Almost everyone with internet access knows and uses social media. While not liked by everybody, in the digital prism of our world, it seems it’s not about taste anymore, but a need to connect, to share, to find information.

What happens, though, when it’s gone? And what happens when it makes us unhappy? Is it possible to unhook from its use in the 21st century and what is the responsibility it holds for shaping our views and emotions?

These are some of the questions crossing my mind in light of recent events mainly around Facebook (recently rebranded as Meta), more prominently the biggest outage in its history and allegations of inability to cope with harmful content on its platforms (the latter also a concern regarding many of its rivals).

All these moments, I believe, add up to a wider representation of the social media landscape, with so many questions deriving from the ubiquitous nature of those platforms that it’s hard to pinpoint a single problem and a one-size-fits-all easy fix. Here, I want to present some of the issues stemming from social media in its current state of operation and explore methods for their cure.

Facebook’s major outage at the beginning of October appeared disturbing enough in itself, but what was even more alarming was the realisation of how dependent people are on one company and its services. The issue led to European Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager calling for alternatives to the company.

Speaking to Mobile World Live, global research director of cybersecurity at Frost & Sullivan, Jarad Carleton, likened the use of social media to substance addiction, as these platforms give people “little bumps of serotonin” when they post something and receive likes, for instance.

“If you take a look at the loaded word addiction, what’s happening when you’re using a substance, it’s also playing with the brain chemistry in a different way. But when you’re clicking on something or posting something, and you’re getting all these likes and shares, it’s also playing with the brain chemistry,” Carleton explained.

Nitesh Patel, director of wireless media strategies at Strategy Analytics, explained social media is designed to be “highly addictive” by providing people with means to connect and share but also making sure “they aren’t missing out on what their connections are talking about or posting.”

Another reason for high engagement rates are the algorithms made to surface content which companies know users are interested in based on past behaviour, he noted.

Research by Strategy Analytics in the US showed users were spending on average 40 minutes daily on apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter on their smartphones; second only to mobile gaming.

Harmful content and responsibility
Being active on social media is one thing, but what can we say about the content on it?

Just before the outage of Facebook’s services, light was cast on a leaked internal company research by former employee Frances Haugen which allegedly led to conclusions the company profited from amplification of political unrest and harmful content on its platforms.

Social media platforms are places where negative and abusive comments or posts can be amplified, alongside the impact of the lack of likes which can potentially be detrimental to users of all ages and backgrounds, Patel said.

However, he maintained the tackling of unpleasant behaviour, including taking down offensive posts and banning users, “is very hard to police”, considering the scale of the user base and content uploaded.

Frost & Sullivan’s Carleton differed, taking aim at Facebook’s content moderation practice. “It’s largely focused on the English-speaking world,” which represents a very small portion of the world using the platform.

This is why, he believes, self-regulation of social media has proven insufficient and ineffective.

Regulation and reining in the power of social media
The natural question that follows is – what can be done to reduce the domination of the core Facebook platform and Instagram in the social media domain and who should be tasked with such efforts?

Patel offered two pathways, one of which would break up the company and stop it from acquiring competitors.

Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp to expand its social communication and engagement dominance, and has also “engaged in copycat tactics to stymie rivals” including Snapchat features and the launch of Reels to take on TikTok.

The company “can be considered a monopoly and I don’t expect it will be allowed to acquire competitors or companies operating in related markets like Instagram and WhatsApp. However, that won’t prevent it from copying rivals”.

Another option outlined by Patel is stronger regulation, something CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself previously called for.

Carleton insisted this regulation should be government-led and enforced on a global scale, similar to already existing financial regulation looking to prevent money laundering.

“You need an international treaty that is going to regulate this kind of stuff,” because if, for example, social media is regulated separately in the European Union, this move would be “like taking a water balloon and just squishing it, and the water flows into another part”.

With great power…
Zuckerberg’s company is a leader in many of the market segments it operates in and that is an undeniable fact.

Clearly, however, when one company becomes too powerful, even the little steps it takes attract wary attention, and often criticism, from institutions and the end user.

A lot depends on regulators to address challenges in the way social media works and make a change which results in regained user trust.

However, as much as there is a need for a universal approach towards regulation, an individual mindset when dealing with consuming content is also important. Whether it’s about awareness of time spent online, what sources we rely on to get information or how we cope with damaging content on social media – each of us can find a balanced way to navigate the digital world. At the end of the day, it should be up to us to choose what we focus on and how we react to it.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.