Social Media: Bridging the widening gap

By Mannat Sharma

2nd Runner Up of Diversity Essay Scholarship

The social networking of human beings dates 100,000 of years back but with the smartphone revolution, we live in a time when most of us walk around with a powerful computer in our pockets. As gen-Z, I am part of one of the first generations who knew technology since we could walk, a thing we have been perpetually dismissed for. However, our approach to social media content has inclusivity at its core. We have seen some remarkable things. We have seen the world switch from Nokia to iPhone and from floppy disks to cloud computing. We saw the gaming landscape go from Snake Xenia to PUBG. The fast and wide adoption of social media technologies is changing how we access information, demand political change, find partners and even our attitude. We have moved through the stone age, the industrial age, the digital age, the information age and we are now in the social age, but nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.

As with all things that reach the masses, the purpose behind the creation of social media has also lost its meaning. At first, social media existed to help end-users connect digitally with friends, colleagues, family members and like-minded individuals that they might never have met in person. As the number of users increased to over 3.6 billion in 2020, the idea behind social media kept getting diluted with every new account created and the gap between different kinds of people kept widening. Around 2011-15 researchers found a new phenomenon and named it “Facebook Depression.” The story only goes downhill from here. It led to an epidemic of mental health issues. Everyone found a cryptic name to hide behind. Criminal activities found a new sphere. Cyberbullying, data theft, identity theft; recruitment and propaganda for terrorism and paedophilia became a major problem. Political leaders worldwide faced a governance challenge in the 2000s. Regulating information became far more difficult. Netizens appeared puzzled by governments' intention to regulate the Internet. Often users say that the Internet is a powerful medium that will be stifled by regulation. With unsurprising disregard of the people’s opinion, legislations started passing bills for the regulation of social media. Probably the first country to have any Internet-specific censorship law was South Korea. In 1995, the Electronic Communication Business Law was passed, which established the Information & Communication Ethics Office. These new regulations did little to promote inclusivity and more to further push people away with an increase in occurrences like “Boy’s Locker Room” where unscrupulous pictures of girls were being circulated.

As social media grew, other countries started following South Korea’s suit. India introduced its first law in 2000, The Information Technology Act, 20003,4. The Act directed the formation of a Controller of Certifying Authorities to control the issuance of digital signatures. It also established a Cyber Appellate Tribunal to resolve disputes arising from this new law. But social media’s implications on the law did not stop at mere regulation to prevent cybercrimes. A new, integrated system had to be created for this tool to be used outside its literal sense. Data privacy started becoming a bigger challenge and is still growing with constant new ideas like the right to be forgotten.

There are two main problems with the current race to regulate the social media space. Young people lead on social media – involving them meaningfully and systematically in policy-making processes to address online harms and mis/disinformation could not only spearhead innovation but policies that are more relevant and effective. A paper published, about how countries were regulating internet content concluded, “An approach to Internet content regulation based on the cultures of each country makes the most sense. This is what it means to be an international community. It would require that the world learns to step back, check the lenses that they use and try to accommodate the differences. Perhaps the free-flowing and anarchistic Internet culture will gradually evolve to include these pockets of differences.” Gen Z has more tendencies to prefer online social sites for communication and interaction with people they know than other generations and feel that it is vital to provide active feedback and comments about the brands and services they use in one way or another and they value the opinion given by others.

Today, Gen Z content creators, mostly on Instagram, are now conscious of incorporating all diversities while making content. Brands that want to stay current with and respected by the people need to start treating accessibility as standard. Because it’s all about inclusivity. Being truly inclusive on social media means finding ways to make the content both physically accessible and visibly diverse. People want to see themselves represented in it. This can be seen in the brands young people support today. Movements like “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Asian Hate” forced brands to consider racial diversity and its inclusion in mainstream advertising. These movements also saw people unaffected by these issues, review them critically. Social media has come a long way from the egotist world of Orkut and Myspace. Micro-influencers usually have a sizable social media following amongst admirers of a niche. It is not just the number of followers that indicates a level of influence; it is the relationship and interaction that a micro influencer has with his or her followers. They are gaining more popularity because users engage more positively with realism today, than 10 years ago. By way of micro-influencers, every person has found their niche and with it a community of people to support them. Initially, companies used influencer marketing with celebrities or major spokespeople to advertise their products. The way they use influencer marketing has drastically changed from years prior. Today, micro-influencers are a cost-effective way to promote brands credibly and authentically. “Credible” is the keyword for the main users of social media today-the youth. Above all, users want an experience and they want it to be real. Being able to connect with an influencer through similarities and knowing that they too are real people is important.

I agree that social media is not free from its vices, it has nonetheless created a global world and every user is a global citizen. Regulations have come a long way from inhibiting freedom of speech to creating a safe space for all users. All users, young and old, are more aware because of social media and the plethora of information at their fingertips. Users are more informed of cultures and are learning the lesson of inclusivity by way of influencers and young people. The youth is seen to be more inclusive and since they are the main users of social media, slowly but surely everyone is being offered a seat at the table. Regulations on social media are also constantly changing to ensure that freedom of speech and expression is not curtailed and it is a safe space for everyone involved. With every user being able to find their metier and also finding a subsequent clique, they feel like a global citizen and take responsibility to act like one. A new generation of social media users will undoubtedly bring about change in all provinces, inclusive of all diversities.