by Megan Harvey

You’ve just made a Facebook account and are trying to add your friends. Except you can’t find one friend’s account when you search her name. The next day she tells you that she has a fake name on Facebook so that when she posts something online it isn’t connected back to her. This allows her to be anonymous and void of the responsibility inherent of having her online actions affect her offline self. She can post things online without worrying if some find it offensive as her false online identity protects her offline identify.

The Internet has evolved drastically, allowing us to interact through vast online social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which often come with evolved forms of repercussions. By providing someone a space where they can hide behind a screen, they may feel more compelled to harass or offend, and assume a fake identity.

For example, in person Timmy might be shy and lonely, often cast out by his classmates, but when Timmy explores social media, he discovers that he can be whoever he wants. Timmy decides to use this to his advantage by tormenting his bullies online. This is known as the online disinhibition effect, and in this example, it can be seen how social media and the Web 2.0 the potential have to damage the public sphere through this anonymity.

In his article for the New York Times and a TedTalk, Jon Ronson explores the idea of public shaming, a rampant issue on social media. He tells the story of Justine Sacco, the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, who at the time had a modest 170 Twitter followers. She would often post witty or sarcastic tweets, as people do, knowing that it was just for her own amusement and the few people who followed her. Then one day during the 2013 holiday season as she was boarding a flight to Africa to visit family she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”.

Without knowing the context or intentions of the Tweet, it reads as objectively racist, and by the time Justine landed in Africa 11 hours later and turned her phone back on, she was the #1 worldwide Twitter trend. She had received death threats, rape threats, and had even been fired from her job, all because social media demanded it. What was maybe meant to be a critique on white privilege, turned into a Twitter spectacle, and Sacco was deemed by the social media mentality of judge, jury and executioner to be a racist. Twitter users were tearing her life apart, not knowing or caring whether the punishment fit the crime.

Ronson explains that social media has evolved into a public shaming sphere. People are more willing than ever before to ruin someone’s life, without even knowing them. It is examples such as these that push me to believe that social media damages public spheres.

I also feel as though there are many other ways that social media damages the public sphere. It can be used to distribute false information, like sensational tabloid media, which ends up with people confusing fact, fiction, opinion and conjecture.

The other day I watched a video on the production of the movie, 10 Things I Hate About You and I found out later that none of the “facts” were actually true. I have become a lot more suspicious about the news going around and often find myself having a hard time believing news platforms. As a society, how will we stay educated and informed if we are constantly being fed false and misleading information, just so a media outlet can get pull in a larger audience or get more likes on social media.

Although there are many negative aspects of social media platforms, it is important to know that there are obvious benefits and opportunities for society. It allows us to instantaneously connect with people all around the world, and with that connection spread ideas and knowledge. Additionally, there are many people who don’t have access to broadcast television or radio news but can find this content often shared on social media platforms.

When used positively and responsibly, social media can band together and provide incredible amounts of support, activism, and awareness. It is important to always remember not to believe everything we read or see, but to be critical, ask questions and actively seek answers. With all of this in mind, I believe that overall social media is beneficial, but only when used positively. So, next time you’re scrolling through social media, remember that if used properly and responsibly, it can be used for progress.