Every time I look at social media, it seems, I see someone proclaiming the dangers of social media. There are too many dark takes to list here, but key themes include Twitter spreading misinformation, Facebook helping Donald Trump win, Russia waging a social media war against the U.S., and filter bubbles ruining democracy. Basically, the argument goes, Facebook and Twitter are destroying America.
These are just a few storylines out of many, and some of them include valid points. But combined, they contribute to an overall impression that the internet does more harm than good. This wasn’t always the case. The media narrative about the internet appears to have come full circle, with one oversimplified take replaced by another. Where we once saw the internet as the catalyst to overthrowing dictators, now it’s seen as a tool of autocrats. Social media used to connect humanity, now it drives us apart. The onetime platform for courageous dissidents is now a breeding ground for terrorists, racists, and misogynists.
It’s not just the media making that case. Policymakers are also down on the web. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May wasted no time in blaming the internet for the terrorist attack in London earlier this month. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.” Now May plans to join forces with French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron in fining tech companies that do not take action against online extremism.
Even Barack Obama, known as America’s first social media president, has changed his tune. There was a lot of buzz about how social networks helped Obama get elected in 2008, and a sense of optimism about technology coursed through his administration. So it was striking that in his farewell speech, Obama mentioned social media just once, and the reference was negative. On social media, he said, we surround ourselves with people who “share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.” He referred to the internet as well, in an equally unflattering description. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet,” he said, “try talking with one of them in real life.”