Social Media

Social media typically refers to Internet web sites or mobile apps that allow users to create and share content. Read the overview below to gain an understanding of social media and its impact and explore the previews of additional articles that highlight other perspectives.

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Social Media Topic Overview

"Social Media." Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019.

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Online social media platforms enable people to connect with others who share their interests. The types of media posted and exchanged by users of social media may include images, blog entries, videos, direct and group messages, podcasts, newsletters, or music. Social networking sites are a form of social media wherein users actively engage with their peers, followers, and the public in general. The popularity of social media has generated debate on a range of issues, from user privacy and safety to its long-term social and political effects.

Function and components of social media sites

Prior to social networking sites, which emerged following the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991, computer users connected with one another through bulletin board systems (BBS) and subscription programs like America Online (AOL). Classmates.com and SixDegrees.com are considered the first social networking sites, but neither approached the scale of twenty-first century social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Social media applications for mobile devices, commonly referred to as apps, became more popular as the use of smartphones and tablets grew in the 2010s. Mobile apps have allowed people to use social media sites in novel settings and ways such as live streaming an interaction with law enforcement or live tweeting a lecture.

Most social media companies generate revenue through advertising. Facebook, for example, earned $16.6 billion from advertisers in the second quarter of 2019, $15.6 billion of which was generated from mobile ads. Advertisers use these platforms to gather information about users to create ads targeted to their particular interests and needs. Companies may use direct advertising methods, such as banner ads, or indirect approaches, such as when a company creates a social media profile and invites the platform's members to like or become fans of their page. Brands, companies, educational institutions, and other organizations use social media to announce events such as concerts, product giveaways, and special sales.

Popularity of social media

A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of US adults (72 percent) used social media. YouTube was the most popular platform, attracting 73 percent of respondents, and Facebook was the second most popular, with 69 percent indicating that they use the site. Significantly fewer respondents indicated using social media platforms other than YouTube or Facebook, with Instagram at 37 percent, Pinterest at 28 percent, Snapchat at 24 percent, LinkedIn at 27 percent, and Twitter at 22 percent of adults. According to the social media marketing firm DreamGrow, as of July 2019 Facebook remained the largest online social network worldwide, with 2.23 billion monthly active users. YouTube was ranked second with 1.9 billion monthly users, and photo-sharing app Instagram ranked third with 1 billion monthly visitors.

A notable trend in social media is its increasing appeal to older users. According to Pew, fewer than 2 percent of US adults ages 65 and older used social media in 2008, a figure that had grown to 40 percent by 2019. Pew additionally reported that 46 percent of US adults ages 65 and over were users of Facebook.

Privacy and safety concerns

Personal safety, particularly that of children, has long been a concern of social media users and critics. Some people use the information others share on social media to target and track users for criminal purposes. In 2004, journalist Chris Hansen's news program To Catch a Predator began drawing attention to how potential sex offenders use the internet to lure young victims. In response to these and other crimes, North Carolina passed a law in 2008 forbidding convicted sex offenders from using social media sites. In its June 2017 decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, however, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state's ban was unconstitutional because it violated offenders' First Amendment rights.

Cybercriminals have also used social media to gain access to users' personal information, making users vulnerable to identity theft and other financial crimes. For this reason, security specialists recommend taking caution in choosing what to share online and with whom. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends against children and teens posting their full names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, or other personal information online. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) prevents companies from tracking children's online behavior by forbidding them from prompting users under the age of thirteen to provide personal information. Many social media apps and websites have established user age limits, but minors can easily circumvent these restrictions because companies do not have the means to enforce them.

Security experts emphasize that social media users should be extremely careful when communicating with strangers online, as people can claim false identities. In 2017 Facebook estimated that 2 percent of its active monthly accounts were fake, and 10 percent of its active monthly accounts were duplicate or secondary accounts. That same year, Twitter reported that 5 to 8.5 percent of its active accounts were fake, though a study from the University of Southern California and Indiana University indicated that as many as 15 percent of active accounts could be fake. Many fake Twitter accounts are operated by software, commonly referred to as bots, that take advantage of the platform's application programming interface (API) to post content automatically. In 2018, Pew reported that bot accounts tended to be more active on Twitter than human accounts and were responsible for two-thirds of weblinks tweeted on the site. Though bots can be used to deceive people and promote misinformation, many bot accounts are used for practical purposes. Some active bot accounts, for example, are used by public agencies to disseminate news and information regarding natural disasters, school closings, and other emergencies.

