December 16, 2020
Technology has brought the human species a multitude of useful tools. Through technology, people have been able to achieve things that seemed impossible, like renewable energy or going to the moon; but there is one piece of technology that has arguably done more harm than good. Social media “refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and/or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks” (Social Media Overview). Social media has been fueled by the evolutionary need for humans to be a part of a social group. People are able to create, share, like, and comment on content. It has allowed us to expand our social group to 500 Facebook friends or 10,000 Instagram followers. It also acts as a primary news source for many users, as well as a place to shop for a plethora of items. We often think of social media as a place to post a photo on Instagram or share a post on Facebook, but we never really think about how social media affects our political economy and is an agent for companies to practice unethical environmental procedures.
Social media has historically been used as a tool to connect people. In the mid 1900s, technology began to excel rapidly, and in the 1960s, the earliest form of the internet was created. By the 1980s, the average person was able to have a computer in their own homes, allowing them to have internet access. By 1997, the first social media platform, Six Degrees, was established and allowed people to make profiles and become friends with other users (Squires). By 1998, the search engine “Google” was created and it would change the internet forever. In 1999, the first blogging sites were created and many of them are still popular today (Hendricks). Between the years 2000 and today, a plethora of social media platforms were created and proliferated around the world. Some of the social media platforms that became popular and a significant part of peoples’ lives were Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Youtube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Vine.
The inner workings of the algorithms that make these platforms successful are incredibly complex and often require an entire team of technologists to create them. The accuracy of these algorithms are the reason why social media platforms have become so prolific. Many people would agree that social media is a place where we focus much of our attention. Whenever we use one of these platforms, our limited capacity for attention is used, and the technologists who create these platforms know this. The basic goal of all of these platforms is to take as much of our attention as possible. Some examples of how these platforms maximize our attention are the autoplay features on Youtube, the stories we can watch on Instagram, and the “discover” feature on Snapchat. The longer they have our attention, the more money they make and the more persuadable we become. These platforms are able to do this by showing us content that we want to see. Everything we do, see, like, dislike, tweet, retweet, share, comment on, and scroll past on these platforms are recorded and used to create a model of who we are. Once this model is created, algorithms can predict what we will do, how we will think, what we buy, and what we will feel (The Social Dilemma).
Many people believe that today’s political climate is among some of the most divisive in American history, and this is not without good reason. Social media platforms have been the epicenter for the propagation of fake news and conspiracy theories. Extreme conspiratorial claims from a fake pandemic and election fraud to flat earth and autism caused by vaccines have all been intensified through social media. While this may seem trivial, it comes at the cost of healthy politics and the planet. Social media platforms are incentivized to promote and propagate the most engaging content, especially when this content is polarizing and misleading (Ledger of Harms), because it generates the most activity. In the United States, the fact of climate change has become a political issue; people who subscribe to the truth of climate change are Democrats, and people who don't are Republicans. Social media works in such a way that the content a user is being shown is content he/she wants to see, even if that content is false. If a person has been seeking out information that describes climate change as a hoax, then the social media algorithm will suggest content to that user in the same vein. What social media will not do for this user is suggest content that will challenge the views of him or her; it will not show content that may disturb existing perspectives. The confirmation bias that social media presents to its users only cements existing political views and opinions, and in the U.S., these divisive views on climate change are polar opposites. The biases of content shown to users is especially dangerous to those who lack critical thinking skills. The false information shown is often the most profitable, so there is no incentive for these platforms to self-regulate it. According to the research paper “Climate Change Sentiment on Twitter: An Unsolicited Public Opinion Poll,” social media platforms are increasingly becoming a news source for many Americans. Scientists, scholars, educators, and a portion of the United States are aware that climate change is among the most urgent existential threats to the human race. But the rest of the country does not view climate change in this way. In the context of climate change (and other politically charged views), it has become abundantly clear that the country is operating from two different sets of facts, two sets of reality. There are the climate activists, and the climate deniers. There are people being shown the scientifically proven data of climate change, and others are being manipulated into believing that it is fake. How can this country expect to face the very real and urgent threat of climate change when we are operating on completely different bodies of knowledge? How can we begin the process of healing the Earth when we cannot decipher fact from fiction? How can we demand that lawmakers invest in clean energy and sustainable living when the lawmakers themselves have fallen victim to the falsities of social media? Governments need to come together to place restrictions on how much false information social media platforms can propagate. The two leading political parties in the U.S. must unify to address these issues. While people may argue that this false information is protected speech under the first amendment, should it also mean that it be spread at scale? There needs to be a limit to how much conspiratorial and false data the public can receive, especially when it comes at the cost of humanity and the environment. As Sacha Baron Cohen famously put it “freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
