In the midst of an active war zone, social media has once again become the platform through which the world is exposed to unimaginable violence and cruelty. The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, including innocent children and the elderly. These gruesome scenes have become tragically familiar, as war and media have always been intimately linked throughout history.
The Gulf War served as a harbinger of the influence of media on public perception, as CNN’s 24/7 cable-news format showcased the power of infotainment, foreshadowing its pervasive influence on politics and culture for the next two decades. From the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, social media platforms have democratized punditry and journalism, both for better and for worse. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia even earned the moniker of the “first TikTok war” as Ukrainians documented the horrors of war through personal, surreal videos.
If conflicts serve as windows into our information environment, then it must be acknowledged that our current information environment is in disarray. The infrastructure of social media platforms is poorly maintained, and their billionaire owners have forsaken the idea that their platforms should serve as sources of reliable information. Elon Musk, owner of X, has actively engaged with doctored videos on his platform and endorsed accounts that spread false information and express anti-Semitic sentiments. Hamas officials have acknowledged that they have utilized the lack of moderation on X to terrorize Israeli citizens by posting violent and graphic content. Meanwhile, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram and the lead on the company’s Twitter clone, Threads, has refused requests to make his platform more useful for following the war. This breakdown in responsibility and accountability on major social platforms has created new cracks in an already crumbling foundation.
As a result, users have sought alternatives outside of the major platforms such as Bluesky and Mastodon, while others have simply left altogether. Despite the plethora of information available on the internet, reliable sources have become increasingly scarce. One-stop destinations like Facebook and Twitter are no longer viable options. The once aspirational global town square offered by social media has now fallen into disarray, overgrown by a chaotic jungle of information. While this transformation may have long-term benefits, it currently engenders a sense of complete chaos for those still clinging to these ailing platforms.
This transformation has not occurred by accident. Elon Musk has systematically dismantled X’s previous infrastructure, including the verification system for public figures and journalists. His actions have led to a diminishing level of trust and safety on the platform. Verification badges can now be purchased by anyone to increase their visibility, resulting in the inclusion of scam artists and purveyors of disinformation. Musk has also reinstated accounts that were previously banned for violating rules. In a poorly timed decision, X recently removed auto-populating headlines from news stories, further eroding the legibility and reliability of trusted media sources on the platform. X has essentially become a deepfake version of Twitter, a distorted imitation of its former self that disorients and terrifies users.
Facebook and its parent company, Meta, have also contributed to the decline of social media as a reliable source of news. They have altered their news-feed algorithm to prioritize personal posts over news media, resulting in a flood of misinformation complaints. Facebook’s user base has dwindled, and its transparency reports have shown that the most popular content on the platform is often viral garbage and clickbait. As a result, audiences have become increasingly fragmented, with news reaching them through siloed channels. Younger generations have turned to influencers and creators on Instagram and TikTok as their trusted sources of information.
The previous state of social media was deeply flawed. While these platforms excel at creating a sense of connection and providing information, they often sacrifice accuracy and reliability in the process. The constant barrage of information can also take a psychological toll on users. Personal experiences of witnessing beheadings and war crimes through screens should not be a prerequisite for staying informed about the world.
The exchange between Adam Mosseri and journalists regarding news on Threads highlights the complexity of the situation. Mosseri’s reluctance to transform Meta into a safe space for journalism is understandable given the company’s history of political unrest and propagandistic influence. However, it is also reasonable for people to expect more from these organizations that have monetized our attention and influenced the way we access information. The calls for alternative platforms stem from a sense that a fundamental promise has been broken. In exchange for our time, data, and well-being, we entrusted social media platforms to provide an unparalleled view of the world.
Social media is not merely a conduit for information or misinformation. It serves as a space for witnessing, expressing solidarity, and advocating for change. However, these activities have become increasingly difficult in recent times. The future of social media remains uncertain, but it is important to consider the possibility that the era of social media as we have known it for the past 15 years may be coming to an end. The once widely open window to the world is now being forcibly closed.
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