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A Scientist Studying Social Media For Over 10 Years Explains How It's Changed The World

And what comes next.

JACINTA BOWLER
29 AUG 2018

This is one of six stories done in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Find out more about their amazing research and scientists.

Social media, whether that's Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is in every part of our lives. We rely on it for our friendship groups, our calendars, and our memories.

But how good is it for us, is there something new coming to take its place, and what can we learn from it?

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Social media researcher Professor Axel Bruns from QUT's Digital Media Research Centre has been looking at the social media landscape in Australia and beyond for over 10 years.

"When we started out, Facebook was still a niche medium used largely by students at US colleges and universities around the world. It's broadened out from there very significantly, and changed in its demographics as well," he explained in an interview with ScienceAlert.

"It used to be much more a young people's platform, and now you've got people's grandparents on there."

Along with widespread adoption, it's also become embedded in how we function.

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"The recognition in society of the platforms has changed. You authenticate for other services with Facebook, you see hashtags on people's t-shirts. The logic and the vocabulary of social media has spread throughout society."

But as we've seen recently with Cambridge Analytica, social media might not be the utopia of 'bringing the world closer together' that we want.

"There's a real need to build up our digital literacy. It starts by thinking twice before you share a link that you see on social media. You need to think about where the news is coming from, and how true it might be," Bruns said.

"We should be concerned about a particular type of disinformation - things that are deliberately faked in order to achieve some political impact. These are stories that are entirely made up, but have the power to affect public opinion."

"It's really just trying to actively sow discord and confusion."

Axel BrunsAxel Bruns (QUT)

And unfortunately social media companies aren't helping researchers investigate this, with Bruns calling them "black boxes" of information.

"Right now, I don't think I'm going too far in saying we're at something of a crisis point when it comes to social media. The leading platforms are making it harder for independent, scholarly, public-interest research to actually understand what's happening on those platforms," Bruns said.  

"In many ways, this is a response to those accusations of fake news, propaganda, abuse and misinformation. The response of the platforms seems to not have been to say 'yes we recognise that this is a problem', but instead to try and shut down outside scrutiny as much as possible.

"At a time where there is so much concern about the role of social media in society and the things they can be used for – like fake news, abuse, trolling and so on – it's incredibly problematic for no one outside of the platforms themselves to have any reliable information about what's going on," he adds.

But despite the issues, social media aren't all bad, especially if we're aware of the potential problems of these services.

"The reach of social media is a great deal broader than just the people who are actively using social media day in and day out," he said.

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"We get the comment quite often that there are only a couple of hundred thousand people active on Twitter so why do we bother in a country of 25 million? It's often because these people are central to the public debate - you've got politicians, journalists and people who are very actively involved in the debate."

But really, the big question is: what's next? Are the giant social media companies in our lives forever? Well, Bruns isn't so sure.

"At the moment, I'm not yet seeing a very significant mood for change. I think the big problem is that users, all of us, have invested a huge deal in those platforms, and all of our friendship networks are on these platforms," he explained.

"Saying that, I think it could change ultimately, if some new alternative comes along that really presents itself in a smart way as a useful alternative."

Either way, the world has been immensely changed by social media, and we'll be stuck with it for at least a few more years to come.

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