Even schools and teachers use social media these days, with lessons, assignments, and whole-class discussions conducted on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Clearly, they think that social media brings many benefits. I agree that it does, but we have to be careful to bring nuance to our understanding of social media, not just because it poses profound dangers for individuals and societies, but because it also has an immense potential for good, a potential that unfortunately only has been fulfilled in very limited situations.
Like any good tool, social media brings many benefits when used well. Students who already have good learning habits (e.g. the ability to ask meaningful and exciting questions; the skills to pursue answers to these questions; the know-how to share knowledge with others) can leverage social media into becoming powerful learning tools for themselves. A student who is aware, for example, of communities of experts who share their knowledge for free on forums like StackExchange, and who also has the cultural and digital literacy to take advantage of these forums, automatically has an advantage over a student without these skills and knowledge. For experts in a field, it can be innately rewarding to share one’s knowledge, even for free; at times, it also forces the expert to come to a deeper knowledge of his domain when s/he has to break down complex concepts and ideas into simpler ones for the purpose of teaching an amateur. These benefits of social media are especially important when they concern communities that otherwise would not be able to form or communicate, like the handful of musicians in Singapore interested in avant-garde post-rock improvisation — there are social connections, art, and frissons of joy that would not otherwise be in the world, without social media to connect these individuals.
Unfortunately, the power social media has to connect individuals has resulted in the worst kinds of people finding each other and gaining power for themselves. Most reprehensible are the communities that glorify racism, sexual assaults, and other kinds of injustices not fit to mention in polite company. While much attention has been given to how rumours, lies, and various kinds of other propaganda have spread on social media (i.e. fake news), less attention has been given to Facebook’s complicity in the Rohingya genocide not far north of Singapore’s borders, in Myanmar (Myanmar’s military has been using the darker tendencies of social media to allow posts that inflame our tribal tendencies to stoke hatred of Muslims).
Moreover, the negative impacts on students can be legion. Teachers and parents continue to be concerned about children who unknowingly sexualise themselves on social media while simply trying to fit in with internet trends, with sexualised girls seen as less intelligent and less worthy of help than other children, among other consequences. Let us be clear: if sexual assault were the only problem, many of us would be baying for the blood of rapists and molesters, instead of victim blaming. But the consequences of the sexualisation of children are present even without the presence of such criminals, and so we worry. The problems of addiction to social media also are well known, with predictable negative effects on student performance and health.
Still, we have to acknowledge the power that social media carries that can be used for good. It has many benefits, but many problems which are inherent to digital technologies at large (especially since they are embedded in a larger context of profit-driven capitalism). Social media is a tool — we have to use it well.
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