The Pitfalls of Social Media

Professor Eric Litwack’s students write a collection of short essays for IST343.

“Bobbi’s finely written essay does an excellent job exploring the possible means and implications of social media monitoring and internet ethics education. She makes good use of practical examples, and speculates on the effects of local website monitoring.”

Students get meta reflecting on tech in London’s Virtual Classroom

The contemporary information environment means that we learn, work, shop, play, and fall in love digitally. The consequence of our online participation in social and political life through likes, clicks, shares, comments, and views is a deep wealth of behavioural data — data that marketers, tech giants, businesses, the entertainment industry, the medical industry, politicians, and the government can use to target policies and predict trends. London’s Data in Society course helps students think critically and ethically about the role of data in everyday life.

Student essays examine how individuals, groups, and society create — and are created by — digital data and algorithms. The shift to remote work, distance learning, and social distancing in the midst of COVID-19 only amplified the social, political, legal, and professional issues considered in this class, giving Spring 2020 students an active laboratory for reflection.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

by Bobbi Whitney

Headshot of Bobbi Whitney
Spring 2020 Syracuse London student Bobbi Whitney studies information management & technology and minors in psychology

At its inception, no one knew the internet would gain the power it has today. In “Personal Values and Computer Ethics”, Alison Adam explains the negative effects of social media that are often overlooked. Building on Rheingold (2000), Adams explains that “Since the beginnings of the Internet as a mass communication medium, there has been considerable interest in the concept of the virtual community” (152). Over time, the virtual community has become increasingly more popular, despite the negative features it possesses. While these downsides are being brought to attention, it would be an extremely complex process to reduce their prevalence.

One pitfall Adam explains is the way that young people are impacted by social media. Young people are at a point where they don’t know a life without constant internet and social media access. Because of this, they don’t truly understand what they’re doing when they sign up for these platforms. By giving up their privacy, they make themselves targets for ads and marketing. Things that the youth post on the internet will be attached to them for a long time, which leads to the next pitfall Adam discusses, the persistence of data on the internet. It’s extremely difficult to remove something from the internet once it’s there. Deleting something from a profile doesn’t delete it from a server, where the file can be found again later. Finally, Adam discusses the idea of Antisocial Networking, or the idea that access to virtual communities leads to the risk of behaviors such as cyberbullying and scamming.

While these risks have been part of social media from the beginning, there may be ways to reduce their effects and occurrences. One of the ways we can begin to do this is through education. If kids are going to grow up with technology at their fingertips, we should be teaching them how to make efficient use of it and be responsible on the internet. Secondly, we need to hold social media platforms accountable. If we require social media platforms to be more transparent, we would have an opportunity to learn what’s happening to our data, and what we are doing by putting data on the internet. This could lead to users being more careful with their personal information.

Legislation of responsible and ethical use of data is possible, albeit difficult, on the business side. For example, Adam explains that the UK has laws involving personal data. She says, “… UK data protection law, for example, mandates that personal data should not be held longer than necessary” (155). This however, brings up further questions, complicating the process of creating legislation. For example, what length of time is considered necessary? What constitutes personal data? If there’s an allowance for interpretation on a platform to platform basis, this creates varying levels of privacy dependent on the platform being used. Furthermore, the groups of people that create social media legislation need to be diverse, to ensure the best interest of all groups. On the consumer side, putting legislation in place to control the use of social media is more difficult. Creating legislation here intersects dangerously with arguments of freedom of expression. As previously discussed in lectures, freedom of speech is not limited only to those who agree with you, so it’s difficult to control the things people say on social media. That being said, many platforms set guidelines for content. For example, the popular platform Tik Tok takes videos down if they violate their community guidelines. If people find that their beliefs won’t be supported by certain platforms, they will find and create new ones that will. When platforms create these guidelines they aren’t 100% foolproof. They aren’t instant, and they’re based on user reporting and imperfect algorithms. Content is often missed, and it needs to be posted before it can get flagged. There’s no preventative screening process, and if one was put into place, the inability to post instantly would likely drive people away from using the platforms.

Overall, we are way behind in terms of implementing widespread regulation on social media platforms. Considering it’s become so heavily ingrained into our society, and it’s something that has shaped us into the people we are today, it’s shocking that governments haven’t made more progress in controlling the activity of both the companies and the users. I found Alison Adam’s writing to be extremely insightful. Her opinions about the pitfalls of social media allowed me to take a critical look at myself and the way that virtual communities and social media impact me.


Work Cited

  • Adam, Alison. 2010. “Personal Values and Computer Ethics”. In The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, edited by Floridi, Luciano. Cambridge University Press.
  • Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier. MIT Press.