The Cambridge Analytica scandal captivated the interests and resentment of the global media, consumers, legislators, and authorities in 2018. It indicated that individuals are concerned about invasions of privacy and corporate abuses of power. The controversy is one among many showing that social media privacy consistently concerns people’s dignity, autonomy, and self-determination. In other words, privacy is a fundamental foundation for democracy. The scandal affirms that social media poses several risks that must be addressed immediately, including misuse of user data. Other risks comprise cyberbullying, racist, biased, and polarizing information, right-wing and terrorist appeals to radicalize, and misuse of social media for political advertisements. To address these social evils and avoid censure from free speech supporters, properly developed policies that balance civil rights and the necessity for security should be enacted in accordance with the most recent cybersecurity advancements.
Social media users have raised strong misgivings regarding the growing abuse of social networks. According to a Pew Research Center study, 91% of Americans “affirmed” or “strongly affirmed” that users have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by different (Rainie). Additionally, approximately 80% of internet consumers expressed concern about advertisers and companies acquiring the information they share on social networks, and 64% said that government should act firmly to control advertisers (Rainie). The puzzle is that internet users cannot stop using online networking platforms, notwithstanding these worries. This can be associated with the sense of connectivity they experience when browsing.
Against this backdrop, there has been increasing evidence of adverse effects of excessive usage of social media. Moore and Craciun (17) demonstrate that increased use of social media raises Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and feelings of worthlessness, discontent, and loneliness. These thoughts, in essence, have a detrimental effect on the person’s mood and exacerbate sensations of sadness, despair, and anxiety. Moreover, there is a correlation between the usage of numerous social networking sites and a rise in mood and anxiety disorders among adolescents aged 19 to 32 (Primack et al. 2). Consumers’ deteriorating symptoms drive them to overuse digital platforms, perpetuating the negative cycle. According to some researchers, limiting social networking have used to half an hour every day leads to a considerable decrease in depression, anxiety, sleep issues, loneliness, and FOMO (Hunt et al. 7). These findings underscore the importance of users unlearning some habits that make them vulnerable to online harm.
However, social media firms continually update their systems with features that keep users connected. For instance, many social networking sites have an infinite streaming/scrolling option designed to prevent users from logging out or stopping using the service (Montag et al. 4). For instance, after a video has ended on a platform like YouTube, the following clip will start with identical material or the subsequent installment of a television program. As a result, users become increasingly captivated, making it difficult to quit watching. Some features are also designed to increase social pressure among users. For instance, when a person sends a text, image, document, or video to an acquaintance using Meta-owned WhatsApp, the message is displayed with double gray ticks, indicating it was delivered successfully to the receiver’s device. The grey ticks become blue once the receiver reads or opens the content. Since both parties are aware of these features, pressure or tension develops. That is to say, the friends ordinarily want a prompt response, mainly if the communication seems to have been read.
A major component for extending use duration on social media sites is the conspicuous ‘Newsfeed’ available on Facebook. Facebook has built data mining algorithms over time by observing its users’ activity on the network in depth (Valkovskaya). Additionally, they monitor the length of time users spend hovering over a particular content to learn more about their consumers’ interests and habits. Each Facebook user’s ‘Newsfeed’ is the first thing they see when they are active. A major goal of Facebook is to analyze every user’s activity to the greatest degree possible, such that the ‘Newsfeed’ exclusively contains the material that the user finds particularly intriguing.
Social media platforms have integrated reward systems that encourage users to continue using the sites. Perhaps one of the most prominent features of social reward mechanisms in social media is the iconic ‘thumbs up.’ Likes are used to provide positive social feedback on a person’s posts or to provide comparable feedback to another user. The impact of this feature has been demonstrated neuroscientifically in studies where Instagram users are presented with images uploaded using their profile but have been altered to reflect either a large or small number of ‘likes’ (Sherman et al. 31). Images with a high number of likes stimulate a reaction in the ventral striatum, a region associated with the understanding of incentives (Sherman et al. 40). These findings underscore the addictive powers of social media platforms and smartphones.
