Social media refers to online platforms that 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.
- 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.
- According to the Pew Research Center, nearly three-fourths of US adults used social media in 2020. The number of social media users has steadily grown since the end of the twentieth century.
- 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. Ad sales made Facebook $27.2 billion in just one quarter in 2020. 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.
Function and Components of Social Media Sites
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 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 livestreaming an interaction with law enforcement or live tweeting a lecture.
Most social media companies generate revenue through advertising. Facebook, for example, earned $28.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020, $27.2 billion of which was generated from advertising. 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 its 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 2021 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 81 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 40 percent of adults, LinkedIn at 28 percent, Snapchat at 25 percent, Twitter at 23 percent, TikTok at 21 percent, and Reddit at 18 percent. According to Facebook, 2.8 billion users visited the site each month and over 1.8 billion visited each day as of December 2020, making it by far the largest online social network worldwide.
A notable trend in social media is its increasing appeal to older users. According to Pew, about 2 percent of US adults age sixty-five and older used social media in 2008, a figure that had grown to 45 percent by 2021. Pew additionally reported that 50 percent of US adults age sixty-five and over were users of Facebook. However, the platform used varies widely among different age groups. For example, 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 65.
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. During the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, for example, several social media users posted pictures of themselves with their vaccination record cards. Both the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) discouraged the practice, warning users that such posts could expose private information that criminals could use to commit fraud.
The FTC also specifically 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 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 limits, but minors can easily circumvent these restrictions because companies do not have the means to enforce them. Concern began to arise in the late 2010s regarding the popularity of Chinese-owned social media apps, particularly TikTok and WeChat, with lawmakers proposing bans on such apps to prevent China from collecting data from US users.
Security experts emphasize that social media users should be extremely careful when communicating with strangers online, as people can claim false identities. In the first quarter of 2019, for example, Facebook removed over two billion fake accounts. According to the company's estimates, about 5 percent of accounts are fake. Others, however, estimate the number is much higher, including a 2019 report suggesting more than half of the accounts on the site were fake. Though a person may set a fake account for many different reasons, criminals may choose to misrepresent themselves to scam users out of money or deceive people for other malicious reasons.
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 tweets of weblinks to popular news and current events sites. A 2020 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University determined that about 45 percent of messages related to COVID-19 on Twitter had been posted by bots. 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. In 2020 the child online behavior monitoring app Bark identified Twitter as the most common platform for severe bullying.
The Use and Misuse of Social Media by Employers and Law Enforcement
Adult users are often advised to exercise discretion in 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 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 April 2021, lawmakers in twenty-six 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. Sixteen states plus DC 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 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 misuses. In 2016 the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter had allowed developers to access user data to create surveillance products that were 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 (BLM) 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.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTIONS
- How would you characterize the effects of social media on US society?
- What types of regulations, if any, do you think the government should impose on social media companies? Explain your answer.
- Under what circumstances do you think online activism can most effectively bring about change?
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.
Though sometimes dismissed as slacktivism (activism requiring little effort and having little effect), hashtag activism has helped launch several prominent social movements. A Facebook post with the phrase "black lives matter," reacting to the acquittal of the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and a subsequent tweet with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter launched the global movement of that name in 2013. 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 climate activist Greta Thunberg has used social media to galvanize a youth-led movement. Thunberg led the successful series of rallies in 2019 called the #GlobalClimateStrike, 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, 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 spreading of misinformation. In addition to the prevalence of misinformation appearing on social media, experts worried about organizations' ability to use social media to target specific groups with disinformation campaigns.
Newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom revealed in 2018 that the Trump campaign had employed a data-driven political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, that had mined information from over eighty-five million Facebook accounts. Journalists' investigations, spurred by disclosures from a whistleblower, 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 chief executive Mark Zuckerberg pledged that the company would take steps to be more transparent and protect user privacy.
Federal investigators also determined that Russian intelligence operatives had used social media in the 2016 election in hopes of swaying the outcome and sowing social discord. Such activities included creating websites for fake news outlets to share disinformation, maintaining vast networks of accounts for false organizations and individuals, and promoting nonexistent events at real-life locations to attract people with conflicting beliefs. 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.
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 posts by an anonymous user on the message board 4chan claiming to have Q-level security clearance began to attract attention from social media users. These posts led to an online community known as the QAnon movement in which members became deeply involved in baseless theories involving powerful people in politics and entertainment. The central argument of these theories suggested that President Trump was working to upend a satanic child sex-trafficking enterprise. Though social media companies have frequently defended the free speech rights of their users, companies including Facebook and Twitter began removing high-profile accounts linked to QAnon after the movement was tied to the violence at the Capitol in January 2021.