Social media: a double edged sword

A great innovation with its own good, bad and ugly
Social media: a double edged sword
"For instance, about two decades ago, we couldn’t have imagined communicating intercontinentally in a matter of seconds through video-calling or messaging." Maxpixle [Creative Commons]

BY HAYA QAZI

The good

The dawn of the 21st century marked the advent of Industrial Revolution 4.0. This revolution was fuelled by the innovation of computer and Internet. Undoubtedly, the benefits of internet are countless.

For instance, about two decades ago, we couldn’t have imagined communicating intercontinentally in a matter of seconds through video-calling or messaging.

As per data by Press Information Bureau, more than 50% of the Indian population uses social media. WhatsApp has the largest number of users, followed by YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

It goes without saying that social media has given voice to the voiceless. It has provided a platform to the historically disadvantaged to express themselves, for example the #MeToo movement gave courage to women to speak up against sexual harassment, the Digital Dalits are using social media to reinterpret subaltern history, exchange information, and commemorate leaders.

The power of social media is attested by The Arab Spring, a widespread civil disobedience movement that overthrew the dictatorial governments in the Arab world.

This pro-freedom movement was mobilised through Facebook. In the recent Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020, social media was used to convey the need for democratic reforms.

In 2015, the Prime Minister of India launched the Digital India Campaign, increasing internet connectivity was one of its chief aims.The rate cuts in internet services provided by Reliance Jio sped up this process, now there are over 560 million internet users in India.

Apart from information dissemination, the social media plays an essential role in employment generation. Small businesses are growing because of the interconnectedness and accessibility of internet.

Farmers can now sell their produce, MSMEs can reach out to customers globally, and youth are able to monetise their skills via social media. People are able to exhibit their talents to a wider and diverse audience than they could have conventionally.

In 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19, Twitter and WhatsApp were used by civilians and civilian leadership alike to share information on oxygen cylinders, medicines, beds, among others. Most services like health, consultancy, education moved online.

The World Economic Forum states that the ability to work from home and greater flexibility were some reasons that led to The Great Resignation; wherein employees resigned in large numbers to prioritise their selves and families over work.

Such flexibility was made possible only because of the ease of living provided by social media and internet. Social media has also helped to bring in retail investors into the sharemarket.

The bad

It’s almost impossible for us to imagine living without social media, but we must earnestly consider its adverse attributes. A 10-year longitudinal study by Brigham Young University shows that girls that used social media excessively were at a higher clinical risk for suicide as compared to boys.

Studies show that people suffer from body image issues, feelings of insufficiency, anxiety and depression, and inferiority complexes.

Social media commonly damages mental health by altering the brain with the need to achieve instant and short term pleasure; this happens through the production of chemical in human body called ‘dopamine’.

An emerging issue, called the “Snapchat Dysmorphia” has caused many people to seek plastic surgeries in order to look physically appealing. With the rise in cyber bullying, young adults are more susceptible to self harm than ever before.

In an era of deep fakes and morphing, women and children are most vulnerable to cybercrime. The National Crime Records Bureau data of 2020 reveals that there is sharp rise (more than 400%) in cyber crimes committed against children.

The Ugly

While the easy access and speed of social media is a blessing, it is also a curse. There has been an increase in hate speeches and misinformation over the past few years. This has led to dehumanising events such as mob lynchings, communal violence, and gender based violence.

Social media misuse can have grave and threatening consequences when used by the fringe elements, for example, the ISIS used social media to radicalise millions of people from all over the world.

Not just socially, but economically too, people are unknowingly falling prey to Surveillance Capitalism. We are unaware that our data is being consistently mined and used by the big techs to earn profits. The passage of Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019 can give momentum to safeguarding the data and the digital ecosystem of the country.

The role of social media in election processes cannot be ignored. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2010s, wherein data of millions of users was stolen for political advertising, demonstrated how social media can wreck turpitude. A recent study by Oxford Internet Institute found that governments are increasingly using social media for voter manipulation. This not only threatens free thinking, but poses a bigger challenge for democracies.

Way Forward

Awareness generation can go a long way in arresting the damaging effects of social media use. People need to be made aware of the agencies like CERT-In and I4C which deal with cybercrime.

The recently notified Social Media and IT Rules 2021 focus especially on the safety of women and children, this needs to be publicised. In addition to the government measures, there are platforms like haveibeenpwned.com which check whether a users information has been compromised online.

Most importantly, not just teenagers but even the adults must realise that what people display on their social media isn’t what they really are. With the increasing number of influencers and pseudo-intellectuals, it has become hard to handle the infodemic.

This makes the role of one’s own wisdom even more important. Not least of all, the importance of real life relationships and activities must not be belittled. In the age of “Projected Identities” the human consciousness should recognise that there’s a world inside us that needs our efforts and attention, and not the intangible virtual world.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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