21 July 2024

Of hashtags and heartaches

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By: Alina Tasha Tamyas, Loke Wai Yan, Dr. Mohd Istajib Mokhtar

To those born after 2000, it’s hard to imagine a time without social media. Today, social media is an integral part in our daily lives, making it easy for us to connect with family, friends, and the global audience. In 2023, there were 4.9 billion estimated social media users worldwide and this number was expected to increase to 5.85 billion users by 2027.

Social media users are also actively utilising their social media platforms as an avenue for self-expression which helped spurred the creator economy as we had seen on TikTok and YouTube. According to one report, the industry size of the creator economy in 2023 was approximately USD 200 billion and is projected to surpass USD 600 billion by the end of 2036. Brands no longer rely solely on traditional advertisements because social media had given rise to influencers who will be willing to promote products to their loyal followers.

The traditional media giants that own TV, Radio and Newspapers are now joined by millions of media owners who are quick to report on news that would excite their followers, some on real-time. While social media had given rise to opportunities for people to connect, self-express and influence, it also presents some risks, particularly the ethical issues surrounding data privacy, misinformation and societal values.

Data Privacy

First is the issue of data privacy. In 2018, the world was outraged by the Cambridge Analytica scandal over the revelation that millions of Facebook users’ data had been harvested without their permission and was used for political advertising. Following that, Facebook was faced with multiple lawsuits in addition to the USD 5 billion penalty imposed by United States Federal Trade Commission. The scandal shook everybody as it demonstrated how easily our data can be misused by parties serving their self-interests. What seemed like a harmless app disguised as personality quizzes ended up amassing around 87 million Facebook profiles without their explicit consent.

The scandal sparked worldwide discourse on data privacy and prompted Facebook to implement changes to data privacy policies such as tightening app review processes, increased transparency regarding data usage and enhanced user data controls. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and Malaysia’s Personal Data Protection Act are some of the initiatives that are put in place to protect users’ data from the risk of being misused.

While the above initiatives provide stricter rules to companies regarding data privacy, individuals need to exercise precaution when using social media. People tend to forget that any information shared on social media may attract unwanted attention or even pose a safety risk. Information could be misused while identities could be stolen for online scams. Therefore, individuals should pay attention to the privacy setting of their social media, be mindful to limit the sharing of personal information and seek permission before posting pictures of others.

Misinformation

Misinformation is another ethical challenge that can cause significant harm. During the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation about the virus was extensively shared on social media. President Trump’s Twitter post about hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment caused many Americans to rush to obtain prescriptions, leading to shortages for those who needed it for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. This highlights the potential harm of unverified misinformation, exacerbated by social media.

In an age where everyone is a media owner, it is crucial to verify the sources of information. In Malaysia, combating misinformation falls under the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). Individuals caught spreading false information can face legal action under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). Additionally, the MCMC works with social media platforms to remove false content and block sites that spread misinformation. The website sebenarnya.my is an excellent platform for the public to verify the authenticity of information and report suspected false information, which is then investigated.

Superficial Culture and Mental Health

While social media promotes self-expression, it can also promote a superficial culture. Festive celebrations, once marked by genuine family gatherings, now often feel like staged performances for Instagram shots rather than true connections. The flashy filters of social media have dimmed the true spirits of celebration, replacing them with a shallow pursuit of likes and followers. The yearning for virtual applause can lead to serious issues concerning self-esteem, mental health, social isolation, and polarization.
Increased use of social media can lead to a constant desire to be connected, promoting negative experiences, especially among youths. Despite minimum age requirements, young children can easily create fake profiles to access these platforms. Social media companies are accused of designing algorithms to lure young people into harmful social media addiction. In June 2024, New York lawmakers passed a bill aimed at curbing the impact of social media algorithms on minors.

Ethical Issues

Ethical challenges in social media can significantly impact societal values in various ways in Malaysia. First, privacy breaches can undermine individuals’ trust in digital platforms, impacting societal norms regarding data protection and personal privacy. Similarly, misinformation and fake news can erode trust in institutions, media, and public figures, influencing societal credibility and trustworthiness. Moreover, ethical challenges in social media can shape the digital literacy skills of Malaysian youth, influencing their understanding and interaction with online information, privacy settings, and digital ethics.

Individuals need to understand the risks associated with sharing personal information online and learn how to manage privacy settings across different platforms. To prevent privacy leaks on social media, the government must regulate social media companies to be transparent about their data usage, including how user data is collected and used, strict penalties must be implemented for violations. Moreover, individuals should avoid sharing sensitive personal information online such as identity card number, bank card number and location.

To combat misinformation, the government plays a significant role in encouraging the use of fact-checking platforms to verify the accuracy of information, for example, the Malaysian government has launched a fact-checking website called Sebenarnya.my. In addition, the technology companies have the responsibility to curb the spread of misinformation, such as algorithms to detect fake news and design misinformation warning labels.

While social media has enriched our lives by enhancing connectivity, providing access to information, and fostering opportunities for self-expression, it has also introduced a host of ethical issues and challenges that demand attention. These include privacy concerns, the proliferation of misinformation, issues of addiction, online harassment, discrimination, and the complexities of content moderation. Combating the ethical challenges of social media communication requires a multifaceted approach which involves several stakeholders, including government, policymakers, social media companies, and civil society.

By prioritizing data privacy, preventing misinformation, and promoting good values, we can leverage the power of social media to drive positive societal change while also minimizing its negative effects on our communities.


The authors are from the Science Communication and Public Engagement Program, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya.