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, 2024.

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Social media refers to online platforms that people use to connect with others who share their interests. The types of media posted and exchanged by social media users include images, blog posts, videos, direct and group messages, podcasts, newsletters, music, and links to external websites. Social networking sites are a form of social media in which users actively engage with their peers, followers, and the public. The popularity of social media has sparked concern over user privacy and safety as well as its social and political impact.



  • Online social media platforms enable users to connect with others who share their interests. Social networking is a form of social media wherein users actively engage with peers, followers, and the public.
  • The number of social media users has steadily grown since the end of the twentieth century. Almost 73 percent of the US population used social media as of early 2023.
  • Social media serves several functions and is often used to share articles on news, politics, and culture; post comments, tweets, or blog entries; upload photos and videos; and exchange messages with other users.
  • The popularity of social media has generated debate on a range of issues, from user safety and consumer privacy to the long-term effects on public health and companies' actions to keep their platforms free of disinformation.
  • Most social media companies generate revenue with advertising. Advertisers' and other interests' access to user data persists as a topic of contention.
  • Some uses of social media by employers, educational institutions, law enforcement, and others in positions of authority have attracted controversy. Critics contend these practices violate user privacy and invite discrimination.



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

Most social media companies generate revenue through advertising, with industry leaders generating substantial ad revenues. Facebook's parent company Meta, for example, earned more than $116.6 billion in advertising revenue in 2022. Advertisers use social media platforms to gather information about users to create ads targeted to their interests and needs. Companies use direct advertising methods such as banner ads, as well as indirect approaches, such as when a company creates a social media profile and invites the platform's members to "like" or become fans of its page. Brands, companies, educational institutions, and other organizations also use social media to announce events such as concerts, product giveaways, and special sales.



According to the digital media research and advisory firm Kepios, approximately 246 million people in the United States use social media as of January 2023. Though Kepios acknowledges that the online behaviors of specific users may indicate slight variances in the data, the figure represents 72.5 percent of the US population. In terms of popularity YouTube led all social media platforms tracked by Kepios, with 246 million US users in early 2023. Other leading platforms include LinkedIn (200 million users), Facebook (175 million users), Instagram (143.4 million users), TikTok (113.3 million users), Snapchat (107.4 million users), Pinterest (84.6 million users), and Twitter (95.4 million users), which became known as X in July 2023.

A notable trend in social media is its increasing appeal to older users. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center analysis of data compiled in 2021, about 11 percent of US adults ages sixty-five and older used social media in 2010, a figure that grew to 45 percent by 2021. Pew additionally found that YouTube tops all social media platforms used by older US adults. The percentage of Americans ages fifty to sixty-five who have used YouTube increased from 70 percent to 83 percent between 2019 and 2021. However, platform usage varies widely among different age groups. For example, Pew found in 2021 that Snapchat and TikTok were used by 65 and 48 percent of US adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine, respectively, but by only 2 percent and 4 percent of those over age sixty-five.



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. Observers note that personal risks rise as users post increasing amounts of information. Cybercriminals can harvest user-posted data to crack passwords, steal identities, commit financial crimes, and launch phishing attacks, among other illicit acts. Given these hazards, security specialists strongly recommend caution in choosing what to share online, and with whom to share it. Malicious actors often choose to target children and adolescents with their social engineering scams because young users are more likely to click on dangerous links and follow through with other actions that put their data and their parents' data at risk.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also specifically recommends against children and teens posting their full names, street addresses, email 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 and limits the collection and use of personal information of users under the age of thirteen. Many social media apps and websites have established user age minimums, but minors can easily circumvent these restrictions.

Security experts emphasize that social media users should be extremely careful when communicating with strangers online, as people can claim false identities. In March 2022 Meta reported that the company took action against 5.8 billion fake Facebook accounts on the platform in 2022. Though people set up fake accounts for many different reasons, criminals may choose to misrepresent themselves to scam users out of money or deceive people for other malicious motives.