Furthermore, social comparison mechanisms are vital for revisiting social networking sites as they provide insight into how an individual is viewed by their social network. Indeed, societal comparisons can have a negative impact on one’s self-esteem. Comparing one’s performance in a game to the performance of others is a common feature in freemium games (Montag et al. 13). Users compare high scores and strive to beat those ranking highly on the leader boards, which inadvertently increases their addiction to the applications. Nonetheless, social networking and adolescents who use these sites for comparison have a significant disadvantage. It may have a negative impact on one’s self-image, self-esteem, and overall health. Repeated comparisons with others can foster a critical and competitive mindset. Correspondingly, those who often compare themselves to others are more prone to feelings of jealousy, shame, or remorse.
Several governments have reinforced online consumers’ worries that social media must be regulated. For instance, the Cambridge Analytica incident prompted the U.S. Congress to demand that Facebook disclose its consumer data guidelines or risk stringent censoring restrictions (Confessore). Undoubtedly, internet users would embrace such a step, as the state is legally authorized to introduce such changes. On the other hand, government efforts to restrict social networks have failed due to demonstrations and censure. The First Amendment makes it extremely difficult to regulate social networking sites. Efforts in Florida and Texas to adopt laws controlling ‘big’ platforms were ruled to be unconstitutional (Patel). Thus, social media platforms have been allowed to govern themselves, worsening the situation.
Antitrust regulation and consumer safety are the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) primary goals, a governmental organization that serves as an impartial watchdog. According to the FTC, prevailing public concern provides an opening for corporations to earn customer confidence by instituting efficient voluntary industry-wide standards to safeguard users’ data privacy (Federal Trade Commission). Per this declaration, social media owners are responsible for safeguarding customers from internet exploitation and deceit. Hence, although internet users feel the government has sufficient authority to control social networking sites, the latter maintains that its authority is restricted.
Traditionally, and in accordance with generally acknowledged journalistic ethics of objectivity and truth, editors of magazines and newspapers at prominent news agencies adhered to a rigid ethical code before publishing information. This way, they possessed the editorial authority needed to stop potentially damaging information from reaching the masses. Today, internet sources are challenging the editorial monopoly formerly maintained by news channels and print magazines. This new media and internet structure are evolving so that they no longer provide the same level of moderation that has traditionally been available in the format of editors. Accordingly, it is easy to confuse fiction with reality on social media.
On their part, major social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have remained mainly indifferent to calls for regulation of social networking sites. These organizations have contributed to and profited from the expanding media imbalance. As shown in a 2018 Pew Research survey, over two-thirds of Americans obtain their news from social networks, with Facebook responsible for 43% of the material and YouTube contributing 21% (Shearer and Matsa). Whereas consumers and governments call for social media corporations to reduce misuse of user data, the latter’s primary goal seems to be capitalizing on the expanding popularity of the internet and boosting earnings.
It is difficult to substantiate social media personnel’s perspectives on the issue since they infrequently voice their concerns. This may be attributed to the dread of being dismissed or special employee benefits being revoked as a result of disclosing internal organizational problems. For instance, although netizens are required to adhere to corporate policies and procedures, they frequently break them but face a penalty. The worst-case scenario is that miscreant individuals are expelled from the sites, although most users evade these suspensions by creating new profiles with alternative credentials. Contrarily, personnel of social networking sites lacks the same privilege. Any infringement of corporate regulations will almost certainly result in termination with pervasive implications.
However, inaction does not necessarily imply that social network personnel is complicit in the continuous abuse and manipulation of internet consumers and their privacy. The Social Dilemma illustrates this by demonstrating how pervasive digital networks have grown (Netflix). It explored the growing influence of online networking sites, with a particular emphasis on Google and Facebook. The underlying issue was that these behemoth internet corporations constantly track their subscribers’ internet activity. They monitor consumer activity, create individualized accounts using machine learning, and utilize analytics to influence their subsequent actions (Netflix). Clients’ engagement on their sites translates into advertising money for merchants, promoters, and politicians seeking to leverage particular user inclinations or activities.
The documentary uses testimonials from previous workers from these companies and actual examples to substantiate its claims. Unquestionably, the film does not support the ideas and tactics of social networking sites entrepreneurs as it is predicated on the investigation work of ex-social media personnel. After a week of speculation, one of the filmmakers demonstrated how the findings merely sparked conversation in the firm, but no actual intervention was undertaken (Netflix). On the one hand, the inevitable inference is that these observations were deemed detrimental to the companies. On the other hand, workers on online platforms see them as ethical obligations that ought to be handled immediately.
