In my new book, “My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open’, I tell the story of Amna, a young woman who found herself the target of online abuse. She is just one of the many millions of women who have found social media to be an increasingly unsafe space. Amnesty International’s 2017 Troll Patrol found that women are 27x more likely to be victims of online trolling and abuse than men, and that black women are 84% more likely than white women to be targeted.
It’s an issue that causes thousands of women to leave the jobs they love and to stop participating in the digital world, overwhelmed by the volume of online abuse they battle every day. According to the Coalition Against Online Violence, 73% of women journalists have experienced online violence, while one-third are currently considering leaving the profession completely due to online attacks and threats.
Quit social media and leave the trolls behind?
Social media “pile ons” have grown in frequency and severity over the past couple of years. But one of the features of the digital voyeurism that social media encourages is a disinclination to examine what our own role might be in the surge of abuse online.
While researching my book, I discovered that while only 45% of US adults had heard the term “troll” and knew what it meant, 28% admitted they had carried out malicious online attacks against someone they didn’t know. That’s more than one in four adults. The online disinhibition effect, first identified in 2004, means we all feel safer saying things on social media that we wouldn’t dream of saying in real life, immune from repercussions and consequences as we type behind our little glass screens.
Online disinhibition, combined with the insatiable demands of the attention-based economy, resulted in social media platforms becoming even more polarised and angry spaces during the pandemic – toxic places to hang out when we had few other alternatives. In the months we all spent glued to our screens, tribalism exploded as lockdown advocates and sceptics, anti-vaxxers and vaccine adopters all clustered in opposing camps, hurling abuse at each other. Intensely personal social media recommendation algorithms echoed each group’s views back at them, further entrenching positions.
What filter bubbles do to us
The existence of online “filter bubbles”, where we only see views we agree with, has been endlessly debated. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg disputes their prevalence. The Reuters Institute at Oxford University says it has found five different studies worldwide since 2014 that show either “no, or weak, evidence” for their existence, two that show “mixed evidence” and none so far for very strong evidence.
However, the Split Screen tool from the data-driven non-profit newsroom The Mark Up shows, in real time, how very different hashtags, groups and news stories are presented by Facebook’s recommendation algorithm to The Mark Up’s panel, depending on whether they are Biden voters or Trump voters. If we’re all viewing intensely personalised versions of the news every day, no wonder we react in horror when we encounter people, online and off, who don’t think exactly like we do.
There’s bad news if you think you can bust out of your personal filter bubble while still continuing to use social media. One US study found that if Twitter users were deliberately exposed to tweets from people of the opposite political persuasion, their attitudes actually began to harden, and they became even more polarised and entrenched in their opposing camps. Several studies over the years posit that this may be to do with what happens when we read words without hearing the tone of the accompanying voice – another reason why social media, particularly Twitter, is not the best place to debate or resolve arguments, or to try to understand each other better.
Understanding each other better is also not helped by the tsunami of disinformation that floods our social platforms. The Oxford Internet Institute says that more than 80 countries across the world are now involved in generating online disinformation. It’s a problem social platforms have been reluctant to acknowledge and painfully slow to tackle.
The toll on our mental health
Abuse and disinformation on social media should make you angry, the mental health issues should make you weep. Former Facebook president Sean Parker has described the platform as a “social validation feedback loop”. Filter bubbles and fake news may mess with our view of the world, but social validation and comparison culture mess with our view of ourselves.
Study after study has shown strong correlation (if not causation) between increased social media use and declining mental health. Time away from social media has been linked to improvements in happiness, with researchers in Denmark finding that a group of daily Facebook users who quit social media for a week reported a 55% reduction in stress.
But the problems being encountered by those who have grown up with social media are the most troubling of all.
In one 2017 UK study, 52% of teens said social media made them feel less confident about how they looked, or how interesting their lives were. Ofcom’s Online Nation 2021 found that while the internet was a vital lifeline in 2020, nine out of 10 UK 12- to 15-year-olds who used social media, or chat and messaging apps, said they felt “pressure to be popular” on those sorts of apps or sites our youngest users are telling us that social media can often feel more like a prison than an escape. Frances Haugen’s testimony appears to show us that Facebook have been aware of this all along.
It’s not all bad
Of course, social media is not all bad. We would have a far less complex relationship with it if it was.
Social media has helped marginalised and disenfranchised groups find each other, rallying around hashtags such as a#MeToo and #BLM. But has “clicktivism” encouraged us to think that simply retweeting a hashtag or posting a black square on Instagram will eliminate inequality in the world? We’re going to achieve very little if it has.
Does social media merely reflect who we are?
Big Tech says that social media simply reflects us as we are – that these are all problems of being human, not problems of social media. But, we have boundaries, laws and consequences offline to keep the very worst impulses of our human behaviour in check. Boundaries and laws are, as yet, painfully absent online. We can all see the result.
The past few years have seen a number of high-profile, formerly enthusiastic users quit social media for good. Increasingly, others are using social media sparingly – and consuming it cautiously. If we find we just can’t quit social media, that feels like the healthiest social media recipe for all of us.
For more about how social media is changing the way we live, learn and love, and what we can all do about it, pick up a copy of my new book.