words Alexa Wang
The meteoric rise of the social media platform has transformed the way we communicate and share information around the world. With their vast user bases and inherent ability to control and shape public discourse, questions arise about the level of influence and control that these platforms wield.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the past, discussions of this kind centred on the ownership of newspapers and radio or television broadcast channels. While those discussions continue to this day, as more and more people source news and information from social media, the discussion must evolve to include these channels.
The power of the social media platform falls into two main categories.
- The power of information
- The power of content control
The Power of Information
1. Data Privacy
One of the main concerns about social media lies in the incredible amount of personal information that users share on these platforms. This can include their name, date of birth, where they live, where they work, their relationships, their political leanings, pictures of their children and pets, their purchasing preferences and countless other pieces of data.
Social media companies collect and monetise this data and use it for targeted advertising. This is an enormous amount of information to hold about a population and affords these platforms an incredible level of power and influence.
Besides the information that users provide to the platform, there also lies the issue of how much information people share publicly. Some users seem to forget that social media exists in the public domain and so information posted can quickly become public information.
The question is whether users are properly informed and truly comprehend all of the implications associated with sharing their private information.
2. Filter Bubbles
Social media platforms have complex algorithms that curate information and content to fit users’ preferences, based on their activity. While this provides a unique and personalised experience, it also creates these filter bubbles.
A filter bubble is a state of intellectual isolation in which users have limited exposure to differing opinions and ideas, as they are almost exclusively exposed to content that supports their established views.
This limits users’ personal growth and development and can also reinforce biases.
The Power of Content Control
1. Moderation and Censorship
Social media platforms have become powerful mediators in the sharing of content amongst the public. Like newspapers and broadcast channels before them, these platforms are controlled by people, and people have their own agendas and biases.
While representatives of these platforms argue that this power is used for preventing hate speech, misinformation and graphic content, the power of censorship still undeniably raises concerns about bias in moderation, as well as the potential suppression of freedom of speech.
2. Echo Chambers
Similar to filter bubbles, echo chambers refer to environments where people are only exposed to content that supports and reinforces their established views.
Echo chambers refer to human beings’ natural tendency to associate with people and groups who share their viewpoint – echoing and strengthening their established point of view. While filter bubbles are created by algorithms, echo chambers are a human-created phenomenon that can just as easily develop offline. The problem with digital echo chambers lies in the vast number of people who can quickly become involved; developing a polarising movement in a very short timeframe.
Unchecked censorship creates the risk of echo chambers developing in a community, where certain viewpoints are amplified and encouraged while others are suppressed and marginalised. This can seriously hinder public discourse, restrict the development of differing viewpoints, stifle creativity and even promote extremism.
Social Media’s Evolving Role in Society
1. Information Spreading
Social media platforms wield the power to rapidly spread information and mobilise communities, making them influential tools for social change. This influence is undeniable and has the potential to be either positive or negative.
Positive results can include the ability to very quickly raise funds and awareness for charitable causes, combat injustice, showcase creative thinking, vary public conversation and correct misinformation.
2. “With great power…”
As gatekeepers of information, the people in charge of social media platforms must continually grapple with balancing their financial interests and their responsibilities to the public.
Social media is undoubtedly a lucrative business. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg’s inclusion in the world’s rich list is evidence of this but, as this sector plays such a pivotal role in public discourse, ethical information sharing must be the priority!
Over the years, demands have grown for increased government regulation of social media platforms, but this comes with some significant complexities and difficulties. Aside from governments having their own agendas, as global digital entities with offices all over the world, social media platforms have a level of power that arguably rivals any governments that want to regulate them.
Facebook currently has over 3 billion active users, which gives it a larger “population” than any country in the world. In fact, Facebook’s user base is larger than the combined populations of China and India, the two largest populations on the planet! This incredible scale and the power that it affords, has led some Governments to ban platforms like Facebook outright. However, these bans and regulations are only enforceable on each country’s own soil, so arguably amount more to censorship than true regulation.
Balancing free speech, privacy and accountability is a complex task that requires a multidimensional approach from both governments and the platforms themselves.
To regain public trust Social Media platforms must be more transparent about their algorithms, content moderation processes and data handling.
Studies have been undertaken into, for example, the impact of social media algorithms on politics, but these studies almost always take place in-house, which risks biased reporting .
According to Carl Garner-Watts, Digital Content Marketer at Quadrant2Design, “increasing transparency would help to combat perceptions of social media algorithms as big-brother-esque surveillance technology and instead promote the idea that these platforms have a symbiotic relationship with their users.”
The power and influence that social media platforms wield is undeniable and this power comes with significant responsibilities.
Users must be conscious of the data they share, while social media companies must be mindful of their role in shaping public discourse. Striking a balance between freedom of expression, data privacy and responsible content moderation is a complex task that will no doubt require ongoing debate and regulation.
Ultimately, the question of whether social media platforms have too much influence and control is one that society as a whole must grapple with to ensure a healthier and more informed digital landscape.