Social networks have been linked with “big data” in past years. Big data is a term used to describe vast amounts of diverse data that are created, recorded, and processed at a rapid pace and may be utilized with analytics to provide unique knowledge, solutions, and applications (Oracle.com). Large-scale data breaches, like the Cambridge Analytica one, highlight the need to preserve privacy in today’s digital age (Confessore). The data was used to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election results by playing to voters’ biases. The use of such data by researchers, advertising, and states has become common practice.
Experts have connected growing social media usage, undesirable behavior patterns, and declining mental health. According to Dhir et al. (149), obsessive social media usage was a strong indicator of social media exhaustion among teenage internet users. The researchers assert that dysfunctional behavior and an overreliance on digital gadgets and computer-mediated messaging applications (e.g., social networking sites) lead to emotional weariness and lethargy (Dhir et al. 150). The users suffer the most amid the growing intrusiveness of social media. Unfortunately, misinformation is preferred over factual information on social networks. According to The Social Dilemma, fake news or disinformation spreads six times faster than credible content (Netflix). Thus, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have increased the appeal of misinformation and baseless information.
The major social networking platforms use a similar method of content screening. They restrict posts glorifying or instigating violence and sexually suggestive or hateful messages. Additionally, the platforms have taken steps to combat disinformation, including fact-checking comments, recognizing state-operated news organizations, and barring political adverts (Hall 6). The challenge is that companies are under no pressure to regulate hateful or intimidating information because their ad-based business practices rely on keeping users active to generate revenue. In response, social networking organizations contend that it is impossible to distinguish hateful rhetoric from satire or constructive criticism on their platforms. Other companies claim that their job does not entail developing web-based rules, and they have requested the government to take over authority (Zuckerberg). Contrarily, initiatives by the state to control social networks are mostly opposed as a blatant violation of free expression.
Therefore, social media firms continue to operate confidently, knowing that they are not violating any rules or regulations. This seems to be the stance held by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who recently decried the growing influence of TikTok, a popular competitor with the current generation of internet users (Murphy). These sentiments indicate that what concerns social media CEOs is growing their sites’ user bases and wooing stockholders. More significantly, ignoring the negative consequences of social media contributes to the real problems diminution in gravity.
Security and safety are the cornerstones of a democratic society. Most Americans presently have an unsatisfactory sense of safety in light of discoveries of Russian meddling in internal elections and examples of extremists and terrorists exploiting social networks to plan killings and maiming activities. The enormous magnitude of the social media space for news distribution, and the countless examples of social networking sites being exploited for malicious purposes, provide sufficient grounds for why social media platforms need to be controlled by adequately constructed, democratically debated rules. Without it, governments are entrusting uncontrolled and unforeseen entities with the reins of stability, the orientation of the moral code, and the smooth operation of the electoral cycle.
The above can be nefarious characters who operate in the public interest with malice. A classic example is the 15th March 2019 terrorist incident in Christchurch, New Zealand, culminating in the killing of 50 people worshiping at a mosque (Lowe). The shooter attached a camera to his body and videotaped the assault on a Facebook live broadcast, making it even more horrifying. Throughout the broadcast, fans worldwide who share his radical far-right beliefs supported and applauded him (Lowe). While social media organizations use algorithms to identify hate speech, most of these posts are missed by the system. This necessitates the use of human eyes to locate extremist, violent, or unethical posts. The unwillingness of social media corporations to remove inflammatory remarks or deactivate accounts stems from their concern over seeming to stifle freedom of expression. Following the Christchurch attack, several countries condemned social media corporations, reinforcing demands to hold them accountable for allowing violent and extremist information to stay on their platforms.
Automated monitoring is a time-consuming and immature approach. The contemporary application of AI to eliminate inappropriate information risks causing errors and is too time-consuming to filter every remark posted on social media. Thus, substantial investment in this sector is necessary to strike a compromise between customized material removal and statutory free expression safeguards. According to Singapore’s new law, the government may determine what constitutes misleading information (Valkovskaya). Fines are levied on those who refuse to comply with regulatory provisions. German social media platforms must now adhere to state recommendations on censoring offensive speech, libel, and other unlawful material under the NetzDG (Network Enforcement Act). Each infraction will lead to a penalty of at least $55 million (Valkovskaya). Overall, the formulation of policy and legislation ought to result from collaboration with the business world, the security industry, and global players.
