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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Social media: Our frenemy

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Twitter has massive global influence, as evidenced by the increase in the price of Dogecoin after Musk himself tweeted about it last year.

Social media has been integrated in our lives for so long that sometimes we forget just how much it influences us. Whether it’s a quick scroll through Facebook between classes, a glimpse at a friend’s private Snapchat story for the latest updates on their life, or an hour-long TikTok binge watching people from around the world do the same 60-second dance, we’ve become accustomed to connecting with others instantaneously — for better or for worse.

While learning about a student organization event through a Tufts class Facebook page or Snapchatting with an old friend who lives thousands of miles away may certainly improve our lives, the detrimental effects of social media are also evident. Such downsides have recently received significant news media attention. 

On Oct. 5, Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen testified to Congress about the negative effects she believes the Facebook app has on users. Haugen, who worked as a data scientist for just over a year between 2019 and 2020, claimed that, “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more.” 

Haugen’s testimony sparked a larger conversation about the impact social media has on mental and physical health as well as democracy. Professor Sarah Sobieraj, chair of the sociology department, weighed in. Recently, Sobieraj has been researching identity-based attacks online,most — but not all — of which are happening on social media platforms, not only on Facebook but also on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, among others.

“I work with women who might be, for example, journalists or pundits or public intellectuals, politicians, comedians… And absolutely I find that the abuse and the lack of attention to ameliorating the toxicity that’s present there takes its toll on women and, in particular, on women from marginalized groups,” Sobieraj said. “So if you are a queer woman, if you are a Muslim woman, if you’re a woman of color, if you’re all of those things, the abuse can be particularly burdensome and particularly ugly and usually centers your identities.”

According to Sobieraj, becoming the victim of identity-based attacks online can cause people to change the way they interact with social networking platforms.

“So the reason that’s significant and related to the Haugen quote that you just read is that it has a toll for the individual, but it also takes a toll democratically because what happens is, I find that the women who are experiencing this tend to withdraw from certain social media spaces or from public discourse… But even the ones who stay tend to self-censor and live in of fear of being attacked,” Sobieraj said. 

Sobieraj elaborated on the effects withdrawals from social media and self-censoring can have on democracy. 

“As a result, that shapes a number of things that are central to democracy, like journalism,” Sobieraj said. “I’ve worked with journalists who choose their stories quite carefully or don’t pitch certain ideas because they don’t want to write them because the blowback is likely to be too difficult… Since the burden is so high on people from underrepresented groups [and] women from underrepresented groups, the voices that we most need to hear are the ones that are most likely to be pressed out of those public spaces.”

Lillyana Simson, a Tufts first-year, has spent years avoiding social media and its negative effects. Simpson, a computer science enthusiast, spoke about her decision to largely stay off of social media. 

“I know how the algorithms work. They’re designed to kind of play off your emotions to keep you on the app as long as possible, and that normally includes using things like fear mongering and making you angry,” Simson said.

Simpson said the social media apps are designed to make the users feel bad.

“That’s kind of why I steer clear,” Simpson said.

Simson did, however, decide to use Reddit for a period of time at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic after being encouraged to do so by some friends, but she later decided to delete it.

“I quickly learned how addictive the system was… and then I obsessed over it for really long periods of time,” Simson said. “I got into some not-so-great LGBTQ Reddits and stuff that are very transphobic, so I just kind of cut it out of my life.”

Simson noted that a feeling of distrust was one of the most impactful and difficult takeaways from her Reddit experience. 

“I no longer fully trust the [LGBTQ] community after Reddit, and that’s kind of weird because I am part of it,” Simson said. “I’m trying to work on gaining my trust back because most people in real life aren’t that bad, but it’s kind of hard not to remember stuff that happened on Reddit.”

Unlike Simson, Lily McIntyre, a senior majoring in psychology and child study and human development, is a regular user of social media. This year, for her senior honors thesis, McIntyre is researching how social media may influence college students, though her specific focus is on TikTok. She is currently collecting responses for a survey about college students’ interactions withTikTok.

“The aim of my thesis is to investigate whether there is a relationship between some sort of change in self esteem in college students due to regular use of TikTok by browsing your For You Page,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre became interested in the topic after she noticed TikTok having mainly positive impacts on her own life after first downloading the app in fall of 2019.

“It’s very much you exploring content, usually made by strangers, about things that you’re interested about, and I really like that,” McIntyre said. “But when COVID happened, my use kind of changed. I became more reliant on it as an escapist measure … So for me personally, I’ve experienced majorly positive effects. I’ve learned so many new life skills.” 

While she has had a generally positive experience with TikTok, McIntyre also acknowledges the detrimental effects the platform, as well as other social media sites, exacerbates.

“It is really hard when you are a young person still establishing your own sense of self and seeing these people who are posting what I like to call their ‘highlight reels’ on social media. We all tend to do that,” McIntyre said. “So it’s unfortunate when people — myself included — compare those sort of ‘highlight reels’ to what I like to call your ‘blooper reels.’”

Balancing the negative and positive impacts of social media continues to be a challenge for both individuals and social media companies. Sobieraj offers some suggestions on measures she believes tech companies could take could help mitigate social media’s harmful effects.

“So if you think of a platform, like Twitter, if you have someone who either has been targeted for abuse already or is quite likely to be targeted for abuse, it doesn't seem insane to require Tweets that ‘@’ mention them to go into moderation before they go online,” Sobieraj said.“And I know that’s really countercultural because we’re in a moment where we publish and then filter. But if you have someone who’s at risk, it isn’t awful or unreasonable … to be more proactive in keeping that content offline all together.” 

Sobieraj also suggests requiring that new social media accounts be moderated for a certain time period or number of initial posts before being allowed to post completely freely. She says this could help prevent online attackers from constantly creating new accounts after theirs are reported and taken down.

According to Sobieraj, social media can be a powerful tool for visibility, especially for activists, which is partly why she suggests these measures.

“That’s the cruel twist, right, that, if you’re an activist — especially if you’re from a marginalized group — visibility is necessary and sometimes the most necessary thing to your ability to raise issues, change minds, persuade people,” Sobieraj said. “It’s especially heartbreaking that these same platforms are also the most dangerous for the folks who need them.”