Social media has become integral to our lives – for better and worse. The advantages of our access to a wide variety of social media platforms include: better, faster communication with family and friends, the ability to connect with like-minded individuals on any topic under the sun, and vehicles for politicians and citizens to be heard by each other.
The downsides of social media are increasingly the topic of discussion fueled by world events such as the January 6th uprising, the Me Too Movement, and the war in Ukraine. Below are a few concerning issues related to the explosion of Social Media platforms and their usage.
Propaganda and Fake News
The reality today is that more and more of us get our daily news from Social Media, as evidenced by the dramatic fall in newspaper circulation and news audience shares. This especially applies to young citizens who live in a world where they do not have to search for news actively. Instead, they rely on news to find them through push mechanisms on social media platforms.
The problem is that modern social networks rarely have built-in functions for verifying the veracity of the specified sources; the rule is that the more scandalous the headline, the better. Politicians understand this very well in their election campaigns.
In 2020, researchers were surprised to find that in 79% of cases, users themselves did not open the links they shared. This eloquently demonstrates the indiscriminate nature of the Internet audience: the reason for a repost can be a portrait of a favorite political figure, a flashy headline, or a loud statement. In the end, everything is just a game of emotions.
Nevertheless, by reacting to a fake post or a manipulation with a negative comment, like, or share, we disperse this information to countless others. Furthermore, the more often we hear or read a statement, the less critically we perceive it. Thus, it turns out that we believe in things that initially caused the rejection over time.
It is said that all means of battle are good in war. But today, the winners of war are not the owners of the largest armies equipped with missiles and bombs, but those who can shape storylines, influence our interpretation of events, cause specific reactions that prompt action, and generate bonds very similar to personal ones.
In 2018, at the Munich conference, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "We have all heard accusations that Russia secretly used social media to influence the results of elections in France, Germany, Ukraine, and - most famously - in the United States. According to Facebook estimates, Russian content on this social network, including posts and paid advertising, reached 126 million Americans, approximately 40% of the country's population.
We should mention the accusations made earlier by Russia about the role of the West in inciting ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. The Internet and social networks seem to have become the new battleground for the covert manipulation of public opinion."
Propaganda and misinformation appear to be the norm on many social media networks, negatively impacting an unwitting audience.
Populism is another cancer exacerbated by modern social networks. It can be defined as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that established elite groups disregard their concerns. Politicians have always used the opportunity to win the favor of citizens with simple words. However, the popularity of social networks worldwide and the instant access to the public have reformatted this tool from one that strengthens democracy and freedom to a means of destruction, division, and a weapon of populists.
John Postill, in his study "Populism and social media: a global perspective," notes that "each country has its reasons for the rise in popularity of populism. This is destruction, erosion of traditional cultural values, economic instability, fear of migrants, war, terrorism."
In social media, trending, tweeting, and retweeting are critical metrics of success in communicating a particular message; however, they can be manipulated, bought, or faked to create the impression that a specific issue represents the opinions of the majority.
The reality, though, is that these messages are designed to appear as truth. Thus, political agendas such as populist ideologies, among others, can be manipulated as original or authentic when this is not the case. Quite often, crazy ideas, lies, and conspiracy theories spread more rapidly than facts through social media. Subsequently, when information is fact-checked, the damage is already done and remains irreversible. 
Social media bots (i.e., botnets, bots) are automated accounts that act as if an actual person is using them. Bots are often used for propaganda from within and outside a country.
They are designed to manipulate the passage, transfer, and volume of the social narrative, making them ideal for spreading homogeneity, as opposed to diversity, within their messages.
This inherent functionality is why bots are frequently used to spread propaganda.
Message distribution via botnets is widespread due to the fanaticism of select users who demonstrate an insatiable desire to consume and redistribute information despite the source. Many of these messages carry divisive narratives that tend to transform civic engagement into dichotomies, pitting one group of people against another without allowing for consensus or compromise. Furthermore, fake news websites and bots attract traffic and drive engagement. Collectively, they aim to influence conversations and demobilize opposition through false support. 
Politically, bots are very often used in the run-up to elections, where they incite people to vote for one of the candidates while at the same time throwing dirt on the other. They are also a tool in modern wars. Not all people possess the so-called information literacy and are often skillfully manipulated by bot-spread misinformation and propaganda. Bots within the social media milieu may hold democracy hostage instead of leading to the free and equal democratic ideals social media is supposed to support.
