The dot-com revolution, in the late 20th Century, spiraled across the globe and was pivotal in shaping the dynamics of the basic social interaction between individuals. Without any hassle, social media networks allow you to connect and share just about anything in real-time with people all across the globe. This has never been so easier since the inception of mankind. The revelation of the concept called “Metaverse” by Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) has opened room for radically opposing ideas.
Life in the modern era intertwines with the internet and specifically the social media. Over the course of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it was evident that social media had become the backbone of human society. Education, Commerce, Entertainment, and Information became easier to access with only a few clicks on a screen, only with the help of mankind’s greatest invention. With the metaverse in place, the entire dynamics of society are to be evolved into a world where the artificial/digital presence of every member of society takes precedence over the actual/physical importance.
From the user’s interface, everything may seem like rainbows and cupcakes, but in reality, the back end of how social media functions really gets disturbing. Popular Social Media sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat may claim that their service is “free, and it always will be” but in reality, the service is not what is the product, it is rather the user’s data which is up for sale, and the consumers are the advertisement agencies. Users do not realize that their attention is the product, not the social media companies.
We have often neglected the “will you allow cookies” pop-up on almost every social media site, but it is pertinent to note that these cookies in principle, are trackers that the websites place on you to monitor your digital footprint. All your activity including search history, videos you watch, browsing trends are gathered, and with the help of modern artificial intelligence algorithms, your data is utilized to provide you with advertisements.
These social media companies, sell your attention to the highest bidder, who in turn send you targeted advertisements. The role of these advertisements in impacting the way an individual thinks was clearly evident in the most infamous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal.
A huge data breach was discovered in early 2018 that included Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The data analytics firm fraudulently accessed personal data from virtually 87 million Facebook users. It became known that the data was utilized to influence demographic voters in the key state with falsified targeted advertisements.
This was a major red flag of social media which made many realize that social media is not just about “connecting people” but rather deeply influencing public opinion.
Setting aside the politically incorrect aspect of social media, its usage induces an extremely harmful effect on its user’s perception of themselves. Social media has plagued the form of human expression and interaction. In today’s modern world, social media is the biggest cause of depression and anxiety among adolescents. When teenagers experience problems online, they don’t ask for help, making them feel even more vulnerable and miserable.
These lingering doubts are caused by cyberbullying or even a loss of self-confidence caused by the pressure to be flawless in the face of unattainable beauty standards on the internet. Cyberbullying has been related to low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, resentment, frustration, and a variety of other emotional and psychological difficulties.
Such content can induce an increase in insecurity amongst people, and the worst part is that the advertisement algorithms in place prey upon that. For example, if someone searches for a guide to lose weight, it is extremely likely that they will end up getting bombarded with advertisements about supplements, etc.
At the push of a button, social media allows teenagers to contact all of their friends and others from different locations nearby. This elevates bullying to a new level. Teens can easily spread rumors or expose other people’s secrets over the internet, and the consequences for the victim can be severe. In the most severe cases of cyberbullying, a teenager’s reputation can be ruined in minutes, and the social ramifications can lead to suicide and psychological devastation. Self-esteem is also harmed by the concept of photoshopping and filters. According to the findings of a study conducted by the California State University users of social media were at least 58 times a week were three times more likely to be miserable and isolated.
Users see people uploading flawless images of themselves as if it were natural, but it isn’t. Every user tends to create an unhealthy comparison with each other’s lives and forgets the fact that not everyone portrays themselves accurately on social media. In recent times, the increase in pretentious content creators and vloggers consistently posting about how happy and prosperous their lives have led to a significant increase in the decline in the mental well-being of its users. Within the status quo, the perception of the “self” has been completely distorted.
Social Media companies generate revenue by cashing the attention of their users, hence, the main objective of these companies has shifted over time from bringing people together to keeping everyone hooked.
Many social networks take advantage of human vulnerability by employing a technique known as positive intermittent reinforcement. As per the article published for Psychology Today by Mike Brooks, Ph.D., people have an extremely hard time avoiding their screens due to what he calls the “Vegas effect.” Much like the way Vegas slot machines give users a dopamine rush, users are hooked to checking their social media feeds over and over again. Due to this, the moment their smartphones pop a notification (much like hitting a jackpot), the dopamine reward system is activated, which leads to users being trapped in this unhealthy addiction to social media.
Much like the dystopian ideas presented in many forms of literature, with the current status of social media usage, humankind is headed towards an extremely distorted version of reality. It has already grossly impacted the dynamics at the workplace, educational instructions, and most importantly the family, and will gradually end up influencing society as a whole.
While critics may argue that due to the dark side of social media, the situation is completely out of hand, we can indeed protect ourselves from the negative consequences of it. The first step that we can take is to protect ourselves and the people we know from developing unhealthy social media habits. By turning off notifications, and limiting screen time, the “Vegas-effect” can be countered effectively. Similarly, the collective advocacy of reforms such as data protection and privacy, or the increased checks and balances on these dark aspects can curb the harm that has been done.
Especially in Pakistan that is still undergoing a digitalization phase, the awareness about data protection, social media addiction, as well as cybercrime is relatively low. It was not up until 2016, that Pakistan incorporated its first-ever cyber laws under the umbrella of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Prevention Act 2016. At the state level, the Government needs to ensure that the above-mentioned concerns are addressed, instead of simply imposing a ban on these platforms, in order to protect the digital rights of each and every citizen.
We can either wait for social media firms to eliminate their problematic aspects that generate the most revenue – or we can take collective action to reclaim our attention. It all begins with us.
About the Author: Sheikh Arham Zeeshan Saeed is a Contributor for The Pakistani, He is currently pursuing his Bachelor’s in Government and Public Policy from National Defence University, Islamabad.