When Mark Zuckerberg and his friends set up Facebook in their Harvard dormitory rooms in 2004, little did they anticipate growing a social network bigger than any country on the planet, with more than 2.1 billion monthly active users. What was surely even further from their minds, was that it would also lead to Zuckerberg being summoned to the U.S. Congress 14 years on, to face questioning over Cambridge Analytica harvesting data from up to 87 million Facebook users.
After the Observer broke the Cambridge Analytica news, #DeleteFacebook started trending on Twitter amid concerns over people’s personal data being abused by third parties. Combined with a constant exposure to fake news, growing evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections and the UK Brexit referendum, is it any wonder people are questioning if social media should cease to exist altogether?
Originally, social media was all about connecting people and giving them a way to stay in touch and to share in special moments, no matter where in the world they were. Zuckerberg himself considered his company’s purpose to “make the world more open and connected.” As these platforms grew, they became a decentralised tool - putting power in ordinary people’s hands and offering them the opportunity to create change. Prime examples from a few years ago include the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Saudi Arabian women using social media for the right to drive, to name but a few.
However, with the positives have also come the negatives. ISIS uses social media to radicalise and recruit fighters; Alt-Right groups are widely spreading their ideologies through social platforms and social media is even being blamed as one of the causes in the rise of knife crimes in London, which has seen its murder rate surpass that of New York.
Data is the new currency, and power has shifted to more centralised control. Cambridge Analytica has been a nefarious example of the abuse of personalised data, thereby thrusting the issue into the spotlight. Social media may be a powerful communications tool, but in the wrong hands it can have detrimental consequences. We stand at a crucial and concerning crossroads for social media, and its use and abuse is going to take us to darker places.
However, an understanding of how to restrict its misuse, and put data transparency and control into the power of individuals and people, shows that we may be getting some help from “top down” powers. Policies like the GDPR, high-level governmental inquiries and likely regulation means that we can check its unfettered growth which, if done well, should certainly help.
Perhaps just as significantly, the reclamation of social media as a decentralised, empowering tool is now coming back to the fore.
Power is shifting back into the hands of the people. There has been a revival in grassroots civic engagement, with social media giving both a voice to those silenced, and a means to galvanise. Social media is now one of the main tools for raising awareness on important issues and pushing for reform, a topic also discussed in the new book, New Power by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans.
The #MeToo movement has empowered women and men all over the world to call out those who have sexually abused, harassed or exploited them and announce that #TimesUp for this behaviour. The devastating shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida led to the formation of #MarchForOurLives, a movement to end mass shooting by calling for tighter background checks and a ban on certain guns. Using social media, a march in Washington DC and other cities was organised where hundreds of thousands gathered for the same cause.
Closer to home, we recently helped to coordinate a movement to #ReclaimSocial from the online trolls, bots and haters, gaining over 17 million impressions. The powerful #Project84 by Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), has brought the taboo topic of male suicide into public consciousness. Every week in the UK, 84 men take their own lives but thanks to #Project84, we can address this in our own communities. We have to do all we can to help the growing number of important causes and movements amplify their voice and show how social media can be used to enable meaningful change.
The options before us are stark. Much more has to be done to address the negative uses and abuses of social networks across the board. Furthermore, as empowered citizens, we must note that a world totally without social media wouldn’t be a force for good, taking away crucial tools to organise, to mobilise, and to effect positive change. Social media can act as the means to achieving the ends of social justice, towards which so many of those 2.1 billion members strive.