Can social media be world-alteringly toxic?

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Take a few days and watch everything turn a little toxic.  At the moment, it’s all about the general election in the UK.  A week or two ago it was Greta Thurnberg.  In a few weeks, it could be Brexit or Trump.  It could be anything.  But, take a few days and watch.  Watch social media.  It’s the first part of the boat to rock.

As a Marketer, social media is probably our favourite thing.  It’s the swarming and pulsing landscape where we can watch our customers clamour and chat.  We get to see them in action; read their reactions.  We can pop into their conversations unannounced to join in and nobody tells you to butt out.  Because we are welcome there.

As a human, I sometimes wonder if we fully understand what lurks in the shadow of the monster we’ve created?

Social media predatory beacon

Someone once told me it was fun

People often talk about how social media exploded into our lives.  I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.  And, it depends on how old you are.

I am MySpace-is-the-best-thing-ever years old. 

Yes, back when everything was new and fun.  When the reasons for social media were just to promote your band or share some art and poetry.  Then Facebook came along, and even then, it didn’t change the world immediately.  At least it didn’t feel like it.

But it did grow.  And you could feel it growing.  People liked.  Friends shared.  Part of the fun was the search and collation of people you knew and had almost forgotten.  Long before the word toxic became a buzzword attributed to human behaviour, social media was a novel interest that people gravitated towards. 

It was like an angler fish waving its predatory beacon at us.  And we moved towards it.  By God did we move?

But, back then, we still had the option.  Until social media changed the world.

Photo Albums the cloud

Sometimes the world just seems so small

The beauty of being one of the older millennials, is that we can remember a time when the internet wasn’t an extension to the world.  When we had to do menial tasks like knock on someone’s door to see if they were busy.  We had separate phones and cameras back then too.  We were part of this revolution, the toxic transition into a social media world happened around us.

By the time Gen Z came squawking out, the world had already grown.  Millennials were so fixated with the shiny lights and what they do with it all next, that Gen Z was almost born into it.  They had never known a life without the social media monster growling at them from their YouTube videos.  And, in a very real way, the internet became part of the Gen Z geography.

They play games with their friends here.

Call on each other.

There are no photo albums anymore.  Just reels and slideshows of people in the cloud, living their lives in phones and laptops.  Sometimes, the world seems so much smaller than the online citadels and realms where Gen Z have begun to live.

And we’re digital marketers.  So, this should be a good thing shouldn’t it?

Toxic behaviour cyberbullying

Houses without walls.  Gardens without gates.

A new buzzword turned up a few years ago.  Cyberbullying.  A display of venomous behaviour continuing from the school playgrounds and into the bedrooms of hapless youngsters.  Social media had created a brand-new issue in security.  Not just the usual online dealing-with-the-trojans-I-got-from-LimeWire type security; but actual physical security.

Social media allowed these toxic barrages to follow victims through the streets and into their homes.  You couldn’t shut them out anymore, the houses had no walls, the gardens had no gates.  Even if you blocked one, it was easy to make newer profiles and message again.

Facebook, in particular, became an online version of the Zimbardo Stanford Prison experiment.  The detachment social media offered and its relatively new implementation into society, meant that people were more aggressive with their toxic commentary.

Despite there being a lot more awareness of cyberbullying, and organisations such as cybersmile campaigning to combat such issues, there are other areas social media is used that’s far from holistic.

Social media is part of reality

Confirming our most ardent fears

A good writer to point out the problems with Social Media is Katrina Loos.  Often she deals, quite eloquently, with the issues surrounding social media, her anxiety and the way in which her life is affected by both.  Her article Social Media Can Be Toxic – But Only If You Let It Be draws a nice comparison between social media and reality.

It’s writers like Loos that confirm our most ardent fears.  Social media is no longer aside from reality.  It’s part of it.  Reality isn’t some high ground where we physically perform our identities and social media is just some fun little tool in which we can play our music and games. 

Not anymore.

It has extended our world to another plane in which we can mask our visceral responses and edit our immediate reactions.  It gives us an outlet to engage with things that we might not be so confident in doing in the “real” world.

Social media perforates thin membranes of privacy

You have had the diagnosis.  Here are the symptoms.

