Understanding the Impact of Social Media

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The recent Facebook fiasco coupled up with a world where democracies are inextricably bound to social media, who are we as users serving?

THERE is no doubt to the fact that technology has changed our lives beyond any imagination. It created tools which made our life easy in multiple ways. It’s funny to think how so many Bollywood movies back in 60s and 70s revolved around this story of separated brothers at a Kumbh mela, and who years later reunite. In present era its unthinkable. We have Google, social media et al. We’ll just look them up.

A part of my maternal family is based in Egypt. My maternal great grandfather Khoje Mohammed Syed Khan had trade business in Alexandria Egypt, for which he would often travel there. In the early spring of 1935 he left for Cairo and never returned. For next few years he exchanged letters with his family in Kashmir. That stopped too later. I’ve looked them up many times on the internet- using keywords like Kashmiri family in Egypt. Haven’t had much success till now, but I’m still trying.

We can book a air ticket for any part of the world, and in minutes be travelling there. From the comfort of my house I can book a Uber cab and within minutes I can reach to my destination. Few days back my mind wandered towards my College. Partly anxious about how students must be coping with social distance in hostels. I joined a facebook page and I literally had a virtual tour of my college. Someone had posted a live feed of semester exam, with proper physical distance and SOPs being followed. I heaved a sigh of relief, to look at the development of my college and its responsible attitude to current crisis. I could watch it all thousands of miles away.

But there is a flipside to all this. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat have become so big now that they have taken a life of their own, and not necessarily in a correct way. Studies have shown direct link between mental issues and excessive social media use. There has been an incredible increase of mental health cases since social media became what it is. Unfortunately the problem is even more grievous.

We are clearly living in a more polarized world. The decades after World War 2 were liberating at societal and cultural level. The world had suffered inordinately in the second world war. People wanted a change. Imperialism was on its way out from sub-continent and Africa. Newly independent nation states opted for democracy and liberalism. India’s socialist Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru set India out on its path of progress and liberty, Pakistan ruled by army was focusing on its own path – a very liberal society where you had the freedom to choose. Immigrants from Asian countries were welcome in more developed west. There are multiple stories of immigrants bringing laurels to their adopted home. When France won the 1998 FIFA World Cup, 6 of its players were immigrants. Champs-Elysees celebrated the success together. This was probably the great immigrant dream coming true. A world that was shrinking into a Global Village.

So how did we land up here? A world where democracies are under threat, right-wing politics is on rise and what should have been an age of information, is clearly turning to a world of disinformation.

When we look around, you see that world is turning crazy. Is it acceptable? Is it normal? No. It cannot be. And that is exactly what I will try to explain.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are currently used by billions of people on earth. Never in the history of mankind have people come together across ethnicities on one platform. That is the power of social media. With all the good it can do, and it has, these systems are run by giant computers. I’m not questioning the intent of these platforms. When developers in facebook invented the ‘like’ button, it was meant to spread positivity. The developer had no inkling to the fact that it could lead a pre-teen into depression, when his/her post didn’t get enough likes. The platforms on their own are not evil, but it’s what technology does with it, that should be our cause of concern.

And cause of worry is the business model that these platforms use — which in broader terms means — we the users being the product, and we being sold to the advertisers, who in turn pay to facebook, twitter, YouTube and others. The idea of this business model is to get as much as possible our attention. The more time we spend on Facebook, YouTube, Google, more money we are generating for them.
Ok, but then what’s so wrong about it? I use facebook to stay in touch with my friends, I use YouTube to watch videos and etc. Right? Naive. It’s this naivety of us which has brought us to the point we are at.

So if I’m slightly bent towards right politics, or I’m anti-Muslim, I’ll open a link or a video on Facebooks or Twitter that endorses this idea, AI will run an algorithm in the background, notifying it that this person probably is interested in right politics and is anti-Muslim. Next time I login back, my feed will be filled with videos or links about right politics and anti-Muslim speeches. It is a viscous system . So even if I think I’m clicking a link or video with my own will, it is not entirely the truth. We are told, we are programmed to watch the stuff that the AI wants us to. That is how this system is meant to work and become monetized.

So someone who was probably 10% a radical the first time he logged onto social, by few months he would be at 100%. Because he is constantly fed this information. He thinks this is how the world operates. Hence we are seeing hate crimes, Islamphobia, crime against minorities, banning immigration gaining traction in the world.

And to envisage its whole repercussions is scary. Political movements are run using this data. Elections can be fought and won by using all this data. Despots could be ruling our institutions which we have created with great difficulties. Our fragile social fabric can be shredded to pieces, because this new market place is unregulated. Every single click is monitored by these social media giants. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube can sell all this data to anywhere without any intervention of a regulatory body. And then to imagine what possibly could be done with all this data. It’s insane we have let this happen.

In the end we must be asking this question to ourselves. What sort of world are we leaving behind for our children. If that matters, we as a people must come together and force governments to intervene. We cannot ignore the elephant in the room.

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Faheem Gundroo

Faheem Jeelani Gundroo is an ICT Engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and current affairs. He can be reached at: faheemjeelani@gmail.com

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