Growing up, I remember watching an advertisement on television, over and over again, never tiring of it. This simple ad for a telecom company left its mark on me—in a remote village in India, a group of children huddled around a small phone, their eager faces staring at the screen. Miles away from any institution, this phone had become their teacher, classroom, and school all in one. As a child, I vividly recall the gooseflesh I had every single time I saw the power of the internet reaching anywhere and everywhere. An idea can indeed change your life!
All those years ago, the internet was built with the aspiration and inspiration to democratize society—social media platforms were created to bridge the gap between the millions of disenfranchised people whose voices were lost in the crowd. Social media aimed to be the way through which disempowered people could make their voices heard and speak out about anything and everything. If you had something to say, you could say it—the internet would make sure of that.
If you needed to know something, the information could reach you and no power could stop it. While the concept of “free speech” had existed for centuries and was an integral part of our society, it was this platform that truly redefined what it meant. At its core, the internet was built for free expression.
Many will argue otherwise, stating that social media is as much the place for free expression, maybe even more so than it used to be decades ago. But I can prove otherwise.
For any number of free-thinking people on social media, there are much more organized bunch of haters that are targeting, silencing, out shouting, and bullying anyone they disagree with. Social media platforms have become an organized vehicle for violence. In the garb of free speech and expression, organizations and people hidden behind their screens have weaponized the power of platforms and harnessed it to their advantage. There is an invasion of troll armies, whose sole purpose is to bully their opponents, spread misinformation, and post fake messages—all for a little “pocket change.”
Entire organizations of trolls impersonating regular people on the internet, like you and me, cash in on their services, every minute of every day. Our screens are powerful tools for good until they start serving as platforms for those faceless trolls spewing words of hate. The metamorphosis of free expression on social media has truly been terrifying—from a platform of liberation to a platform of oppression.
And where there was an opportunity to encash, the hungry tech corporations moved in with their algorithms that changed the game entirely. Algorithms and AI have ensured that we are monitored and mapped and what we like and who we follow is fed to us over and over again. Little by little, we have walled ourselves into an echo chamber of similar thoughts and views. These power-hungry bots have successfully manipulated the backends of all our favorite social media apps and subconsciously altered and influenced us in ways we cannot fathom.
From fake likes, shares, comments, and retweets, the social media algorithm ensures that the same piece of content appears for millions and entire business models of tech companies run on using these algorithms to generate more data and revenue. Elections have been won, fake news has been popularized, and violent agendas have been pushed on the back of this. Gone are the days of the internet being a platform to democratize debate and showcase every viewpoint. Algorithmic manipulation has officially taken over.
But worse is when the violence in the virtual world spills into the real one. In May 2017 in India, a chain of shocking messages circulated on Whatsapp, the popular messaging platform. These texts pointed at several members in local communities, and called them out for heinous crimes, like child abduction and organ harvesting. Spreading like wildfire, soon these weren’t just a series of messages anymore. They had become reality. Dozens of lynchings around the country took place, with innocent citizens being targeted, all because of simple social media interactions. A false rumor had cost countless lives.
In a study conducted by Gabriel Weimann, a renowned Professor of Communications and Terrorism expert, Weimann found that nearly 90% of organized terrorism activities took place via social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and internet forums were used to spread their messages to recruit members and gather intelligence. ISIS has utilized more than 100 sites to spread its message—from videos of beheadings to threats, their social media presence is truly horrifying. Countless other groups such as Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have used these platforms for the sole purpose of radicalization.
But how can we ensure that the freedoms of social media are not misused? There are no easy answers to this tech and social conundrum, but we can begin by the creation of a set of standards or regulations that the tech giants have to sign up for. Governments all over the world can agree to enforce basic common policy changes at a global level to ensure that the internet does not become a tool of money, power, and manipulation. Another significant angle on this is community moderation. UN Special Advisor David Kaye proposes the involvement of communities, nonprofits, and social organizations to bring in transparency and the application of fundamental human rights as a standard on the Internet.
What this translates in terms of actionables would be a good discussion and debate to have on these very platforms. Controlling large groups of people on social media isn’t a viable option but small efforts can go a long way in the creation of a true marketplace of ideas.
Ultimately, social media is a value-neutral tool. How we use it influences the value it brings to us. If the voices of hate are allowed to harness the power of social media, the result is violence. And if it is used for the greater common good, we can even write the constitution of a country together. Iceland has shown us the way.