From Social Media to Societal Collapse: A Hidden Threat in Our Daily Lives

Opinion by Aryan Bajpai


A phone sitting beside a laptop. The phone screen is on, displaying an array of apps.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have turned to social media as a form of staying connected with the friends and family we can’t meet with in-person. Throughout the course of this pandemic, more dangers of social media have surfaced—far more than just one article could cover. One could consider the infodemic, or the rise of coronavirus misinformation; for example, in early 2020, CNN published news of a possible lockdown in Lombardy, Italy before the government acted, which led to a mass rush in public transportation away from the area and likely increased virus transmission.[1] One could also point to concerns of privacy and surveillance capitalism—how our data is used and sold by private companies.[2] In the case of FaceApp, 150 million users gave away images of their faces and their names to a private Russian company without knowing what was done with their data.[3] However, there are many threats that go unnoticed, which this piece will address: the spread of misinformation, political polarization, and recruitment by extremists on social media.


Firstly, it must be noted note that there is a difference between disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is false information that is purposely spread by governments, often against foreign populations.[4] The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps attempted a disinformation campaign in 2020; United States prosecutors seized 92 domains spreading Iranian state propaganda under the guise of providing independent news in Western countries.[5] Misinformation, on the other hand, is the broad and general category of false information spread unwittingly, including rumours, fake news, conspiracy theories, and so on.[6] An example of misinformation would be tying origins of the current COVID-19 pandemic to 5G technology without knowing it to be false. In early March 2020, an American doctor on probation claimed in a viral video that 5G towers caused COVID-19 through poisoning via electromagnetic fields. This was quickly debunked by scientists, but the damage had already been done as countless ordinary people shared and consumed the video on social media.[7]


Misinformation can be dangerous in many ways. The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th of this year may come to mind, where misinformation about Donald Trump being the winner of the recent U.S. election led to riots and real-world violence.[8] These riots were amplified by viral conspiracy theories like QAnon, which propagated claims of Trump fighting against cannibalistic global elites. These theories, and their outcomes, are not limited to Americans—in July of last year, an armed intruder unsuccessfully sought out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Rideau Hall, motivated by consumption of QAnon content.[9] In recent months, it has been proven that conspiracy theories can have violent, even fatal, consequences.


As we use social media more in our day-to-day lives, we are all susceptible to echo chambers built by social media algorithms. Algorithms lead to political polarization by feeding us content similar to what we have seen, liked, and shared before.[10] An example from personal experience would be ‘liking’ progressive content on social media, causing one to see increasingly radical content as they scroll. I have engaged with Instagram posts championing climate justice only to scroll and find posts on why we should organize as a class to overthrow capitalism (a belief of the far-left) within the same hour. If a friend of mine were to ‘like’ posts from a more conservative perspective, the same radicalization would head in an opposite direction to the far-right. If I were to have a political discussion with said friend, we would find next to no common ground. This social media-fueled polarization leads to more frequent ideological clashes and divisive debates on every issue of note, affecting personal relationships and even leading people to lose faith in democracy entirely.[11]


Another major reasons social media can threaten to the unity of society is the increase in extremists and terrorists using it to spread rhetoric. This tactic has been largely attributed to Islamist terror groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as IS, ISIL, and Daesh) who use social media to spread propaganda and recruit Muslim youth. Seeking to make the impressionable youth feel a sense of belonging, a sense of duty to Islam (or rather, the IS-appropriated extremist view of the religion), and glorifying extremism, ISIS has become infamous for its use of tweets, videos, and even an app to achieve this goal.[12] Terrorists from the far-right, including white supremacist groups and Neo-Nazis, as well as the incel movement, have also used social media for recruitment purposes, utilizing algorithm recommendations to encourage extreme perspectives and radicalization of users.[13] Without even needing to meet in person, recruiters for ideologically motivated groups can connect over social media and prey on a want for belonging, camaraderie, and purpose—most notably, from young men, and, in the case of the white supremacist groups, young white men.[14]