Many fake accounts on X (formerly Twitter) are operated by software commonly known as bots, which take advantage of the platform's application programming interface (API) to post content automatically. Debate over the exact number of bots on the platform became a point of public debate after billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk launched a bid to buy the social media site in April 2022. Against the backdrop of Musk's acquisition efforts, the company claimed that less than 5 percent of its monetized accounts were bots, while Musk counterclaimed that the actual figure could be up to four times higher. 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, forward private communications, 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. According to a 2022 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 46 percent of US teenagers reported experiencing cyberbullying, with 54 percent of girls ages fifteen to seventeen reporting such experiences. The most common focuses of cyberbullying were users' physical appearance, gender, and race or ethnicity, followed by sexual orientation and political beliefs.



Adult users are often advised to exercise discretion in what they choose to share on social media. Potential employers, for example, may check a candidate's Facebook or LinkedIn profile before deciding to hire them. 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 law on unlawful access to stored communications, 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 December 2023, lawmakers in twenty-eight states, including Maryland, had passed legislation to prevent employers from gaining access to employees' personal online accounts, while at least three additional states had legislation pending. Fifteen states plus DC had passed similar laws forbidding colleges and universities from requesting account access from prospective students, and Wisconsin had passed a law applying to landlords.

Law enforcement officers use social media sites to identify criminals and help solve crimes. However, the use of social media to aid in criminal investigations has aroused concerns about privacy violations and other misuse. In 2016 the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter had allowed developers to access user data to create surveillance products widely used by police departments. Further, the ACLU's investigation uncovered that these products had been marketed as tools for monitoring political activists. Publicity surrounding these reports led to social media companies changing their data access policies.

However, law enforcement has continued to use social media to aid in their investigations and bolster their public image. In 2020 reports indicated that local law enforcement had viewed livestreams of Black Lives Matter protests and employed facial recognition technology to identify participants. Federal law enforcement made similar use of social media posts to identify and apprehend people who participated in the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Documents released as part of a lawsuit first filed by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2020 revealed the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) widely use fake social media accounts as part of their operations.



  • Would you characterize the overall effect of social media on US politics as generally positive or generally negative? Explain your reasoning.
  • In your opinion, should social media companies restrict young users from accessing their platforms? How can such restrictions be enforced more effectively?
  • Under what circumstances, if any, do you think a school should be able to access the social media accounts of a student or employee? Explain your answer.



Social media has proven to be an effective tool in raising awareness and coordinating 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.

Though sometimes dismissed as slacktivism (activism requiring little effort and having minimal effect), hashtag activism has helped launch several prominent social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. A 2023 Pew Research survey reported mixed results when polling US adults about social media's impact on activism. Though 67 percent of respondents believed that social brought attention to neglected issues and provided an outlet for underrepresented groups, more than three-quarters of respondents asserted that social media users overestimate the impact of their online activism and do not accomplish much. The survey found that 14 percent of social media users had changed their profile picture in response to a political issue, while 12 percent had engaged in hashtag activism.

Social media also has become an essential element of US politics. Its use was seen in presidential campaigns as early as 2008. Many political candidates use social media for traditional purposes such as fundraising, making official statements, livestreaming speeches, and posting photos with supporters. By 2016, however, observers began to express concern over the expanded role that social media appeared to play in electoral politics and the opportunity for misuse, particularly the spread of misinformation. In addition to the prevalence of misinformation appearing on social media, experts worried about political organizations' ability to use social media to target specific groups with disinformation campaigns.

Federal investigators determined that Russian intelligence operatives used social media in the 2016 election in hopes of swaying the outcome and sowing social discord. In subsequent elections, US intelligence agencies have observed an expansion of such operations. To address misinformation and foreign interference, social media companies have experimented with different policies such as banning political ads in the days leading up to elections. The federal government has worked with social media companies to combat foreign influence campaigns, but a federal court's ruling in Missouri v. Biden (2023) limited such coordination by restricting several federal agencies, including DHS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), from advising social media companies on the removal of content.

Social media has also served as a facilitator of conspiracy theories and extremist content. Though social media companies have made gestures to address its spread through content moderation, critics allege that social media algorithms favor such content because of its potential to drive user engagement. In 2017 an anonymous user claiming to have Q-level (top secret) security clearance began to attract attention from social media users, leading to the development of an online conspiracy theory community known as Qanon. Social media companies including Facebook and Twitter began removing high-profile accounts linked to Qanon after the movement was tied to the violence that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.


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