When the first International Conference on Social Media and Society was held in 2010, social media firms like Facebook, Twitter and others were seen in mostly a positive light, as a novel way of empowering and connecting people.
Now as the conference kicks off its 10th anniversary in Toronto, Canada on July 19, the theme is privacy and trust, reflecting users’ growing ambivalence about social media, said Anatoliy Gruzd, an associate professor at Ryerson University and the event’s organizer.
“People are realizing the importance of the platforms and the potential negative impact on their lives and their communities,” he said. The effects can be societal, personal and political, he said.
The conference comes as governments, nonprofits and consumers grapple with the negative effects of social media. President Donald Trump recently held a summit on social media at the White House, claiming that Twitter, Facebook and others are biased against him and conservative voices.
Now social media research, a field that didn’t exist before the mid-2000s, touches on almost every aspect of life. “We feel our work has a direct relationship to what is happening now rather than historical events,” Gruzd said.
Teens’ ambivalence about social media
Valerie Steeves, a professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the conference’s keynote speakers, said teens and young adults are more careful now about how they present themselves online compared to 10 years ago. The event’s keynote talks will be livestreamed on YouTube.
“In 2000, teens were going online because it was the cool place to be,” she said. “Now they have to be on, it’s infrastructure they have to use.”
And teens are ambivalent about being there. “They are very careful about how they post,” she said. Among their concerns — their data being “grabbed by a corporation,” she said. In a recent study of 5,500 children ages 11 to 17 in Canada, 95 percent said they didn’t think marketers should be able see the content they post online.
Trust in social media firms has eroded in recent years. That could be in part from publicized incidents, such as Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook allowed an outside researcher to have access to user data that was then used in political campaigns.
As a result of that scandal, the Federal Trade Commission this past week reportedly voted to approve a $5 billion settlement with Facebook that could end an investigation into its privacy practices.
Still, the power and reach of social media can bring people together around a shared interest like no other form of communication. One paper at the conference looks at how women discussing sexual abuse and harassment in China use code words on social media to circumvent censors.
Fake news and social media
In another paper, researchers examine the dynamics of polarization in the 2018 Brazilian presidential campaign. They found that fake news and misinformation didn’t really spread widely but stayed within polarized online communities, being passed around whether it was true or not, Gruzd said.
“We think fake news affects the whole society, but it may stay in pockets,” he said. “That doesn't make it any less dangerous. It can make views more extreme and then turn into offline actions.”
Trust, privacy, ambivalence and the promise of connection — social media will continue to be fodder for researchers as society grapples with its power.