Cyberbullying, another form of malicious behavior found on social media, can take many forms. Users can write cruel messages, post embarrassing photos or videos of people without their permission, or circulate negative rumors or lies. All fifty states and the District of Columbia (DC) have enacted legislation against bullying, with laws in forty-eight states plus DC specifically addressing cyberbullying or online harassment. First Lady Melania Trump launched an anti-cyberbullying campaign in the second year of Donald Trump's presidency. However, critics of the administration have argued that the president's controversial tweeting habits are themselves examples of cyberbullying on social media.

The use and misuse of social media by employers and law enforcement

Adult users are often advised to exercise discretion as to what they choose to share on social media. Potential employers, for example, have been known to check a person's Facebook or LinkedIn profile before deciding to hire a candidate. In 2010 an officer with the Maryland Division of Corrections informed his local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the state was requiring officers to provide login credentials and passwords to their personal social media accounts. The ACLU cautioned that such behavior violated employees' rights to privacy, ignored provisions of the Federal Stored Communications Act, and placed the employer in a legal gray area that could open the door to lawsuits. As additional stories of employers requesting access to private accounts surfaced, some state legislatures took action. As of May 2019, lawmakers in twenty-six states, including Maryland, had passed legislation to prevent employers from gaining access to employees' personal online accounts, while five additional states had legislation pending. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia had passed similar laws forbidding colleges and universities from requesting account access from prospective students, and one state had passed a law applying to landlords.

Law enforcement officers have begun to use social media sites to identify criminals and help solve crimes. In 2016 the ACLU of California investigated the use of digital surveillance on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter by fifty US police departments. Based on documents obtained during the investigation, 40 percent of the departments employed social networking surveillance tools. The ACLU expressed alarm upon further discovering that law enforcement used these tools without consulting or notifying the community, alleging that using social media to track and target protesters and people of color without sufficient justification is unlawful. However, security experts have defended law enforcement's use of social media, contending that law enforcement should be allowed to use any tool available to ensure public safety.

Social media in social activism and politics

Social media has proven to be an effective tool in raising awareness and coordinating on-the-ground actions for social movements. Such online activism is sometimes called "hashtag activism" to refer to the use of the hashtag as a metadata tag. A metadata tag is a unit of descriptive information added to digital content to allow for more efficient aggregation and search retrieval. Online activists made headlines in 2017 when, in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against high-profile figures, millions of users shared their personal experiences with sexual harassment and assault using the hashtag #MeToo. In 2018 student activists employed the hashtags #NeverAgain, #MarchForOurLives, and #IfIDiedInASchoolShooting to advocate gun control legislation. Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg has drawn attention for her use of social media to galvanize a youth-led movement in little over a year. Thunberg led the successful #GlobalClimateStrike of September 2019, during which millions of people filled the streets in cities around the world to demand governmental action on climate change.

As in activism, social media has become an essential element of US politics. Its use was seen in presidential campaigns as early as 2008. Many candidates for office use social media for traditional political purposes, such as raising funds, making official statements, live streaming speeches, and posting photos with supporters. However President Donald Trump's contentious behavior on Twitter, described as unpresidential by many critics, was widely criticized during the 2016 campaign and has persisted throughout his first term in office. Since his inauguration, Trump has stirred controversy for divulging military strategy and classified documents on Twitter, retweeting discriminatory videos and memes from far-right accounts, and using social media to insult federal agencies, private companies, foreign countries, the press, lawmakers, and current and former members of his White House staff.

The capacity of social media to spread false news and target certain groups for disinformation has sparked ongoing debates since the 2016 presidential election. It was revealed in 2018 that the Trump campaign had employed a data-driven political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, that had mined information from over 85 million Facebook accounts. Journalists discovered that the firm had engaged in a wide range of questionable behavior, including creating psychological profiles of social media users to target for disinformation and influence their behavior. In the wake of the scandal, Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged that the company would take steps to be more transparent and protect user privacy.

In October 2019, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released the second volume of its final report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The second volume focused on Russia's use of social media. The report confirmed that, while its broader goal was to sow discord and division within the US populace, Russia wielded social media to favor the prospects of candidate Trump. Meanwhile, reports surfaced that Facebook had been flooded with a Trump 2020 campaign ad that contained false allegations against Democratic primary frontrunner and former vice president Joe Biden. Investigative journalism revealed that Facebook had altered its advertising policies to exempt political ads from having to pass a fact-check process. Amidst an impeachment inquiry into a president who uses social media in unprecedented ways, lawmakers, political commentators, and other advocates have expressed concerns that foreign interests will again be able to utilize social media to influence an American election in 2020.

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