Social media not only makes it more difficult for us to address politically charged issues, it also promotes the culture of consumerism and materialism. It allows many companies to advertise at scales that have never been possible. Because content on social media platforms are targeted, especially ads, we are most likely to buy products that are shown to us through these platforms, especially since shopping has largely moved online during the pandemic. While many of these platforms show ads for everything from diet and skin products, to food subscriptions and home-cookware, I will be focusing on the advertisements of fast fashion. Social media has allowed the ads of fast fashion companies to reach an unprecedented number of people. Companies like Zaful, Fashion Nova, Shein, and Romwe have become the Forever 21s and H&Ms of the social media world. These companies sell cheap clothing, shoes, and accessories that are constantly being updated to match current fashion trends. Many of the materials they use to make products, such as cotton, polyester and various dyes are sourced in unsustainable ways. The manufacturing and production of cotton and polyester is often associated with significant health impacts (Bick et al.). The production of these clothing products pose threats to the local animals and people living nearby the production facilities. Wastewater containing untreated dyes will often be discharged into the local water systems, which can release toxicants and heavy metals (Bick et al.), possibly causing diseases such as “Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and Alzheimer’s disease” (Engwa et al.). In addition, cotton requires large amounts of pesticides to grow, while polyester is a derivative of oil (Bick et al.), which we know is harmful to the environment. According to the article, “The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion,” the fast fashion industry produces 8-10% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year, it consumes about 79 trillion liters of water each year, it is responsible for about 20% of industrial water pollution, and contributes about 35% of microplastic pollution in the oceans every year. According to Table 2.1 in “Environment and Society, Americans release the most carbon dioxide per capita, at 23.92 tons annually. In addition, the North American continent withdraws the most freshwater than any other continent, at 1,663 cubic meters per year per capita (Robbins et al.). Consumers need to start making decisions to stop buying clothing from these social media platforms, and instead buy from sustainable sources. Many of these platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook have made it incredibly easy to buy products directly from their sites, which contribute even more to the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry. As I have emphasized in the previous paragraph, governments need to begin to regulate these platforms more heavily, as there are currently minimal laws that regulate these sites. Government agencies must begin to place limits on how much companies can advertise on social media sites. There also needs to be limitations on how many of these advertisements a person can see in a day from the same company. Lastly, there should be restrictions on what kind of user data social media can sell to advertisers, so ads are not so precisely targeted.
In both of the lenses that have been discussed, political economy and environmental ethics, social media has played a key role in polarizing the country, as well as promoting companies that harm the environment. Social media platforms need to be held accountable for the type of content they can display. Governments have to implement laws and regulations on how much false information can be spread on these platforms, and how much advertising a consumer can receive.
Social media has the potential to do so much good when used correctly and ethically. As we have seen throughout the years, social media has been a place for people to share ideas about how we can move the country in a better direction. People from all over the world have come together through social media to promote some amazing causes, such as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, as well as (ironically) ways to combat climate change and promote body acceptance. It is important to recognize the bad and the good that social media poses, and be able to weed-out the bad. Restricting these social media platforms will not solve all of our issues. It will not end the political tensions in this country, nor will it end the harms of consumerism, but it sure would be a good place to start. As I firmly believe, there has got to be much more to the internet than social media.
“Social Media Overview.” Communications and Marketing , Tufts University Relations , 2020, communications.tufts.edu/marketing-and-branding/social-media-overview/.
Squires, David. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Social Media: History and Different Types of Social Media.” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Social Media: (But Were Too Afraid to Ask), University of Southern California , 24 Oct. 2016, scalar.usc.edu/works/everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-social-media-but-were-too-afraid-to-ask/history-and-different-types-of-social-media.
Hendricks, Drew. “The Complete History of Social Media: Then And Now.” Small Business Trends, Social Media , 25 Nov. 2019, smallbiztrends.com/2013/05/the-complete-history-of-social-media-infographic.html.
The Social Dilemma. Directed by Larissa Rhodes, performance by Tristan Harris. Exposure Labs, 2020. Netflix. Netflix.com.
“Ledger of Harms.” HumaneTech, Humane Center Center for Technology, 11 Oct. 2020, ledger.humanetech.com/.
Cody, Emily M., et al. “Climate Change Sentiment on Twitter: An Unsolicited Public Opinion Poll.” Plos One, vol. 10, no. 8, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136092.
Bick, Rachel, et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion.” Environmental Health, vol. 17, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7.
Engwa, Godwill Azeh, et al. “Mechanism and Health Effects of Heavy Metal Toxicity in Humans.” Poisoning in the Modern World - New Tricks for an Old Dog?, 2019, doi:10.5772/intechopen.82511.
Niinimäki, Kirsi, et al. “The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion.” Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, vol. 1, no. 4, 2020, pp. 189–200., doi:10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society : A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/humboldt/detail.action?docID=1582846.