So what can we do, then, to counter and combat all of this—misinformation spreading, algorithmic polarization, extremist recruitment? There are actions we can take both on the legislative level and individual level. We have a window of opportunity as governments around the world, including the Canadian and American ones, move to limit the aforementioned issues by reigning in Big Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. We need to call on our governments to request transparency regarding how our data is used and to launch investigations and possible litigation where it is applicable: failure to remove platforms of extremists, failure to tackle the spread misinformation, etc. On an individual level, we can focus on increasing digital literacy, being critical of the information we consume, how much we consume, and where it comes from. We can fact check, make sure things are credible before we repost or retweet. We can ensure that we read outside our political beliefs to slow down the effects of polarization, and we can engage with people of differing beliefs through constructive dialogue rather than divisive keyboard warfare. To ensure social media is not the key to our societal collapse, we can work together to make its use more ethical.


Writer’s Note: My inspiration for this piece came from watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which is a fantastic starting point for research on the topic. They have more information on the dangers of social media, along with further calls to action, found on their website here: https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/ .

  1. Cinelli, Matteo, et al. “The COVID-19 social media infodemic.” Sci Rep 10, 16598. October 6 2020, page 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-73510-5.

  2. Laidler, John. “Harvard Professor Says Surveillance Capitalism Is Undermining Democracy.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard Gazette, March 4, 2019. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/03/harvard-professor-says-surveillance-capitalis m-is-undermining-democracy/.

  3. Harris, Tristan. “Our Brains Are No Match for Our Technology.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 5, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/digital-technology-brain.html.

  4. UNESCO. “Journalism, 'Fake News' and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training.” UNESCO, March 4, 2021. https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews.

  5. Stubbs, Jack. “U.S. Dismantles Global Disinformation Campaign Tied to Iran - Justice Dept.” National Post. Reuters, October 8, 2020. https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/crime-pmn/u-s-dismantles-global-disinformation-ca mpaign-tied-to-iran-justice-dept.

  6. UNESCO. “Journalism, 'Fake News' and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training.” UNESCO, March 4, 2021. https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews.

  7. Nicholson, Katie, et al. “Viral Video Claiming 5G Caused Pandemic Easily Debunked | CBC News.” CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, March 23, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/fact-check-viral-video-coronavirus-1.5506595.

  8. Ipsos. “How Misinformation Primed Trump's Supporters for Capitol Riot.” Ipsos, January 14, 2021. https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/how-misinformation-primed-trumps-supporters-capitol-riot.

  9. Press Progress. “'Meanwhile in Canada': The Groups Inciting a Fascist Insurrection in Washington Are Here in Canada Too.” January 7, 2021. https://pressprogress.ca/meanwhile-in-canada-the-groups-inciting-a-fascist-insurrection-in-wa shington-are-here-in-canada-too/.

  10. Cho, Jaeho et. al. Do Search Algorithms Endanger Democracy? An Experimental Investigation of Algorithm Effects on Political Polarization. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 64. 1-23. 10.1080/08838151.2020.1757365. April 2020. Page 19. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340964179_Do_Search_Algorithms_Endanger_Democracy_An_Experimental_Investigation_of_Algorithm_Effects_on_Political_Polarization

  11. Haidt, Jonathan, and Tobias Rose-Stockwell. “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 12, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/social-media-democracy/600763/.

  12. Awan, Imran. “Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media.” Society. 54. 1-12. 10.1007/s12115-017-0114-0. 15 March 2017, page 139. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315212548_Cyber-Extremism_Isis_and_the_Power _of_Social_Media.

  13. E&T editorial staff. “British Neo-Nazi Groups Woo Young Recruits on Instagram.” Institution of Engineering and Technology, March 22, 2021. https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2021/03/uk-based-neo-nazi-groups-using-instagram-to -recruit-young-people-report-warns/.

  14. Arie W. Kruglanski, et al. “Terrorism in time of the pandemic: exploiting mayhem”. Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, 5:1, 121-132, DOI: 10.1080/23779497.2020.1832903. 30 October 2020, page 122. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23779497.2020.1832903?scroll=top&needAcc ess=true.