Ultimately, this will create a system founded on cooperation and a diverse, aligned range of perspectives. According to a bill presented for consideration in the U.S. Senate in 2018, citizens should be protected from social networks’ micro-targeted material and political adverts from overseas governments (Valkovskaya). Social media firms are proposed to be forced to reveal their promotional tactics under the “Honest Ads Act” (Valkovskaya). Consistently, the “Bot Disclosure Accountability Act” seeks to regulate the amount of automated advertising on social networks (Valkovskaya). More regulation is needed to ensure openness behind advertisements and memes and enable internet users to become informed clients. This way, ads and the material will be clearly labeled so that users can make informed decisions based on information about the people who put them in place and who funded them.
In summary, the issue of social media regulation remains contentious. Nevertheless, recent developments have proved that the existing setup cannot continue. Public discourse about democracy’s future will be shaped by the activities of companies and governments today. This is the time for companies in the internet and technology sectors to make a critical choice. In short, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others must strengthen content regulation policies and rules by introducing aggressive measures to prevent data misuse, misinformation, offensive language, or violence or risk severe regulatory ramifications.
Confessore, Nicholas. “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and The Fallout So Far.” The New York Times, 2018.
Dhir, Amandeep, et al. “Online Social Media Fatigue And Psychological Wellbeing—A Study of Compulsive Use, Fear of Missing Out, Fatigue, Anxiety And Depression.” International Journal of Information Management, vol. 40, 2018, pp: 141-152. doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2018.01.012
Federal Trade Commission. “Advertising and Marketing on the Internet: Rules of the Road.” Federal Trade Commission, 2000.
Hall, Holly Kathleen. “The New Voice of America: Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act.” First Amendment Studies, vol, 51, no. 2, 2017, pp. 49-61. doi:10.1080/21689725.2017.1349618
Hunt, Melissa G., et al. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness And Depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 37, no. 10, 2018, pp: 751-768. doi:10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751
Lowe, David. “The New Jurist | the Christchurch Terrorist Attack, the Far-Right, and Social Media: What Can We Learn?” Newjurist.com, 2019.
Montag, Christian, et al. “Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms And Freemium Games Against The Background of Psychological And Economic Theories.” International journal of environmental research and public health, vol. 16, no. 14, 2019, pp: 2612. doi:10.3390/ijerph16142612
Moore, Kelly, and Georgiana Craciun. “Fear of Missing Out and Personality As Predictors of Social Networking Sites Usage: The Instagram Case.” Psychological reports, vol. 124, no. 4, 2021, pp: 1761-1787. doi:10.1177/0033294120936184
Murphy, Hannah. “Meta’s Perfect Storm: Fleeing Users and Apple Privacy Changes Hit Ads Business.” FinancialTimes, 2022.
The Social Dilemma. Netflix, 2020, Netflix.
Oracle.com. “What Is Big Data?” Oracle.com, 2021.
Primack, Brian A., et al. “Use of Multiple Social Media Platforms And Symptoms of Depression And Anxiety: A Nationally-Representative Study Among US Young Adults.” Computers in human behavior, vol. 69, 2017, pp: 1-9. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.013
Rainie, Lee. “Americans’ Complicated Feelings About Social Media in an Era of Privacy Concerns.” Pew Research Center, 2018.
Shearer, Elisa, and Katerina Eva Matsa. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 2018.
Sherman, Lauren E et al. “Peer Influence Via Instagram: Effects on Brain and Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adulthood.” Child development, vol. 89, no. 1, 2018, pp: 37-47. doi:10.1111/cdev.12838
Sherman, Lauren E et al. “The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media.” Psychological science vol. 27, no. 7, 2016, pp: 1027-35. doi:10.1177/0956797616645673
Valkovskaya, Margarita. “In Favor of the Public Interest: Social Media Should Be Regulated.” Carnegiecouncil.org, 2020.
Zuckerberg, Mark. “Mark Zuckerberg: The Internet Needs New Rules. Let’s Start in These Four Areas.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 2019.