Social Media - Boon or Bane?

By Malvika Sethi

1st Runner Up of Diversity Essay Scholarship

The digital age has revolutionised human communication dramatically. Its wide reach and power of disruption has ushered in a new paradigm of interpersonal relations in the form of social media. The term refers to online networks that allow people to engage with each other. They are also known as social networking websites or apps. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and Reddit are among the most popular.

In today's world, social media has become the most widely used form of communication, gradually rendering traditional means like letters and telegrams obsolete. Social media facilitates the exchange of information and knowledge, positive messages and social campaigns, thus creating global connectivity. However, anything in excess, even something good, can be harmful. The negative traits of humans tend to magnify themselves in social media. This can be seen in the form of cyberbullying, data manipulation for financial gain and many more.

As a result, the question arises: Does social media promote inclusivity or widen the gap? The answer to this question does not reveal itself if one adopts a simplistic worldview of black and white. Social media is a grey area. It both fills and widens the gap, and to understand its relevance today we must consider both sides. Through this essay, I endeavour to present a balanced argument for the impact of social media, and its viability in the future.

Social media is a leveller of the rich and the poor. Access to innumerable opportunities and spheres of discussion has been opened up to sections of society that were earlier excluded from the mainstream socio-political activity. They now have access to information, entertainment, news, educational and career guidance etc. Free Coaching and tuition videos on platforms like YouTube have been instrumental in providing education to underprivileged students and students from remote areas

Social media bridges three significant gaps. The gap between social groups, between the Government and the public and between nations. Humans are social animals, who thrive on interaction with peers, family, and often even strangers. Social networking sites facilitate both private conversations and public discourse. Social media provides a considerable degree of anonymity which can blur lines of race, caste, class and creed giving more focus to the actual topic of discussion. People of various backgrounds take part in discussions ranging from celebrity scandals to geostrategic moves by governments.

In terms of bridging the gap between the government and the citizens, the flow is bilateral. People can use social media to hold governments accountable by demanding transparency and expressing displeasure. Social media is a tool that, if harnessed well, can be used to mobilise millions of people. It is a vital mode of protesting, and several successful campaigns have been launched on platforms like Twitter. A few prominent ones are #MeToo and BLM (Black Lives Matter). While people can demand protection of their rights and personal liberties, governments use social media to assess the aspirations and opinions of the public. A government can get a fair idea of the popularity of its schemes, regions where it lacks presence and general levels of discontentment.

The third significant gap social media bridges is the gap between nations. Social platforms are not restricted by international borders for they have a noticeable presence in nearly every country of the world. The digital world we live in today is strikingly different to the one preceding it. International interaction and travel were limited and perceptions of different nations were coloured by stereotypes and hearsay. However, today people view people of other nations with a certain cultural sensitivity. Heightened exposure to such cultures has led to a deeper understanding of them, to a population that can appreciate various aspects of other cultures be it their food, language, clothing, art etc.

However, like everything, social media has its downsides. “Inequality is a notification we see every time we scroll through our news feed”. There has never been a time in history when the poorest members of society have had a better understanding of how the rich live. Thanks to Instagram and Snapchat's multicoloured filters, the mirage of life's material demands is everywhere. The industry of influencers is fuelled by social media. These content creators gather advertising revenue while giving users a peek into their lifestyles. These lifestyles have become an aspiration among a large majority of people, lifestyles of the rich, western, elite.

Social media has permeated itself into our daily routines. Most people consume a morning dose of social updates before their feet even hit the floor. Around 80% of adults and 90% of teenagers use social media daily. Facebook and YouTube are the most commonly used networks by adults, while Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are soaring in popularity among teenagers aged between 13-17 years of age. The average number of hours spent online varies among age groups and regions, but it rarely dips below 5 hours daily for teenagers. As a generation that has been exposed to online networking from an early age, it relies on social media for communication, thereby making them vulnerable to its evils.

Social media provides us with access to information and news at our fingertips. While some of it is authentic, sites are riddled with misinformation, fake news blogs and even deep fake videos designed to show prominent leaders making controversial statements. The line between fact and fiction is blurring. Misinformation has grown increasingly professionalised, and it is manufactured on a large scale. Investigations indicate state actors collaborating with ‘private strategic communications' firms to spread computational propaganda in 48 countries Nearly $60 million has been spent on firms that use bots and other amplification strategies to create the impression of trending political messaging.

It is my considered belief that social media has done more for inclusivity across a broad spectrum than anything else we have seen in the past. It has the ability to enlighten and empower. Its power for doing good far outweighs its potential for misuse and divisiveness. We just need to harness its vast potential pragmatically. While stringent social media regulatory legislation is needed, jettisoning the media is not the solution. There is a difference between reasonable censorship and outright suppression of voices. While freedom of speech is a fundamental right, there need to be certain provisions against its misuse. Rather than relying on central governing authorities, we must learn to use our discretion and inculcate self-discipline when interacting with these softwares to ensure that the online world stays a safe place for people to express themselves.