A necessary evil? 3 ways to use social media to make a difference

Social media has, no-one can deny, no shortage of disadvantages – and with recent scandals over Cambridge Analytica, being conscious of what the long-term implications will be is only about to get more difficult. We are playing a whole new ball game – there are no precedents in history for what to do when big companies have access to your data and can use it to tailor certain information to you based on your beliefs, your friends, your hobbies.

The rules have to be created as the new technology emerges… and it’s our generation which will be dealing with most of the fallout.

The concerns are numerous. Social media can promote negative thought patterns, letting us compare ourselves to others’ perfectly-polished Instagram profiles or holiday tweets or those ‘I just woke up like this’ snaps. Even I am guilty of this sometimes; I curate my social media platforms in a way that makes me happy to look back on, and so I mostly stick to the photos where I’m smiling in a non-creepy way and interesting things are happening: travels, time with friends, really cute cat gifs… they make the cut. The long nights in the library and the anxiety attacks do not. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – so long as we don’t start to take everything at face value and believe that everything we see on social media is the whole truth.

But now we must also consider what is happening to our personal details, an issue for which Facebook is currently coming under the greatest fire. It is a problem for two reasons: firstly, because advertisers are allowed to use our private details to send us very specific information, targeting people in a way which has never been so easy – and also because our interests and ‘likes’ means that we are very at risk of being caught in an ‘echo chamber’ of ideas on social media.

If everyone of a similar opinion likes X political party on Facebook, then it’s no surprise that most of the comments on that page will be from people who share your opinions. This can lead to a false sense of security, a ‘bubble’ of our political beliefs which stops us seeing the real picture and leads to the shock results we have seen in the past year. By the same logic, it also allows toxic ideas to go unchallenged in those other circles, full of people who hold the same prejudices and have no-one to present an alternative point of view.

I don’t like the idea of a tech giant having all my information and giving it to others – but I also know I wouldn’t feel very in the loop at uni without social media. Most of the events I go to nowadays are advertised through Facebook, and when I say I’ll text a friend, I usually mean I’ll send them something on Messenger. So how can we focus on the positives, and use social media to make a difference instead of being caught up in the negatives – without having to delete everything? Here are three ideas that anyone can get involved in:

1. Take note of (and participate in) online campaigns

If you use the internet, you’ve probably seen the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo or #IceBucketChallenge. Why do these matter? Well, these hashtags grow and spread across the internet, reaching millions of diverse users, raising awareness for important causes and opening up a discussion where before there was none. RAINN (a network to support victims of rape, sexual assault and abuse) reported a huge 21% increase in calls to sexual assault hotlines after the #MeToo campaign, demonstrating that these campaigns have the power to empower people and validate their experiences by showing that they are not alone. What’s more, online campaigns are often more accessible for students with disabilities, and take up much less time as they can be participated in from the comfort of your own room (browsing in bed, anyone?).

2. Try following some pages or accounts that you wouldn’t usually

To avoid the ‘echo chamber’ effect, why not try to diversify your feed a little? Follow something you usually disagree with or browse something you know a friend likes – you don’t have to suddenly start agreeing with it, but it’s always helpful to be aware of the opposite point of view, right?

3. Remember that simple steps can have a big influence

People are more likely to help or participate in a cause if they have some personal attachment to it – such as being tagged by a friend, or seeing a relative affected by it, or simply being made aware of a topic by someone they know and trust. Why not make your friends aware of something that matters to you – share a petition, or a video, or an interesting article? (If you like writing, you could even have a go at writing your own article and sharing it with friends). These little things are very small and quick, but they can make social media a source of sharing and learning, rather than just those well-loved memes.

However, unfortunately, just because you are using social media as a force for good does not mean everyone else is. Try to remember that the things we read usually have some kind of objective, and it might not be entirely truthful – and so everything should be taken with a large spoonful of salt.

There’s nothing wrong at all with using social media for fun (unless you’re trying to revise and the internet swallows you up, of course) and worrying about the future of our data – but we can use it for good things, too.

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