Professor Banu Akdenizli, Associate Professor of Communication at Northwestern University in Qatar, writes about how criticizing social media isn’t always constructive
The advent of information and communication technologies has changed the number of ways we can connect and interact with each other. These are technologies that play a vital role in every country's social, political, and economic development. They have become standard technologies, embedded in our lives, routinizing our activities, and transforming social contexts, communication activities, practices, social arrangements, and organizations.
There's a lot of alarmist rhetoric surrounding social media. From how it isolates people from each other, the increased use and likelihood of depression, addictiveness, hate speech, fake news, filter bubbles, echo chambers, surveillance, and privacy loss. This type of rhetoric is not new. All media, when they were "new", were confronted with some alarmist language. Content deemed inappropriate for children in movies, violence on the television screen, and the addictiveness of video games were all initial reactions to these media when they became popular. Conversations of the pros and cons of all types and forms of media has been ongoing.
So, what makes social media unique?
One aspect is what researchers call "the absence of stopping cues”. Consider traditional media. When you read a newspaper article, you know it ends because there is a specific space designated for that news piece; the same thing when you are watching the nightly news for example on TV. But it is not the same on social media. When you are on Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat, the feed is endless. You could be on TikTok watching short videos for 30 minutes without realizing it. Netflix loops into the next episodes, should you miss to hit the stop or pause button on time.
Despite the absence of stopping cues, which contributes to the fact that we are all spending much more time online, we cannot ignore some of the positive contributions it has made during, for example, the COVID-19 crisis.
Most have been able to transition to work remotely and moved education online successfully. Social media tools have been vital during this time for people to connect with each other, families, friends, and loved ones. We are social beings, after all.
If we look at social media platforms in terms of popularity, both worldwide and in this region, we find that culture, age groups, economy, and politics all contribute to a certain degree in determining one platform's popularity over the other. What a person has access to, and how and why depends on technology, society, politics, and culture. And we know that internet penetration in this region is very high.
According to the latest edition of a longitudinal study of media use in the Middle East, conducted by Northwestern Qatar – QF partner university - that has been collecting survey data from seven Middle East and North Africa countries since 2013, the average top platforms among nationals are Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.
Another critical issue is fake news. The problem of fake news is not new in history. But with the current crisis, this has become an even more pressing issue. The World Health Organization has labeled this as an "infodemic" with a lot of misinformation spreading online. Fake news or misinformation spreads easily because of a knowledge gap – this gap occurs when we have little knowledge and a fast-moving situation, creating many unknowns and, consequently, a vacuum of understanding that is ripe to be filled with conspiracy theories.
In the past couple of years, we are seeing and increased number of stories on "how to quit" social media. This kind of framing is problematic because then we are treating social media like a disease.
Some may argue that social media is not for everyone. While we may see stories of people choosing to deactivate their accounts or terminating them temporarily, we need to be also realistic, moderate, and conscious about our social media use.
We need to choose which platform best serves our purposes – we don't need to have a presence on all platforms. Also, it is a healthy practice to go on a digital detox from time to time. And we need to recognize that social media has become intertwined with our reality. Even if we decide to erase our digital footprint, there will be a friend posting about a dinner you attended or a colleague taking a video of a work event, and you are part of it. Acknowledging social media's reality while monitoring our use of it is the ultimate way of striking a balance.