Death By Social Media

Throughout the 21st century, we have witnessed remarkable growth in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and in particular the emergence of social media being a key development.

The development of mobile technology has contributed immensely to ICT by making social media more accessible to the everyday person. With time and location not being constraints on these platforms, billions are able to live their lives online. While at first glance, easy accessibility and freedom on social media platforms can be viewed as a blessing, an in-depth examination reveals otherwise. 

Traditionally, public messages were composed by skilled and qualified journalists, sworn to the sacred oath of journalism and professionalism. However, with the emergence of social media, every individual is conferred the ability to dispense information to a large group of people without being saddled with the responsibility of information verification and accuracy. The implication of this is that unlike journalists who are trained specially for this purpose, the members of the public are likely to dispense information carelessly and without verification. While these online platforms allow for people to freely express themselves, what happens when a ‘freely made speech’ by one person eventually chokes another to death?

A study by New York Times Consumer Insight Group revealed some motivations that youths have cited for sharing information on social media. This includes the desire to reveal valuable and interesting content. Online platforms reward accounts with higher followers. For example, when a user has at least 10,000 followers on instagram, it becomes easier for people to access your website via Stories through the swipe up to link feature. Also, accounts with a huge number of followers attract advertisers who pay users to publicise products and services. People are therefore under pressure to gain more followers.

Another reason given by people for sharing information on social media is the opportunity to define themselves. Social media allows a person to paint a picture of himself based on how he wants to be perceived by the general public. This creates a sort of alternate universe or dream world for those unhappy with their lives as they are given the opportunity to edit and Photoshop as many qualities as they consider ugly about themselves. It is not uncommon to find people living the entire opposite of their reality through social media. Therefore, like the use of hard drugs that can give people a sort of ecstasy, social media can prove addictive through its ability to create an escape route or ‘safe space’ from the harsh realities of life. 

Other reasons given for sharing information on social media platforms include to grow and nurture relationships, promote various brands and other causes they support and many more. For the 21st century youth, social media has evolved from being just a means of keeping in touch with friends and family to being used in ways in which it has a real impact on the society. Social media has also shaped politics with politicians using it as a platform for campaigning and canvassing for votes, businesses with various entrepreneurs using it as an awareness tool for their various products, world culture, innovations and more.

The Deadly Effects of False Information

No matter how trivial it may seem, misinformation can be deadly. For example, it is no news that our world is plagued by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is also no news that there are people who still live in denial of this disease. Social media played and continues to play a major role in the propagation of conspiracy theories regarding the virus. With the spread of misinformation, millions of people around the world who ignorantly and without proper verification choose to believe in the non-existence of the Coronavirus are encouraged to disregard safety measures and protocols thereby endangering the general public. The same is true of the vaccinations developed in a bid to combat the virus.According to a statement released by the Director-General of the World Health Organization , Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, vaccine misinformation across social media platforms could undo the decades of progress made on preventable diseases thereby posing a global threat. Sadly, the world mourns those who have lost their lives as a result of Covid-19, including those that mistakenly dispute the existence/danger of the virus.

On the 6th of January 2021, rioters invaded the United States Capitol building. This attack was fueled by electoral fraud allegations made by supporters of the Trump administration and Donald Trump himself. Social media platforms were used in spreading misinformation and inciting violence. According to the New York Times, five people lost their lives during this riot. Owners of social media platforms were instantly called out notably on the same platforms through which this violence was incited. This has resulted in the ban on President Donald Trump’s social media account on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube among others. Arguably, the five lives lost would have perhaps been saved if social media platforms were better regulated to stop the spread of misinformation. 

Cyber Bullying and Suicide

Cyber bullying has become rampant in the modern world as people are constantly insulted on social media platforms especially through anonymous social media accounts. Research has shown that 40% of cyber bullying victims end up committing suicide due to emotional trauma.  Contrary to popular belief, suicide is not solely an individual act but can be caused by social factors. This is supported by the findings of French sociologist; Emile Durkheim in his text titled “Le Suicide”, published in 1897, whose studies showed that suicide can be a result of factors the levels of social integration. Hence, when a person feels accepted by the society, he is less likely to commit suicide.

According to a study by Alishahi A et al. in March 2019, social networking has created a wide range of identity crisis among youths. It has become easy to carefully construct pieces of fake happiness and put them on the screen to stay relevant. This craze for acceptability is toxic in itself and it is alarming what people are willing to do in order to gain a bunch of likes and follows even at the expense of another’s life.

Mean comments from other social media users can easily lead another user into depression and eventually result in suicidal tendencies. It is not impossible for online harassment to be accidental. Online bullies sometimes are unaware of the fact that they hurt recipients of their hate messages simply because they do not see the hurt on the faces of those at the receiving end. Therefore, they tend to cower behind their keypads while wreaking havoc in the lives of others. Simply put, it is all jokes and savage until the tables turn.

“Cyber bullies can hide behind a mask of anonymity online, and do not need direct physical access to their victims to do unimaginable harm.”

Anna Maria Chavez, US attorney, motivational speaker, writer and community leader

On October 10 2012, fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd hanged herself in her home as a result of cyber bullying. The teenager, charmed by a stranger online, flashed him her bare breasts on camera. The stranger blackmailed her with this photograph and eventually sent the photograph to members of Amanda’s class thereby causing it to circulate. The stranger kept stalking Amanda online, even when she changed schools. Before committing suicide, Amanda posted a video on YouTube explaining her experience with cyber bullying using flashcards. This video has now been viewed by about fourteen million people globally. Tyler Clementi took his life in similar circumstances. Another example is that of Megan Miers, a 13-year old girl also committed suicide in 2013 after receiving mean comments on social networking website MySpace. One of the comments read; “The world would be a better place without you”. About 20 minutes after leaving the computer, Megan was found dead in her room. Though the cause of death in these cases read “suicide” these can be viewed as cases of death by social media.

Concluding thoughts

Research shows that 62% of people get their daily news update on social media. Because social media allows people to communicate more freely, it helps in creating influential social organizations. Most political and social movements in the 21st century have started on social media platforms through the use of hashtags which have gone viral.  Examples of these movements include the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, End SARS movement in Nigeria and Congo Is Bleeding in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to these online interactions, people with marginalized views can see that they are not alone; they create memes, publications and online worlds that support their worldview and break into mainstream media. This means that the use of social media could either yield positive or negative effects.

This article does not seek to demonize social media. The power of it is undeniable. Social Media platforms are encouraged to take responsibility for the way and manner in which their platform is used. Messages aimed at misinforming the general public should be flagged promptly and users who are reported for cyberbullying should be suspended from such platforms instantly. Countries and States should also pass laws that criminalize cyberbullying. The fact remains that granting people a platform to say, do or post whatever they want without some measure of restriction or regulation can be deadly. 

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