The illusions of social media: ‘free speech’ is just the start

8 MARCH 2021

The illusions of social media: ‘free speech’ is just the start

An information science expert says although social media has changed many norms – from speech to relationships to social experiences – it is important we consider the paradoxes that surround social media and the beliefs many have towards these norms.

By Dr Waseem Afzal, Senior Lecturer in the Charles Sturt University School of Information Studies.

Social media has become almost essential to our everyday lives and has dramatically changed the norms surrounding various social exchanges. This often includes what can be said in public and how much of one’s personal life can be shared.

There are, however, some paradoxes or illusions that surround social media. Let’s first consider the belief that social media gives us the freedom to say whatever we like. The real question here should be: ‘Can it really be considered freedom of speech if someone can say whatever they like without any regard or consideration for other people?’

To some, this is the meaning of freedom of speech, but for others, it reflects a person’s inability to carefully examine their own views before expressing them. Social media gives us unfettered and continual access to a space that we can use to express ourselves in almost any way, anytime and anywhere and in doing so, gives us an illusion of freedom.

This freedom is an illusion because when a person says whatever they like without examining their own thoughts or considering how their words affect others, the reality is that they lack self-discipline.

Social media, by its very nature, perpetuates this weakness and means that we rarely hold ourselves accountable. Instead, we develop an exaggerated sense of our own importance where we can hurt, accuse and blame anyone except ourselves.

The illusion of relationships is another factor to consider. Relationships of an enduring nature – friendships, families, colleagues – require significant effort over a sustained period, including sacrifices, sincerity and investments of time. Social media offers us a platform on which to connect and share our lives with large numbers of people. It also gives us a false impression that simply being able to send text messages, share pictures and other bits and pieces of our everyday life will bring us lasting friendships and relationships.

We, as humans, like to be listened and attended to, to love and be loved, but these things require time, sincerity and sacrifice. We can and should use social media to build and strengthen our relationships, but it cannot replace the essential human effort that must still be made to forge lasting relationships.

Finally, it is necessary to talk about illusion of experience. Many of our experiences depend on our ability to give attention to something by just being there. We cannot fully enjoy the beauty of a valley or a painting if we are busy talking or doing something else at the same time. We may experience the beauty of the valley, but the experience will only be partial if we were not completely present in the moment.

Social media has produced a highly perplexing illusion of experience. For example, we tend to assume that, to experience relationships of any kind, we must be in constant touch for almost the entire day. We expect others to share the moments of their everyday lives, regardless of where they are, and we also respond in kind. However, the illusion of experience is stealing our ability to experience things deeply. We are on the go all the time – always needing to be doing something rather than just being.  

It is important to be mindful of these ‘illusions’ of social media, so that we can use it responsibly and with greater agency. 

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Afzal, contact Rebecca Akers at Charles Sturt Media on 0456 377 434 or news@csu.edu.au

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