The Dangers of Social Media in Times of Conflicts

Illustration by Felice Tang

By Anston Yu
Published on March 6th, 2021

As we all know, social media is chock-full of hazards. Scams? Check. Unsafe links? Check. However, one of the more, daresay, drastic problems have taken its root in our society, and is undetected by most. In this essay, student Anston Yu writes about the problem of the enforcement of subtle biases on social media, and how it can be solved.

Warfare is ever-evolving. The basis of it is how two parties with different opinions on the same matter, in order to prove themselves superior over the other, duke it out on the battlefield. Yet, the means have changed from sticks and stones to bows and arrows, from swords and shields to guns and tanks, from missiles to atomic bombs. Zoom closer in on society, though, and you’ll find that warfare takes place on a minuscule scale, not with conventional weapons, but with scalding insults and never-ending debates. The battlefields of old have now become comment sections on a controversial post on Twitter or Facebook, or forums like Reddit.

A quick question before we continue, though. How often do you fact-check the information you see on your friend’s Instagram posts or search up the latest details passed on to you through Whatsapp by your relatives? Social media in and of itself is helpful- not only does it bring people closer together, but it also serves as a convenient platform for the spreading of news or status updates, often consisting of a few short phrases to express the matter. Yet, this convenience can, unfortunately, bring about multiple problems. For example, due to us often surrounding ourselves with those we trust, we tend to believe in what information is forwarded to us without any strings attached. As a result, we also tend to shut out other sources of information and have a preferential bias to believe in what we have gathered from the sources we currently have. The severity of this is exemplified because of the short and succinct wording of these posts, leading to rampant misunderstandings.

The complacency that social media has placed us in has often blinded us from seeing the world as it is. This generates more blind hatred for different opinions and, ironically, creates a deeper divide between us all. The role social media has taken in these conflicts is how it exacerbates these opinions in order to make them reach more people. Oftentimes, it polarizes the public into different groups based on what they stand for, which leaves no space for negotiation whatsoever- this black-and-white view of the world eradicates any grey zones and any non-mainstream voices/opinions that do not fit into the two extreme parties.

This is undoubtedly harmful, as can be seen in a few instances:

First off, the general debate against wearing masks all over the world. Scroll here and there on social media, and you’ll see users stating that standard face masks can and will cause people to have a lessened intake of air, even though that is not the case, as has been explained by the scientific case with tests using blood oxygen saturation monitors. Then again, the original claim wasn’t wrong as well- the claims can be traced back to individuals wearing heavy-duty N95 masks for prolonged periods of time, which isn’t recommended even for medical personnel. Due to misinformation, this claim was misused for regular masks, causing this debate.

Next, the lynchings of innocents in India due to rumours spread around on Whatsapp back in 2017. Up to 15 recorded cases of these lynchings have happened, with multiple arrests and deaths. The origins of these were mostly videos of incidents sent to the soon-to-be mobs by their relatives, which encouraged anger against the offenders, causing the mobs to attack those who fit the description of these offenders. In these cases, the victims were found to be innocent, but it was far too late after most were attacked to the point where they succumbed to their wounds.

Finally, right here in Hong Kong, where the city is being split into groups supporting the protestors and the police in matters regarding the extradition bill. Those who condemn the police share instances of police brutality, whereas those who are against the protestors focus on the violence and wrongdoings of the group. The thing is, both groups are undeniably wrong in justifying violence - yet most of them prefer to not yield on the matter, insisting that the other is wrong when they are right. It is undeniable that social media played a big part in catalyzing the political division.

Whilst the aim of many of these advocates are to completely eradicate what the opposition stands for, this simply does not exist in the 21st century- information can just as easily be acquired when it is deleted. Outside of that though, more often than not these advocates will repeatedly use the same poorly-substantiated mechanisms for their arguments, even when they have been refuted for the same number of times. The overarching problem this leads to is how people will get misled, and how more people will have biases against certain groups. That is, of course, unless we take action against this.

There are a few ways that can be done. A lot of the anger and discontent expressed through words can often be mistakenly translated to an unwillingness to respond directly with other individual’s statements, and that calls for the first course of action- to calm down in an effort to understand the others and organize your own thoughts, as well as to speak in calm tones. This, in hot-headed debates, can help de-escalate emotions and help everyone rationalize their viewpoints. The second is to recognize your own potential faults- after all, it doesn’t hurt to admit when you are wrong, particularly if you have no substantial reason other than ‘someone I trust sent it’. We have to be willing to understand ourselves before understanding others. The third is to be mindful of the opposing side's stance and to respect their decision of believing in it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to point out logical fallacies and mistakes, but at the end of the day, everyone’s stance may not be the same, and we should learn to respect others even if their opinions differ from ours.

The lessons here can easily be applied to other aspects of our daily lives where we can be influenced by subtle biases. After all, communication is a powerful thing. If we aren’t willing to be critical of the information we receive and recognize our own faults, as well as to be responsible for our actions, we will become a society polarized by our beliefs.

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