It is not a surprise that hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence against politicians, police, and minorities, that includes mass shootings, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing. Social media platforms have been weaponized to foment hateful rhetoric with deadly consequences. Often singled out is Facebook.
Contrary to popular belief that Facebook is a friendly forum to connect with family and friends, it encourages hate speech and anger among users to make money.
This was reported on CBS News by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who previously provided Facebook documents to The Wall Street Journal and filed complaints with federal law enforcement agencies.
The complaints say Facebook's research shows the social network fuels hate, misinformation, and political unrest, but the company hides what it knows. Haugen described the social network as so committed to product optimization that it has embraced algorithms that amplify hate speech. While working at Facebook, she saw "a conflict of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And again and again, Facebook decided to optimize its interests, for example, to make more money."
Of course, many other social media platforms fuel the flames of hate speech, including Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and WhatsApp. The pressure is on for these companies to develop and consistently implement policies that curb hate speech without limiting free speech.
"Social media is quickly turning into a primary security weak point. A single data breach within one of the major social media networks can result in millions of records being stolen. Within the past few years, we have seen multiple large-scale data breaches involving companies like Facebook and Twitter," reported Edward G, Cybersecurity Researcher, and Publisher at Atlas VPN. According to research by his firm based on the 2022 Forge Rock Consumer Identity Breach Report, he says that Social Media data leaks account for 41% of all records breached in 2021, up from 25% in 2020. A frightening statistic.
Another common type of illegal, destructive data leak activity within social networks is the unauthorized collection and analysis of personal data.
TikTok, as an example, has been back in the news recently, with the New York Times reporting that 'politicians are being advised against using the popular social media app as questions swirl about how its Chinese parent company monitors personal data.' The fear for several years is that TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party and is bound by Chinese law to comply with its surveillance requirements, thus putting American users' data at risk. While the company, trying to counter these concerns, said it will store all US data only on servers in the US and delete backups in Asia, the problem remains the App might harvest sensitive data that can be leaked to the Chinese government.
The social network Facebook was at the center of one of the biggest scandals in its history after it was revealed that the personal information of 50 million people fell into the hands of the British firm Cambridge Analytica, a company that many believe assisted in the campaign of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.
In its official statement, Facebook says it is outraged by how it was deceived in its use of Facebook data. Mr. Zuckerberg has admitted that his social network made mistakes in its work with Cambridge Analytica.
In fairness, data leakage is not only a problem for Facebook. It also occurs with LinkedIn, Clubhouse, Google+, Twitch, and many others.
Is Social Media A Place For Political Discourse?
Social media platforms represent a critical space for political discussions and movements, such as #MeToo or #RussiaIsATerroristState.
In particular, Politicians must use social networks to connect meaningfully with citizens. Barack Obama was one of the first politicians to use Social Networks to connect with voters just before his election as US President in 2008. It has become a cornerstone of every serious campaign strategy since then.
Studies have shown that platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter can help citizens become more politically active. This is especially true for Generation Z and millennials, whose political socialization is closely linked to the existence of social networks. Their protests are organized on Facebook, their zero-waste lifestyle photos are shared on Instagram – and if they ever reach out to a politician, they use Twitter.
Clearly, Social Media is here to stay as a vehicle for connecting individuals, politicians, and political movements.
Given some of the negative issues noted above, we do not encourage you to leave social networks. That is impossible. The Internet and the development of social media are an integral part of our lives and have changed the terms of the debate about freedom of speech worldwide. Misinformation and hate speech vs. rational, productive discourse. Evil vs. force for good.
There has always been lousy information, propaganda, and misinformation deliberately spread to influence political or others' agenda outcomes. The traditional defense of free speech has been the marketplace of ideas. If there is insufficient information, the solution is not to censor or regulate it, but to release good information that will eventually counterbalance the bad. More information is always better.
Nevertheless, it is unclear whether that strategy works well in the Internet age, where thousands of bots can spread fake news without users knowing it. Platforms' business models exacerbate the problem, with algorithms that optimize virality and accelerate the transmission of conspiracy stories and controversial posts.
Having a pen on the table, we can use it to write a letter, take notes, or poke a hole in something. Everything depends on our desires, needs, and values—the same is true of social networks. We can spread interesting information, hate, troll, or scroll through the feed. Describing social networks as terrible is both true and false because it depends on who uses them and how. In the end, technology should be a tool, not a weapon.