UK survey says our love affair with social media may be over
Reputation damaged by fake news scandals, the spread of extremist propaganda and child safety issues
Photograph: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
It has been credited with everything from democratising news to helping to overthrow dictators but it appears that the love affair with social media may be over.
The Edelman trust barometer, published on Monday, suggests the days when social media was championed as an enabler of citizen journalists and for its role in the Arab Spring have passed.
Instead, its copybook has been blotted by fake news and it has provoked concerns about cyberbullying, dissemination of extremist propaganda and how Snapchat, WhatsApp and other apps are affecting children.
At the same time, the survey found there had been a striking 13-point increase in support for traditional media, to 61 per cent - the highest level since 2012.
Amy Orben, a social media psychologist and lecturer at Oxford University, said: “Social media companies are just experiencing what some of their more traditional rivals experienced at their launch.
“With any new technology, you have a spark of interest and at some point the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. The public debate has changed over the last year. There have been a lot of worrying statistics which have led the public discourse to change and these numbers are a reflection of that.”
A host of reports have warned of the negative impacts of social media on children’s mental health. Social media has been accused of encouraging bullying, exacerbating body image worries and causing sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
The NSPCC has even cited it as a major cause of the dramatic increase in the numbers of children admitted to hospital after self-harming.
Theresa May has talked of the “additional concerns and challenges” posed to young people by social media, while the health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt has warned companies they could face sanctions unless they did more to tackle sexting, cyberbullying and the abuse of young users.
The head of Apple, Tim Cook, said last week that he did not want his nephew on a social network, while in November, the former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
But Orben said there was little concrete evidence to base the backlash on. “There are good and bad bits to it like any technology. What we know from 1,000 years of human existence is there is always a panic about new technology. When the printing press became available 500 years ago we had the panic then about too much social information becoming available.
“I don’t say people don’t have reason to be worried but the flames have been fanned a lot. The scientific evidence that it’s causing damage to their mental health isn’t there.”
The Edelman trust barometer, the 18th annual survey, found 64% of 1,050 UK respondents worried that social media companies were not regulated enough, 69% agreed that they did not do enough to prevent bullying and 70% that there was insufficient action to stop illegal or unethical behaviour on networks.
Abuse has become an occupational hazard of social media, particularly for public figures.
Many MPs have received abuse and Daisy Ridley, Sam Smith and Stephen Fry
are among celebrities to have temporarily or permanently quit social media networks in response to online slurs.
Ed Sheeran said last year that he had stopped reading tweets due to negativity.
Fake news, the term used incessantly by Donald Trump and chosen as the Collins word of 2017, was inescapable last year and 53% of people polled said they worried about being exposed to it on social media. The fear of fake news may explain why 42% said they only skimmed headlines on social media but did not click on the content and also the increase in support for traditional media.
John Collins, a lecturer in journalism at Nottingham Trent University, said: “They’ve done many things incredibly well. When social media first started a lot of focus was about how news was being spread and consumed, people liked how news was arriving, how news agendas were coming from the bottom up.
“Now people are looking a little earlier in the process, at the bread and butter of journalism, the research and verification before anything is published.”
Ed Williams, the CEO of Edelman UK, said Britons had sent a message to social media giants demanding change.
“After a flood of negative headlines in 2017, it’s time these companies sat up and listened,” he said. “The public want action on key issues related to online protection, and to see their concerns addressed through better regulation. Failure on their part to act risks further erosion of trust and therefore public support.”