Have the ill effects of social media begun to outweigh the positives?

How did we survive before the internet, Google Search, the smartphone, apps and social media? It suddenly seems impossible to imagine that we carried on with our lives just a couple of decades ago, without any of these, which have become such inherent parts of our lives nowadays. Needless to say, these add immense benefits to our lives. Seamless, instant connections across the world, lightning fast dissemination of news and ideas, wealth of information, entertainment, exposure to creative ideas of all kinds – these are just a few of the obvious positives of the connected world. But, of late, the negative aspects of social media, led primarily by reports of false news influencing the outcome of the US elections have come to the fore.

Of late, I have noticed that use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp have left me feeling agitated, angry and upset more often than not. Twitter, especially, is often a cesspool of negativity. I have been told that I am at fault for the ‘company I keep’ online. There is some truth in that – even in real life who we hang out with makes a difference to our attitude, approach to life and mindset. One needs to make an effort to avoid the company of toxic people and surround oneself with positive, inspiring folk in real life. The same advice applies too about life in the online world. It takes an effort to pursue and practice this approach. However, it seems to be easier to do so in real life than in the online world. It is increasingly becoming difficult to completely shun out negativity in the online world – it is everywhere – so much so that I believe the negatives outweigh the positives now. Here’s why:

1. Traditional media’s fall from grace

I have noticed that news media contributes a lot to my sense of disillusionment online. Their obvious political bias reflects in how they report or mis-report an incident or worse still, they’ve been caught lying on many occasions. There was a time when the printed word was the ultimate truth for many – newspapers were seen to be objective and reporting the truth. Maybe they weren’t but we didn’t know any better. Social media has given the power of fact checking to the common man. This has led to loss of credibility of news brands and scepticism about news. Celebrity journalists who we once held in high esteem have lost their halo. All this contributes to negative perception of social media.

2. Brings to fore negative elements, armchair experts

The rise of social media has given those with malice a new platform. It is not as if the world was a land of milk & honey before the internet. Negative, evil forces always existed but social media’s ability to broadcast instantly, reach out to like minded groups and the potential virality makes it ideal for anyone with malicious intent. A lot of political parties use it to their advantage employing paid ‘supporters’. Add defenders of a political affinity to the mix and we have a heady cocktail of abuse and counter-abuse. The comfort of anonymity helps trolls, abusers and those who ‘shoot and scoot’.

In the offline world, we’ve all ‘admonished’ and given expert advise to our favourite sports stars whenever they’ve goofed up. Sure, we are all free to criticise, question those in public life, especially celebrities who choose to go public on social platforms. But the perceived proximity of celebrities and a free platform to share our opinions has led to unprecedented levels of rudeness online. It is disgusting to see the abuse hurled at accomplished, distinguished business leaders by upstarts – because they can.

3. Giant echo-chamber

As noted during the US elections with regard to how Facebook timelines are tweaked to suit one‘s political affiliations, most of us now see & only what we want to. The nature of algorithms is such that this often translates to more of the same on our news feeds. Fake news sites have also played their part in this. In real life too people from a particular strata in society don’t actively hang out with people vastly different from them: the sophisticates mingle with other sophisticates, the lower middle class with their own kind and so on. We may come across people vastly different us at work, in public life but such interactions are limited. In the online world too most tend to gravitate towards mindsets or voices similar to theirs. If at all they ‘follow’ someone with a contrarian view it is likely for the sake of defending one’s own stand or simply abusing the other. What’s more, the amplification of social & online media (seeing & hearing the same stories across formats, platforms, properties) makes the world a giant echo chamber.

4. Promotes us vs them

We’ve had divisions across political parties, sports teams and other affiliations over the years. It was mostly private or at best debated or argued in coffee shops. Online platforms have heightened such divisions. Today, anyone who doesn’t subscribe to one’s own POV is labelled the ‘other’ and called intolerant. This attitude spans political views, sports, movies…anything in fact.

5. Finding really useful information is quite an effort

I have a Twitter handle where I only follow brands or companies in the advertising, tech or business domains. I did this primarily to avoid political news and hope of finding useful, inspiring articles. Even such a timeline is full of trivial, click bait articles which don’t add much value. There is a race out there to create and share content in the quickest possible time, sacrificing quality, accuracy and value addition over speed. It is common to see ‘articles’ written on the basis of three tweets from a celebrity. Listicles and light, fluffy articles are so popular that even publications which relied on serious articles with heft are relying on such for clicks.

6. Kills productivity

Needless to say, social media is a time waster. As an article in New York Times noted recently social media platforms are designed to promote addiction.

“Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.”

How do we overcome such ill effects of social media? Moderate use of social media is an option. Thankfully while there is no such thing as ‘moderate use’ of bad habits like smoking, it is possible to consume social media in small doses. I am not yet motivated to switch off completely (and I respect those who stay off Facebook, Twitter and don’t watch TV) but determined to not succumb to social media fully.

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