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7 Feb, 2019

How Social Media is Dehumanising Humanity

By Reshma Dhewan

Global communications, both professional and personal, is dominated by social media. Like legacy airlines and travel agents, the mainstream channels of media and marketing, such as newspapers, magazines, TV and Radio, are gradually losing ground to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and the like.


Note from the Editor

This inaugural column by Reshma Dhewan, a Bangkok-based IT consultant specialising in data protection and privacy, is intended to counter the misleading, sunny-side-up perspectives that dominate travel industry technobabble forums. Next step: Read, Think, Act.

Reshma Dhewan is a pseudonym.


 While the newfound power to “disintermediate” the mainstream media has generated considerable excitement, a deeper look may dampen the mood. Very few know or understand what really lies behind the innocuous-sounding and hugely popular term, “Going Viral”.

Like “fast-food” burgers and colas, which may superficially and temporarily taste and smell good but can prove deadly over time, the over-consumption of, and over-reliance on, social media can be a professional and personal health hazard.

If the world knew more about how fast-food is prepared, distributed and marketed, its consumption would almost certainly head south big-time. Ditto with social media.

Here is a 10-point listing of professional and personal “health hazards” of social media, especially Twitter.

1. Twitter’s Business model it’s built on advertising similar to Facebook or Google, though not to the same scale. Over the last five years Twitter has been searching for a way to monetize their platform. Serving up advertising was the simplest solution. To make advertising successful, Twitter had to make internal changes to the way people can see their timelines or “news feed”. Twitter is therefore controlling more and more of what shows up first on users’ news feed. Pushing “popular” tweets over most recent tweets was a new measure.

2. Twitter has changed the notifications to increase engagements. Notifications come primarily mobile apps. In this case, Twitter deliberately downgraded notifications in competing apps. These apps literally created the user base in the early days of Twitter by being the first to provide mobile and desktop apps. But these third-party apps such as Tweetbot, did not serve up ads. Some like TweetDeck, were bought out by Twitter. Amplification of viral content through constant notifications is essential to the success of ad impressions. Apps outside of Twitter’s control had to be downgraded.

3. Facebook’s negative PR and subsequent dampening of false “news” and viral content is an opportunity for Twitter. Many people deleted their Facebook accounts. Their choice of social media shifted naturally to Twitter. A big advantage, and a big trap is the immediacy of Twitter. This is much more engaging and addictive than Facebook. Short text and “hot takes” are what users prefer. Cue the outrage and viral content which in turn fueled advertising revenue.

4. Journalists have a tough time today. Many old-school publications are either downsizing or folding entirely. They need a better way to engage with readers. Twitter provided that platform, allowing journalists to hook back to their own articles and those of their news organizations. Desperate times for mainstream media breeds desperate measures.

5. Hashtags which generate virality and outrage are a form of feedback loop. The more popular or viral the hashtag, the more Twitter features them as “trending”. The result: Better engagement.

6. Twitter thrives on disinformation, at least indirectly through the outrage generated. It’s not that their algorithms were designed for disinformation. It’s just a consequence of the kind of information that information that drives revenues that bias their algorithms. People want/need the constant stimulation of anger and adrenaline. This is the “hook” of the social media drug. Whether the outrage or viral posts are fake or not is immaterial.

7. I would argue that “make it emotional” is primary for virality. “Morality” is so easily redefined to suit each person or group they assign themselves. Tribal laws define modern morality. People often mistake morality or belief systems for ethics. With the prevalence of fake news, people are unable to distinguish fact from fiction. Some try, and soon realize the difficulty of parsing such information. Soon fatigue sets in. Coupled with the personal bias we all carry, the preference for news which matches our closely-held beliefs is the result.

8. Strong feelings of certainty are what people crave. The more certain they feel, the more secure they feel. This leads to binary thinking, parsing every topic into “right” or “wrong” where no such judgement is warranted or valid. With every news cycle, new demands for quick judgements are made of social media consumers, leading to “hot takes” – instant judgments that are often subsequently proven wrong. This is the reason some thinkers do not engage in social media discourse. They understand the phenomenon of “feeding the dumpster fire” and the serious real-world results these create.

9. Social media is inherently dehumanising because consumers are unable to parse emotions from words, especially very short texts. This leads people to dehumanizing those with opposing views, or those whose views are even slightly out of alignment with those of the social tribe’s leaders. See the different waves of feminists who have turned on each other because their views no longer fit the modern, revised dogma.

10. Either way, Twitter wins, no matter the trending subject. Therefore, facts are not required and can even be an impediment to viral engagement. Revenue trumps all. With free platforms users are not just the product, but an assured revenue stream. We are the plankton that the larger organisms can feed on, all the while unaware that we are at the bottom of the food chain.

For some time now, I have been practising what I preach. I refrain from posting things that may feed the fire. Resist “dog-piling” or jumping on the bandwagon in attacking strangers on social media. I delete unsent messages daily.

I am also paring down the vast number of people I earlier followed. I was killing my own attention span with nonsense. I still follow many whose views are in opposition to my own. This serves as a valuable counter-balance to one’s own closely held, cherished beliefs. This can lead to less certainty and more frustration. But it can also strengthen your social immune system against logical fallacies and allows one to retain the willingness to change one’s mind when presented with solid evidence. The alternative is to be a blind follower of demagogues and tribal “saviors”.