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Re-evaluating our relationship with social media: the impact of online safety, trust, data and reputation

April 2023
 by Barney McCarthy

Re-evaluating our relationship with social media: the impact of online safety, trust, data and reputation

April 2023
 By Barney McCarthy

Many people’s relationship with social media goes no deeper than idle distraction on the morning commute, restaurant recommendations, or trying to avoid spoilers for the latest series they are bingeing. For those at the other end of the spectrum, from influencers whose livelihood is linked to online views, to individuals based in remote locations who are reliant on the platforms for social connection, it is far more important.

However, for both casual and committed consumers of social media, concerns around online safety, trust, data and reputation are mounting. High-profile events including Musk’s recent Twitter takeover, Lineker’s social media furore, studies linking social media and mental health (particularly in teens), and the ban of TikTok on UK government devices due to security fears, have led many social media users to re-evaluate their use of, and relationship with, the platforms.

Data security and governmental scrutiny

This uncertainty has extended to the corridors of power, with concerns about the potential vulnerability of government data and sensitive information being accessed by social media providers leading UK Cabinet Office ministers to order a security review. The upshot of the probe was a strengthening of government policy on the management of third-party applications, and a precautionary ban of the use of TikTok on government devices – a decision in line with similar restrictions introduced by the European Commission, as well as the US and Canadian governments.

TikTok has come under particular scrutiny in the US, with CEO Shou Zi Chew recently grilled for four hours at a congressional hearing. Among the back and forth was a confession from Chew that engineers from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance do have access to data, although China’s foreign ministry later claimed that it does not ask companies to provide data or intelligence located in other countries.

The TikTok supremo also pushed back on the notion that the opaque use of data was unique to his platform or territory, citing the controversy around British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook users’ personal information in 2018.

The TikTok ban is the latest step in an ongoing dispute between the West and China over data privacy issues. This feud has previously manifested itself in suspicion around the manufacturers of surveillance cameras, and the ban of telecoms giant Huawei from the UK’s core communications infrastructure.

It also draws parallels with the FaceApp controversy in 2019, when concerns were raised that the viral Russian face-ageing app was actually a nefarious way of collecting photos and data from unsuspecting users, although the truth proved to be somewhat more complex than initial suspicions.

Social media and online safety

TikTok is not the only tech platform lined up in the governmental crosshairs. WhatsApp’s USP has long been the end-to-end encryption it uses to securely send messages so that only the senders and receivers can see them, with the service itself – owned by social media conglomerate Meta – unable to gain access. While this has seen it lauded by security experts, government officials want the encryption weakened so that messages can be vetted for illegal content. The upcoming Online Safety Bill could force WhatsApp to weaken this user protection, a move it has thus far refused to consider, in a stand-off that could potentially render the platform illegal in the UK in future.

Social media giants are also facing a growing body of evidence linking social media usage to a rise in depression in children and young adults. Suicide among those aged between 10 and 19 in the US surged by 46% between 2010 and 2020, a timeline many consider is too closely mirrored by the explosion of social media to be coincidental. 

As with any product or service used by millions around the world, consideration for the mental health impacts is important, and calls for increased focus on this are mounting. An interesting disparity to note on this front is in the differences between TikTok and its Chinese domestic equivalent, Douyin. The latter not only includes modes that limit usage by younger users, but also features more educational and inspirational content, a notion not lost on some Western commentators.

Reputation and freedom of speech

For businesses, social media has many benefits – it enables them to market their products and services in new ways, forge bonds, and create communities with customers. However, it is also fraught with danger: with a badly-written tweet from a company or a representative, they can quickly become the victim of cancel culture, which can have a major impact on their reputation and their business.

Many companies have social media policies, with the justification that their employees are representing them when posting online. But for individuals, including staff and those affiliated to a company, there are arguments that their views on social media should be considered their own, and they should not be restrained by the rules of a company they work for when they are posting on their personal social media accounts. The sensitivities around this were brought into sharp focus by the recent Gary Lineker furore. That particular saga showed that even organisations as large as the BBC have struggled to strike the right balance on the thorny issue of staff social media usage.

Trust issues

For many social media users, the relationships they have formed with platforms have been eroded by trust issues over the years. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has seen devotees of the platform become frustrated with outages, subscription alterations and format changes that weren’t quite what they signed up for – and media coverage claiming Musk has treated Twitter staff badly is increasing the sentiment of mistrust towards the platform and its owner. The aforementioned Cambridge Analytica scandal caused Facebook users to become more wary of sharing their data, and every platform has had its own trials and tribulations to contend with surrounding trust, data use and online safety.

The rise of AI and chatbots has also raised concerns – this new tech may enhance the user experience in search functionality, but when it comes to the intersection of where big tech meets social media, there are deeper questions and risks around authenticity and integrity.

Our future relationship with social media

So what does the future hold for social media platforms battling to stay relevant for users while navigating privacy, security and ethical conundrums?

In the same way social media has come on leaps and bounds since the days of Friendster, MySpace and Bebo in the early part of this century, the future looks similarly unpredictable. Every time a single platform such as Instagram seems to establish an unassailable popularity, a disruptive challenger such as Snapchat or TikTok captures the public’s affection.

One thing that seems guaranteed in future is that users are less likely to be swayed by filters and functionality and more likely to be concerned with how their data is being used and how apps can fit around their lives, rather than the other way round. The basic human needs for information, interaction and social connections – not to mention being up to speed with the latest water-cooler chat – means there will always be a potential market for new platforms and upgrades to existing models. But as users become more aware of the risks that come with social media usage, the powers that be will have to tread a more delicate line than ever before.

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