We all know by now that social media’s impact on our lives can be pervasive and all-encompassing – and it’s not just our lifestyles, careers and relationships that are influenced by it.
Social media has changed the entire political landscape – and, more than ever, this kind of change is coming from outside our own country. From Donald Trump retweeting Britain First to Russia’s alleged influence on foreign elections, social media’s global grasp has become tighter by the year.
So what does this mean for those of us living in the UK? How might society and politics be disrupted? And do social media networks need to change to protect us – or is it us who need to adapt to a perpetually changing world?
One of the most powerful impacts of social media has been on the lives of Muslims in the UK. Hussein Kesvani is currently working on a book about how Muslim identity is being shaped by internet culture – and he points to the wave of Islamophobic memes that has made its way to the UK, “mostly to do with refugees or migrants”.
The impact this has had on the lives of Muslims in the UK is “one of the central questions” posed in Kesvani’s book. “A couple of years ago, I reported a story about a mosque extension that had been denied planning permission as a result of right wing propaganda making it into local council documents, and that’s increased in several areas,” he says. There’s even a website, MosqueBlocker, which gives practical advice to right wing groups looking to advance this kind of propaganda.
“Tangibly, the effects have been physical – Miqdaad Versi from the Muslim Council of Britain has records of mosque threats or attempted attacks against affiliated mosques across the country,” Kesvani continues. “Mosques have been giving more frequent talks and workshops to their worshippers on how to stay vigilant, and there’s been a rise in the number of Muslim women taking self-defence classes.”
“So the atmosphere for vigilance is certainly there, and nobody is anticipating it’ll die down any time soon.”
But social media isn’t always having a negative impact on society. The #MeToo hashtag first went viral in October 2017 and has since been used millions of times: a way to demonstrate how prevalent sexual assault and harassment is, many activists believe that the movement has had a real and continued impact on society in the UK.
“Without the internet and social media, there would not have been a #MeToo movement,” sexual assault activist Winnie M Li says. Li is the founder of Clear Lines Festival, a London-based festival exploring issues around sexual assault and consent.
The activist conversation around sexual assault is “probably more advanced in the US,” Li says, meaning that “a lot of survivors and activists are drawing inspiration from what we see across the Atlantic”.
And Li also believes that #MeToo has had an impact beyond the lives of activists and survivors.
“The President’s Club scandal, the Women’s Marches across the UK, the NUS’s actions to address sexual assault… I think a lot of these have been influenced by the conversation in America.”
Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, agrees that social media has made protest easier to do. “It has never been easier to start a political movement,” he says.
“Social media allowed normal people to do things previously only possible by large, well-financed organisations. People can protest, mobilise, coordinate, and act without needing to have institutions in place beforehand. The power to organise without organisations.”
And formal politics, Miller says, is “obviously struggling to keep up with just how quickly the nature of civic society advocacy and protest is changing”. “That is profoundly undercutting, I think, the role of political parties. People are looking elsewhere to change the world around them.”
“So I think the nature of political power itself will begin to change – towards more kinds of participatory or direct forms of ‘digital democracy’,” he continues. “There are so many more ways, now, of making democracy happen, and increasingly politicians around the world are coming under pressure to change the basic way that decisions are made to reflect that.”
Taking back control?
How social media platforms respond to this kind of development is still subject to much scrutiny – and very little agreement. Kesvani believes that platforms “should take responsibility”, but also acknowledges that’s “a simple answer”.
“The problem with enforcing blanket regulations is that the people who they’re targeting are usually quite good at anticipating it – which is why Facebook content warnings, or Twitter shadowbanning, hasn’t really done much to quell hateful comments on social media,” he says.
Miller points out that social media platforms are “taking more and more responsibility for the health of the online sphere that their products create” – forcing them to “make judgements about the values that should be reflected in this public sphere that commercial companies simply haven’t made before.”
“I do think it’s right they’ve taken more responsibility; the pressure here is how do they change to try to make their own decisions more open, subject to challenge and accountable to their users,” he says.
Whether we like it or not, it’s clear that global memes and movements are going to continue impacting our lives in the UK – and there’s no easy solution for when they do so. As Miller says, “technology is moving so quickly, how on earth does everything else – whether it’s regulation, the laws, norms, public understanding – keep up?”
What is clear is that our responses need to be more nuanced: unlike many conversations taking place online, the answers are very rarely binary. Tech-based solutions are possible: in Germany, for example, neo-Nazi and alt-right accounts are blocked from Twitter due to German legislation. This doesn’t, however, deal with the root of the problem – which is perhaps something for governments and policy makers, not technology companies.
“So many of the problems we’re seeing is because a gap is opening between what tech makes possible, and how those possibilities are controlled and limited by all the other institutions that we have,” Miller says. “Everything else needs to speed up.”