Social media is making us depressed. Social media is making us less human. Social media is responsible for every bad thing in the world… The sense of irony isn’t lost on me that these statements are often read on social media. Yet, clearly we have some attachment to these platforms given we spend on average over two hours each day on them, mindlessly scrolling and looking for our next content hit, even if it is trolling the very platform we’re viewing it on.

Social media is often seen as a double-edged sword, playing the dual role of both Beauty and The Beast, helping us to unite and engage, whilst simultaneously being used as a tool to divide and conquer. At best it can be described as a confusing place to interact, and at worst, a heady blend of misinformation and toxicity all rolled into one.

My view is that like anything in life, there will always be grey areas to contend with and social media is no exception. It has a valid place in today’s society, despite our tendency to villainize these platforms in the media, warping public opinion in the process. Granted, Facebook and co. haven’t done a lot to warrant glowing coverage in the past two years, but these platforms are never going to be as clear cut as we would perhaps like; their size is just too vast, the online world too complex.

Think about how social media has grown, evolving from closed private networks into these huge and influential global platforms with a collective responsibility for the 3.48 billion of us online today. As such, “the beast” which has emerged as a consequence can be condensed for the sake of argument into two main concerns: the security of data (how it is harvested and used to further someone’s own agenda) and of course, fake news.

This is a term favored by Trump, mainly used to criticize his media coverage in the US, yet on a broader scale, fake news has been particularly effective in spreading on the back of global events. Not surprisingly, once these rumours are established, changing opinion is nearly impossible, and whilst this is all part of the discovery phase of the online user journey today – and one in which we have very little control over – the speed in which falsehoods can become fact is staggering.

Take the Notre Dame fire earlier this year. Within hours of the Cathedral burning, conspiracy theories and coordinated disinformation campaigns began to spread, with groups online using this event to spin the narrative towards their own political or monetary agenda. What’s interesting is how we unintentionally feed into this social beast by choosing to believe what is presented to us without much investigation, readily sharing it on ourselves. We as humans are prone to confirmation bias, meaning we’re hardwired to seek out information that we want to believe, and on balance, that’s usually something negative.

Consider this scenario: You read two differing accounts of how the economy will play out over the next 12 months. One says it is expected to shrink by 5% meaning hardships all round, whilst the other predicts it will improve by 1%. Which do you believe? Exactly; it’s the negative story which makes the bigger impact, as we are so conditioned to expect the worst, relish it, even. You could imagine a similar outcome if stories circulated about a humanitarian crisis or environmental concerns; psychologically it’s the ‘bad things’ that will grab our attention, stick in our memory, and then ultimately, influence our course of action.

On the back of this, shaping human opinion has become big business and those looking to take advantage now have the perfect mouthpiece in social media to get an alternate story across. All it takes is one spark to ignite across social media, and suddenly there are multiple accounts reporting the same thing, with ‘experts’ providing facts and figures to lend further authenticity.

I know I paint a bleak picture, but before we all swear off social media altogether (highly unlikely if Facebook’s Q3 earnings and rise in users are anything to go by) we should remember what social media was initially created for – to help connect people. The world is a big place and without these platforms we wouldn’t be able to reach out, engage and interact as we do; ultimately, it has made us more social, even if that is over a screen. You could argue that this has made us more antisocial with each other, but we’re naive to think we can create this perfect online environment, when life itself is anything but. We need to accept there are both positives and negatives, and essentially start wising up.

We shouldn’t seek to sensor messages, we’re living in a free(ish) world after all, but there has to be some accountability on the user side too, educating ourselves on what we engage with and adopt a more cautious approach. When it comes to online liability, ignorance is no longer an acceptable defence, especially as we all become more knowledgeable about our own digital footprint and the consequences of our actions.

Social media is a great but powerful medium; the ‘precious’ of the marketing world if you like. It’s a proven and effective way to cut through the noise and get your message heard. Much like Gollum’s love/hate relationship with the ring, our own feelings towards social media are complex – we find these platforms irresistible, despite being wary of their intentions.

Yet, if we can be more conscious of how we act online, identifying potential pitfalls as we go, then it becomes that much easier to navigate. Social media isn’t a cautionary tale, destined to show the worst side of humanity, but a story still unfolding… we just all need to read the fine print.

By Ayman Haydar
Chief Executive Officer, MMP World Wide