social media platforms more liable for the content they host. The government is worried about “unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity” from unregulated content on the internet. The fear is warranted. Studies show definite links between radicalisation and social media usage, especially amongst the youth.

Social media platforms were born out of the human yearning for connection, transcending borders and challenging entrenched, insular worldviews. While it has helped forge connections across the globe, it has largely failed to live up to its true potential. The lack of regulation allowed the powerful to exploit its reach. Good laws and strong enforcement in a dynamic, ever-evolving world, and will actually weaken the need for regulation and allow for greater freedom of diverse and inclusive expression online.

Public debate on social platforms can be a means of arriving at the truth while affording equal dignity to all its participants. There is utility in giving unorthodox views a platform-- a multitude of activists and journalists have taken to social media to expose corruption or veiled terrorism and lambast distortions in public opinion. But the past decade has shown that discussion on social media more often leads to polarisation and radicalisation. Jair Bolsonaro’s rivals in Brazil’s 2018 elections were victims of a targeted smear campaign that spread false news through WhatsApp.

Regulation does not imply censorship. One way to confront critics’ beliefs on content regulation is to argue that it won’t impinge on free expression, but rather help create an environment where a diverse population can express themselves freely and safely.

It is easy but ultimately reductive to accuse social media of whipping up the population into a contrarian frenzy. Effective regulation promises to be a force for preserving social media’s positive utility, improving diversity and inclusivity in society, while minimising the negative.