By Adrian Johansen
In the United States, we have historically struggled to hear the voices of marginalized groups. Segregation, the lack of voting rights for women and minorities, and unfair working conditions are all issues that were solved democratically by listening to everyday people’s problems and addressing them. The more we listen to those who are disenfranchised, undervalued, or altogether invisible to the public eye, the more progress we make as a country and live up to our reputation as the land of the free.
In the last 20 years, America has seen an incredible boom in people who have access to a platform to air their grievances and issues with current policies. The rise of the internet gave birth to the social media services that have changed the way politics work around the world. Now, anyone living anywhere on the planet can express themselves, politically or otherwise, for better or worse.
Social Media in Politics
Whether we like it or not, social media is playing a huge role in American politics. The White House has taken to using Twitter in order to broadcast new and important information to the masses, bringing about questions regarding the first amendment rights of citizens who are blocked by the president after criticizing him. However, it has also provided those critical of the administration an arena in which they are able to reach hundreds of thousands of people in order to spread their message.
The internet and social media platforms have a profound effect on our everyday lives. Social media and the internet at large can change the way we behave by providing a level of anonymity that the outside world cannot match, and it can also change the way that we communicate with each other with 240 character limitations and the ability to block those we feel have unsavory views. There is no denying the impact that the interconnected information age is having on us, but not everything that it does for us is beneficial. The internet is still relatively young and was only politicized recently, so it’s long-term impacts on society have yet to be revealed.
What we do know, however, is that social media has the power to change the views of the masses on any given issue, regardless of facts. The contested and divisive presidential election in 2016 proved as much, sparking an investigation into foreign powers using social media to sway the election. This power that social media has over our decision making does not follow party lines either, as both Democrats and Republicans reported that something they had seen on social media changed their view, either positively or negatively.
There is a brighter light to be seen here, as social activism has never been easier thanks to social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all allow for immediate connection between activists, making the coordination of efforts and planning of protests that much easier. Activists no longer have to stand out on street corners to get their message out into the world because the ability to communicate with the world now sits in their pockets.
Take for example Planet Kratom, a social media group supporting kratom, a Southeast Asian plant with medicinal properties similar to widely-used and addictive opiates. The legality of kratom in the United States is in peril, as it is a relatively misunderstood plant that can have deleterious effects if used improperly. Activists argue that the leaves of a plant that belongs in the coffee family which offers an alternative for pain relief, affording people the ability to avoid addictive and deadly opiate derivatives, should be more closely studied before it is scheduled as a dangerous drug.
Additionally, the internet and social media has put us in direct connection with our elected officials. While in the past, writing to your local government or attending town hall style events was the best way to get your voice heard, the information age has brought us all into the same proverbial room. Contacting senators to show your support for an asbestos ban, or showing displeasure in policy at either a local or national level is as easy as directly messaging them on social media or tagging them in a post.
Social Media as a Commodity
Of course, social media has become so much more than a platform for political or social activism. With as much traffic as is being generated on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, it was only a matter of time before individuals and corporations figured out how to monetize and capitalize on this new technology. If you want to makeit big on social media, it requires that you follow trends, play into hype around people or products, and engage directly with your audience. Unfortunately, this gives social media influencers the attention of millions of impressionable people, and if they are careless with what they are promoting, there can be serious consequences.
If a social media influencer is simply in it for the money, they will have no problem endorsing anyone or any product for the right price. Even careless tweets by figures like Elon Musk or Donald Trump can sway markets or bring us to the brink of international war. This is because the power of social media and the interconnectedness that it brings us is consistently underestimated, often by the people who wield it with the most power.
However, the risks posed by social media platforms aren’t exclusive to influencers, politicians, or CEOs. As social media continues to grow, more and more people consider it to be a viable career choice. This results in these individuals investing more and more of not just their time, but themselves into social media. This opens them up to harassment, stalking, identity theft, and bullying, and can often lead to hacks of their personal and financial information. Social media has certainly changed the world around us, but being mindful about all of its impacts, both positive and negative, are essential as we move forward to ensure that the internet is not abused.
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