It’s easy to write wishy washy paragraphs claiming that social media has changed the world around us.  But the symptoms are easy to recognise.  You only have to consider the interactions we now have with each other.

  • Politics: You might have, like many of us older millennials, been brought up to not discuss your political leanings.  We jealously guarded them and were warned that it was dangerous to talk about them out loud.  Now we actively wear them like a badge and discuss them.  Even the politicians are making use of social media to reach more people.
  • Socialising: Before social media was prevalent, social interaction was definitely physical or through the telephone.  Now Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp (among others) have become the primary way in which we forge relationships. 
  • Work life: The CV no longer speaks the loudest in your job interview.  How you purport yourself on social media is now a massive factor.  Employers are using Facebook and LinkedIn to scope out new employees.  You can be stalked by anyone, and everything from your political leaning to your religion can be found. 
  • Childhood: Can you remember the time when everyone met at the local park?  Or can you remember your door being knocked by a friend?  How all those things that Millennials and Gen X will complain is now lost from the childhoods of youngsters.  Much of what is available is dictating the ways in which children are interacting with each other.

Social media perforates the thin membranes of privacy surrounding our lives.  Through social media we are giving access to our private materials that even GDPR cannot protect us from.  The problem with this easy access is the damage that can be done.

Snopes is symptomatic of a toxic culture

Venomous truth, toxic ambiguity and misleading commentary

At the very moment this article is being furiously hammered out, damage is being done.

And, just for the record, it doesn’t matter what side you take.

The political climate surrounding a general election and Brexit is demonstrably toxic.  And yes, the delivery system is Facebook and TwitterSnopes has never been busier.  In fact, that we even need something like Snopes is symptomatic of the toxic culture that social media has wrought upon us.

It’s almost as if the very concept of libel has been eradicated from our legal systems.

Politics online has become a vapid distribution of character assassinations that must cut close to libel.  Reputation damaging memes are being created and distributed by political parties.  Entire quotes are being misappropriated, and even falsified, to mislead social media users. 

And, whilst social media outlets such as Twitter are being criticised for their behaviour, it’s obvious that millions of online users are hard to police.  Blocking and cancelling accounts for such behaviour doesn’t even begin to plug the dam.

To lay the blame for all social medias misuse at the door of politicians and misguided individuals alone is purely reductive.  As a marketing agency, I think it’s important to gaze inwards.

How is marketing exacerbating the toxic environment?

Social platforms populated by 13 and 18

Uh oh guys – now we’re talking about you.

Tobin Brogunier writes analytically on the subject of social media and toxicity.  And interesting point he makes is that “social media has become a marketplace first”.  In a sense, it’s capitalism put to work.  Social media users are just consumers.  Interacting on social media keeps them in the marketplace, and we as marketers, capitalise.

As Brogunier asserts “that means that that old promise of connecting people has evolved into a toxic, commercialized landscape that seems to have forgotten what it’s supposed to be about”.  Marketing breeds competition, and competitiveness.  It means keeping up with the Joneses.

In a place where we are supposed to be socialising, we are creating a pressure cooker of competitive jealousy.  Bearing in mind social platforms are populated by almost every person between the ages of 13 and 18, we are forcing products onto them.

Even more so, as we search for that glorious user-generated content, we are forcing people to advocate us for very little tangible reward.  The click and the like have become more important than the conscience or well-being of the user.

This needs to stop.

Cleansing the dangerous terrain

Cleaning up a toxic environment doesn’t happen overnight.  And no one person can change everything.  Recognising how prevalent social media is not enough.  It will take a collective to fix this.  But they are still shaking their heads with wistful misery and shrug their shoulders. 

Literally, our youngsters’ mental health is at stake.

As Josh Barrie points out, the “suicide rate almost doubles among teenagers”, and this has much to do with social media.  Calls for social media companies to accept “a duty of care” might not even scratch the surface. 

There are three groups that could cleanse the dangerous terrain that social media is becoming.

Protect users from toxic social

1. Marketers

There is no problem with marketers involving themselves with social media.  It can be used as a networking forum, and it can be used to generate conversations with their target market.  But between us all we need to decide upon an ethical way to do this.

