Inventing the Future: Is Social Media really Social?

Akshat Sogani

There are about one billion active Instagram users, two billion WhatsApp users and three billion Facebook users. These figures are astronomical for a 7 billion world population! So,why is there so much buzz around social media? Well,as humans we are social beings and such platforms enable us to connect with more people, no matter where we are geographically located. In fact, social media is a modern term. A better characterisation of these apps would be ‘social networking’, as they are, in fact, alternatively known. In our highly globalised world, these apps enable us to communicate faster, reach a mass audience and weave a larger social nexus. Undoubtedly, such apps became the voice of the people who usually found themselves on the fringes. For example, before it was banned, TikTok had a deep penetration in rural India. People felt important and heard. In a nutshell, one thing is clear—social media has tremendously increased our social interactions. 

But here’s the deeper question we need to ask – despite this enormous upsurge in the usage of social media across the globe, have we grown more social with time or have we become more unsocial? Is social media really ‘social’ as it is often touted to be? Before we venture into these thought-provoking questions, we first need to inquire into what hooks us to these apps. 

There is a new phrase that has been swirling around these days – called ‘social media detoxing’. For a certain period of time, a person refrains from using the apps so they could have more ‘real-world’ interactions. But more often than not, people fail to remain consistent with their detox programme and are back to using them. Have you ever wondered why it is such an addiction? We wear the social media badge all the time because it serves an ontological need i.e., the need for validation which in technical terms is known as ‘confirmation bias’. 

Confirmation bias is the human instinct to seek information that corresponds to our pre-existing beliefs. By following like-minded people, we surround ourselves with views and opinions that make us feel accepted in society. It makes us feel loved and worthy. Ever since the onslaught of social media, we have been deriving our self-worth based on the number of likes, followers and comments we get from these like-minded people. This is what is driving the social media frenzy. This is what keeps you glued to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. As Christopher Seneca, a writer based out of New York,rightly puts it, “social media platforms confirm what we already believe is the reason many people use them.” These so called ‘social networking’ platforms are designed in such a way that algorithms focus on what we ‘like’, ‘retweet’, and ‘share’ so they could keep feeding us with content that is similar to what we have signalled. And this makes us feel valued and important. 

But what is the problem with confirmation bias? If social media allows you to build a social circle that you can easily connect with, what is wrong with it? After all,I am getting to socialise, that too with like-minded people. Plus,validation feels good, right? I put up a post on Insta and I get 200 likes within 2 hours. It just makes our day, doesn’t it? 

What we do not acknowledge is that this pursuit of validation through social media is anti-social! Social media creates ‘echo-chambers’, where a user is never presented with alternative perspectives. We have surrendered ourselves to Yes-men who leave no room for critique and disagreements. How is it that there is no ‘dislike’ button in any of these social media apps? A lot of times, people put up a post and delete the negative comments. Transformational conversations and authentic dialogues have stopped happening. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel validated by others. But it starts becoming a problem when our identities get linked to the number of likes, followers, comments and forwards.Nowadays, becoming an ‘influencer’ on YouTube and Instagram has become a new benchmark of success. 

The great French political philosopher, Rousseau, talked about two different kinds of self-love. One is ‘amour-propre’ which presupposes that self-esteem is gained through the approval of others. And the other one is ‘amour de soi’ in which an individual’s self-worth comes from within without depending on the perception of others. Social media embraces the ‘amour propre’ version of self-love,and this has severe repercussions. As we get more and more engrossed in our silos, we have stopped looking outside our echo chambers. We consume whatever is thrown at us and as a result,we do not know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Social media gives you a dopamine effect that makes you feel contented and complacent with your existing beliefs. But this comes at the price of our capacity to disagree. And this is the reason why social media is inherently anti-social. A sign of a flourishing society is where we can have open discussions and debates, and disagreements are part and parcel of this process. 

Thanks to social media, “we have moved away from having a tool-based technological environment to an addiction-and-manipulation-based technological environment”, heralds Tristan Harris, President of the Center for Humane Technology. And “if something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you. It wants things from you.”Does this not sound scary? You see,Facebook is not as innocent as it looks. It is restructuring our communication, the way we think and the way we function in society. Its smart algorithms classifies us into groups based on our preferences and likes, and it only pushes us further into our shells. It keeps provoking us with similar content triggering our confirmation bias. This makes our world view unidirectional. Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, went on to argue that technology is an autonomous force which is constantly moulding our human nature. 

Social media is anti-social because everyone is living in their own echo chambers and echoing whatever the people they follow are saying. Where does it leave us if everyone believes in their own truth? We live in the ‘Age of (Dis)information’. Violent protests took place in many countries against the use of ‘masks’ when the pandemic struck. Fake rumours circulated on social media calling COVID-19 a hoax. Millions live in this echo chamber. This is the monstrosity of social media. It is so powerful that it has started to foment divisions in our society and strengthen polarisation. Of course, if you believe in something with conviction (especially when you have so many supporters validating the same belief, you become more rigid with that belief)and there is no willingness to listen to what is being echoed in other chambers, you will feel bothered and disturbed if someone disagrees. Many experts argue that social media has cultivated a ‘post-truth’ culture. As everyone live in their own shell of ‘truth’, it leaves less room for consensus and mutual respect. By not being open to other viewpoints, we blur the line between what is true and what is false.

One thing liberalism has taught us is that every individual is a free agent. We always have the choice of who to follow, what pages to sign up for and to what views we should subscribe. Right? But are we sure we are really ‘willingly’ echoing? Social media gives us the illusion that we are freely choosing while in reality, the algorithms deliberately feed content that we already believe in. All we are doing is just going with the flow. 

What we require is an ‘authentic’ willingness, not the one influenced by algorithms. Jess Davis, a digital marketer who founded the brand Folk Rebellion, argues that“if the companies and algorithms aren’t doing it for us, it’s up to us to regulate ourselves.” The only way out of this trap is to stop uncritically echoing. Become more cognizant about who we are echoing. The stakes are extremely high. Being part of a bubble makes us vulnerable to political manipulation. It is already being hijacked by one or other political agenda. The rise of populism exactly at the same time as the rise of social media is not a mere coincidence. Political leaders have been using it as an instrument to orchestrate a reality for you. They target a particular echo chamber that satisfies their political agenda. Cambridge Analytica, a political advisory firm, extracted the data of millions of profiles of users to influence the Brexit vote in favour of leaving the EU. This all happened through an app that used Facebook to harvest the data,which then leaked it to Cambridge Analytica. Remember—Brexit supporters won by a very thin margin. Who knows what could have happened had Cambridge Analytica not intervened? Even worse is the fact that the powerhouse of social media is limited to a few elites. Zuckerberg and Musk are deciding what you read, watch, and listen. They get to control the narrative. Such power holders need to be held accountable for making our societies more ‘unsocial’.

Whenever you are scrolling, clicking and liking a post, it’s easy to think in your mind – “okay, why is it such a big deal? How am I contributing to all this mess?” Technology in itself may not be the problem. But it’s the technology’s potential to tear the fabric of our society, which  is the point of concern. The next time you pick up your electronic device to follow or forward, remember, your authentic voice matters and that one true friend in real life is better than a thousand digital ones.