Opinion | Social Media and its Weapons of Mass Distraction
By Jena Musmar
As the rate at which we use technology increases, so do parental restrictions. Parents all over the world recognize the harmful effects of social media on their child’s mental health. With rates of depression, anxiety, and physical self-consciousness on the rise for teenagers, parents are making the move towards limited screen time and restricted posts, even going as far as banning their child from social media apps entirely. Though parental concerns towards mental health are certainly valid, a much larger threat hides behind the screen that secretly hurts adults too. Social media’s recent distortion of truth under algorithms is leading to the demise of democracy as we know it.
Under social media’s advertising-based business model, social media algorithms are programmed to show users posts they like, keeping them on the screen longer and showing them more engaging ads. Though a simple business model, the promotion of posts reaffirming a user’s beliefs can and have led to group polarization, extremism, misinformation, and what Tristan Harris calls a “funhouse mirror” of distorted truths. Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower of 2021, revealed Facebook’s intentional discard of studies proving that their algorithms promote addiction, deteriorating mental health, and extremism. With intentionally monetized manipulation of users’ minds leading millions towards extremism and conspiracy theories, our democracy and shared concepts of truth cease to exist.
In the United States, the home of some of the largest social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, internal misinformation has spread rampantly. Infamously, Russia had interfered in the 2016 and 2020 elections with the use of hacking, troll farms, and bots in favor of former President Donald Trump. Russian bot accounts falsely claimed to be US political grassroots organizations and other liberal Muslim, black, and LGBTQ+ social justice groups in order to manipulate minorities into voting for Donald Trump. Though the efficacy of Russian interference in the outcome of the elections is contested, it nevertheless demonstrates the initial use of foreign interference in American elections and falsehoods in our democracy. Similarly, the rise of conspiracy theories and Donald Trump’s platform on social media apps led to the January 6th insurrection. With Donald Trump initiating the claim of election fraud and monetizing algorithms promoting this misinformation, millions of Americans genuinely believed that the election was stolen and in response, raided the capital. While millions believed congressmen should have stopped the counting of votes, others went as far as to intentionally use pipe bombs in the Capital, hurt liberal congressmen, and promote anti-Semitic and confederate flags. This literal attack on democracy is the hidden evil I describe behind the screen. It is when we as a country cannot agree on a shared truth that we face issues of terrorism, hate speech, and in this particular event, the intention to kill.
With the ability to control millions of minds, social media giants such as Facebook have given rise to extremism. Since 2016, 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook were promoted by its algorithms. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, social media played a significant role in the radicalization of 90% of extremists in Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) data. With affirmative algorithms, it promotes posts the user knows it will interact with, regardless of whether in a positive or negative way. As the addictive screen time continues, the user is expected not only to develop extremist ideas but to fall victim to group polarization. By being surrounded by like-minded users, we develop even more extremist views, allowing the algorithm’s extremism to extend beyond the individual user and into extremist groups, forums, and community chat rooms.
Beyond foreign interference, social media algorithms continue to promote general misinformation and a lack of coordinated response to crucial issues. Timed issues such as climate change proven by hundreds of scientists to be real and a result of heavy carbon emissions and industrialization are now disputed as fake and a natural reoccurrence every thousand years. Climate change, expected to increase respiratory issues, sink territory in pacific islands, and cause universal famine, has no coordinated response due to the reaffirming posts. How do we solve climate change before irreversible damage occurs when millions don’t even believe the crisis exists? Similar ideas of “fake news” and conspiracy theories limit coordinated responses towards the Covid-19 pandemic and police brutality. With users trusting social media outlets as genuine news sources, algorithms promoting extremist views and misinformation have led to vaccine hesitancy, prolonging the pandemic. Once more reaffirming personal biases, distortions of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests as violent gave rise to white supremacy, “Back the Blue”, and All Lives Matter groups and justified the use of militarized police despite BLM protests cumulatively being 93% peaceful according to the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
With nearly five billion users on all social media platforms, the rise of extremism surpasses borders and is often abused to advance the political interests of foreign powers. Using handle switching, Saudi Arabia used Twitter accounts to spread rumors of a coup in Qatar. North Korea, posing as individual freelancers and IT contractors in China, used all income gained as funding to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government. Typosquatting, using the name of a trusted account with one letter off to appear legitimate, is commonly used. Iran was seen using typosquatting in 70 propaganda websites in 2018 alone. Also in 2018, Iran infiltrated UK and US midterm elections in an attempt to advance pro-Iran policies, criticize Saudi Arabia, and promote Pro-Palestinian sentiment. Foreign disinformation has also been used by world powers in an attempt to hide human rights abuses for personal interests. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, Russia has conducted disinformation campaigns portraying White Helmets, a rescue volunteer organization operating in Syria and Turkey, as terrorists and undermining government-issued acid attacks as small chemical attacks or entirely false.