We need to:

  • Create a comfortable and conversational environment in which the user can openly discuss their needs.
  • Consider and be aware of the demographics we are communicating with and make sure they are appropriate.  This is particularly important with age and mental health.
  • Make sure that we are not misusing any data we are collecting over social media and respect the users right to privacy.
  • Actively hold others to account on social media to help protect the users .
  • Support any new laws and help advise others of any reform that’s needed.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but as marketers we have a “duty of care” to our target audience.

Top politicians share misleading materials

2. The law

The fact a toxic environment can be created denotes that the law is ineffective in its reach.  It’s actively participating at times. 

As Amol Rajan argues “the clamour to better regulate the internet – that is, exercise democratic scrutiny over it – has grown exponentially. But in terms of new laws, the silence has been deafening

If top politicians can distribute deliberately spurious and misleading materials across the world, then we are setting a dangerous precedent.  Again, in the event of sounding like a broken record, this needs to stop.

The law needs to recognise:

  • Social media as a serious information distribution outlet. 
  • The need for stricter accountability of the user and/or entity sharing information.
  • That social media outlets need to be stricter with their policies upon sharing information.
  • The need to reconfigure the terms and definitions of scandalous and libellous behaviour to better fit social media.
  • That some protection is needed for the more vulnerable users, and create laws to reflect this.
  • Support is needed for the social media companies in preventing recurring toxic behaviour.
  • That there should be less differentiation between society, other forms of media and social media.

3. Social media companies

Lastly, social media companies should begin to recognise the problems with the way their platforms are being used.  Twitter may seem to have been actively trying to combat people using their platform to distribute political misinformation, it has been ineffective.

Policing so many users must be a verifiable nightmare for social media companies, however steps must be taken to protect their users.

Regulating the marketers, companies, and individuals and their usage needs to become a priority if they are to protect the most vulnerable users on the network.

Social media isn't perfect

Wrapping up

Perhaps this feels like an attack on social media.  The truth is, it’s one of the greatest inventions in the world.  The conversations it creates, the different ways in which people laugh and share, all of it is great.  When used with a conscience, it provides opportunity for everyone.  Everybody has, or should have, an equal voice.

This is ideal for marketers.  To be able to speak and laugh with people who would genuinely have an interest in you – glorious.  Why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?

But we can no longer pretend that it’s perfect, can we?  Doesn’t it need an overhaul, shouldn’t we be creating something together that can allow us to reach a target market and not create an environment of addiction, hate and all those other things that have become synonymous with social media?

It would be very interesting to read your thoughts on the matter, and to generate interesting debate and conversation on the topic.

Do you think social media is toxic?

3 Responses

  1. Coming from a time before even “Friendster” was the popular social media (and back then anyone who was anyone had a friendster) I have watched Social Media become more damaging to careers, in some ways, than beneficial. Take for instance my good friend Keith Allinson who was at one time fired from his job as a teacher of a grade school because of his Vegan and anti- animal cruelty beliefs which he posted on his personal Facebook page. He did not push these beliefs in the classroom, but stuck to the agendas laid out by the board of education. It was his advocacy posted on social media that caused him to lose his position. he has since been re-instated.
    The point in this article which struck me the most is when Adam says “WORK LIFE: The CV no longer speaks the loudest in your job interview. How you purport yourself on social media is now a massive factor. Employers are using Facebook and LinkedIn to scope out new employees. You can be stalked by anyone, and everything from your political leaning to your religion can be found. So that video of you wailing “Let it go” out of key has probably been seen by your prospective employer.”

    Nothing could be more true than the above. Manythings that are, in fact, illegal to inquire about in a job interview can easily be found on social media (i.e. religion, marital status even age). Will there become a time when we will no longer rely on resumes and CV’s? Just submit a social media account for review?

    Very interesting post Adam, well done. Many great points here. Will pass this along on my social media platforms.

    1. Ha, “Friendster” is even a little before me. You speak like the voice of experience. You are dead right to pick on that point Jeff, the more we use social media the less relevant a CV becomes. But is this a misuse of it? Sometimes I wonder.

      It’s like the whole Tattoo debate in some cases. You turn up to an interview in a nice shirt buttoned down to your wrists to conceal the eleven tattoos you have on your arms, but they are found on social media, and this stops you getting the job.

      Are we OK to determine what sort of professional you are based upon your personal? I am sorry to hear about your friend. It sounds like he got a rough deal there.

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