Is social media bad for society?

Saturday 17 November, 11:0012:15, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, StockholmBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm

The rise of social media services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram show how useful many of us find these new means of communication. Around half the population of Sweden uses Facebook, the most popular service, which has over two billion active users worldwide. Not only can we keep in touch with friends and family, but we can make new connections and share everything from political commentary to videos of cute kittens.

However, criticism of social-media companies and concerns about the impact of social media more generally have come to the fore recently. Social-media companies are accused of relentlessly bombarding us with advertising, selling our data, undermining our privacy, avoiding taxes and exploiting monopoly positions to wield huge power. Campaigners worry that the lack of privacy is enabling greater surveillance by the state, too. Social media firms are also accused of doing too little to prevent the spread of ‘fake news’ and unpleasant content. There has been a furore around the way Facebook has allowed the targeting of political messages, based on combining online and offline data, both in the US election campaign and in the UK’s Brexit referendum.

Beyond the particular behaviour of the companies themselves, social media has been blamed for a variety of social problems, particularly mental-health issues among younger people, from worries about ‘body image’ to online groups that encourage self-harm. Perhaps most importantly, social media services are accused of exacerbating the polarisation of political debate, with users tending to only interact with like-minded people and increasingly responding to their political opponents with insults or even demands for censorship. There are also worries about the way that right-wing political parties like the Sweden Democrats and Hungary’s Jobbik have been able to make use of social media to gain a wider following.

Is social media really to blame for these trends, or does social media merely make them more visible? Should we be concerned about powerful private companies increasingly deciding what is and is not acceptable on their platforms – effectively filtering what we can see and read? Is this another in a long line of new technologies becoming the focus of criticism? Whether it is keeping an eye on what our children see, taking care about what we share online or learning to spot fake news, is it our responsibility to become smarter about how we use social media? Can we solve the problems of social media without losing the benefits?