Other potentially deadly misinformation campaigns occur in China under the group “Evil Eye”. Through Facebook hacking, surveillance, and trojan apps, Evil Eye targets Uyghur Muslims, journalists, and human rights activists in Canada, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Syria. The group further uses algorithms to disrupt social media awareness of Hong Kong, Uyghur, and Tibetan minority human rights abuses while the Chinese government has been found promoting positive advertising of China. Other countries such as Israel have conducted public campaigns defending their human rights abuses against Palestinians and India censoring Kashmiri posts and social media access. The ability to disrupt truthful human rights abuse claims on the international stage through large platforms limits our ability to hold governments responsible for crimes against humanity and save millions.
The aforementioned cooperative extremism can easily be used for terrorist outreach, the mass digital marginalization of minorities, and the promotion of the hateful policies as seen with Evil Eye. Conspiracy theorists traditionally limited to a few small communities are now capable of spreading misinformation through these social media platforms. As conspiracy theorist communities and distortions of truth gain popularity, it becomes difficult to distinguish what is truly extremist and what is universally true.
With the release of the Social Dilemma and the rise of Tristan Harris and Frances Haugen, there is a growing awareness of the dangers of social media that I hope this opinion piece also achieves. Despite these efforts, social media giants remain reactive towards dangerous political impacts and hate speech. Only removing former President Donald Trump from social media apps after the damage of the January 6th insurrection and anti-Semitic hate speech after synagogue shootings on the social media app Gab, social media giants fail to move towards proactive approaches of removing hate speech and extremist posts before the damage occurs. Under several congressional hearings, social media platforms claim Section 230 of the United States Code excuses them of the liability of what their users post. While their claim is legally correct and some forms of hate speech can be difficult to detect if labeled as satire or disrupting slurs with special characters, it does not excuse its damage to democracy and lives taken from its monetized algorithm. Nor does it excuse Facebook’s conscious promotion of extremism despite mental health, addiction, and polarization studies.
With billions of users consuming social media content, big tech holds the responsibility to at minimum, promote truth. With extremism increasing daily, it is also big tech’s responsibility to algorithmically define the line between what users disagree with and what is truly extremism. Taiwan serves as a great example of digital democracy. With Taiwanese media focused on civic participation, community consensus, and radical transparency, Taiwanese citizens can actively interact with government websites and easily access data used for policy-making. Regarding foreign policy and interference, we are entering an age of digital warfare. With a country’s internal democracy in distress, it becomes easier for foreign interference to occur. Countries deliberately sending bots and using ads to promote their political interests in other countries require governments to uphold cybersecurity defense beyond privacy legislation and the declaration of cookies. Though the responsibility for our lack of digital democracy heavily falls upon the shoulders of social media platforms and governments, users too must become conscious of the media they consume, diversify their news outlets, and even follow some of the parental restrictions initially mentioned. Ironically, to defend against polarized truth we must collectively believe claims of social media algorithms becoming weapons of mass distraction as true.
Jena Musmar is a freshman in college and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.