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Question #92248 posted on 06/25/2019 12:34 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I think social media is one of the worst inventions in recent decades . At best, they promote vanity and could potentially cause depression and anxiety, and at worst, they threaten democracy, peace and stability of societies. The rise of extremism can be largely blamed on social medias and internet forums. On these platforms, groups with insidious motives spread their ideologies and radicalize people via misinformation and the cliquish nature of social medias have only made the problem worse. How can society deter the harmful effects of social medias?

-Velociraptor

A:

Dear Utahraptor,

Whoa, buddy, slow your roll. At best social media "causes* depression and anxiety," huh? I would say at best it helps people stay connected with far-flung friends and family who they otherwise wouldn't have any contact with, but through social media they're able to maintain a relationship. At best it helps people who are struggling know they're not alone and they have a support system. At best it helps people make meaningful connections. I'll admit that cyberbullying is a real and present problem, and constantly comparing your worst with other people's best (or vice versa) isn't healthy for anyone, but that's not a best-case scenario. I'm not trying to say that social media is always good in every situation for every person, but I think your question may be a little dramatic. Don't discount all the good that can come from social media just because there's also some bad that can come from it.

Furthermore, extremism has been around for much longer than social media--look at the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the KKK. All of them were motivated by extremist ideologies, and all of them flourished in an age before the internet even existed. Sadly, the human capacity for being terrible isn't limited by technology.

It seems like at the heart of your question is the question of how we can combat extremism. This BBC article is about exactly that, and is pretty cool. Interestingly, a lot of people who join extremist organizations do so because of the sense of community more than the ideology. Extremist groups promote black and white thinking, with a clear "us vs them" mentality, and then dehumanize "them," while making "us" feel superior. That feeling of belonging to an in-group is pretty attractive to people who have felt marginalized (whether or not they actually were), and once they join these groups they get a built-in community of people who are willing to sacrifice for that shared community. It's like a gang. In order to get people to leave extremist groups, one helpful thing is giving them another community to fall back on, while increasing distance from the organization (finding employment or going to prison are two very different examples of that). There are also internal things that can happen, like someone becoming disillusioned with the group or its leaders, but that's harder to affect from an outside position than creating other new communities someone can join. There are actually a lot of organizations that exist to provide exactly that--providing support and a sense of community to people leaving extremist groups. So how can we combat extremism? According to that BBC article, by providing communities and safe spaces for people where they feel they belong, but where extremist ideology isn't promoted. 

You may also be interested in the steps various social media platforms have recently taken to try to combat extremism. Facebook has been deleting fake accounts, developing AI to identify and remove hate speech, and is cracking down on the sale of drugs and firearms on their platform. Instagram, as a subsidiary company of Facebook, is also supposedly trying to remove extremist content. Twitter is testing out some ideas to encourage people to be less abusive via tweets. Youtube recently tried to purge a lot of extremist content (although they weren't necessarily successful). I'm not saying that these companies are successfully eradicating extremist content on their sites, because they're not. I'm not saying they're even necessarily doing everything they possibly could, because they're probably not. But I at least take heart in the fact that they're doing something. Hopefully those steps will continue and be amplified as people continue to call for social media to be more responsible. 

What can we do to deter the harmful effects of social media? Put pressure on the big companies to do more to responsibly remove extremist content. Be genuine about our own lives on social media. Create and/or join groups on social media dedicated to positive topics (like Jameela Jamil's I Weigh). Report inappropriate content on social media sites when you see it (because companies like Facebook and Instagram are still largely dependent on their users reporting things that should be taken off). 

-Alta

*Just a reminder that mental illness is very complex, and to say that it can be "caused" by social media is pretty simplistic

A:

Dear Velociraptor,

Hey there buddy, let's back that truck up. If you know anything about me, you know I know something about depression and anxiety, and it is reductive and harmful to say that something like social media can "cause" them. In fact, I just made it to year 20 of mental illness, and I can tell you that social media has helped me cope, not hurt me. I isolate a lot when I'm symptomatic, which is nearly all the time, but sometimes I can reach out to people who I only really know through the internet (including several Board alumni). At least I can scroll through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and remember that I have connections, that life is being lived outside of my bedroom and my office. So unhand those pearls on that account.

I think I get what you mean to say. Cyberbullying can be lethal and comparing ourselves to others is never helpful. But neither of those is the fault of social media, and feeling down because you think everyone else's manicured life is better than your manicured life is not the same thing as social media having caused depression or anxiety. Your words matter. Don't minimize the experience of having mental illness through carelessness. It isn't a good look.

- The Black Sheep