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Social media: navigating the dilemmas

March 13, 2024

Like mazes, social media have many paths that might (or might not) lead to the destination we seek.

UVic Anthropology PhD student Raey Costain explains that, whatever our own personal or professional aims with our words, photos or videos on Meta, X, TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn, those platforms have their own goals: money and noise.

A viral post creates a lot of noise, and maybe that’s great. But Costain asks, “Do you want to fall into the noise or engage a thoughtful community?”

Quantitative measures like millions of views, clicks, and shares can show how much activity is happening around a post. However, because these quantitative analytics don’t account for bots, mindless engagement, or quality of content, qualitative measures might be even more useful. If 20 people engage with a post in a way that facilitates and supports digital community and conversation, that post may be considered successful by a qualitative measure even if it does not go viral.

Costain’s area of expertise is visual graphic anthropology and their MA research included digital ethnography on TikTok. Currently, Costain is the digital communications lead on the Survivor-Centred Visual Narratives project with Charlotte Schallié and Matt Huculak. In their research, Costain also works with non-binary and queer communities, who can be very vulnerable online. At the same time, digital platforms can be a significant place where vulnerable individuals can find community.

“To understand how to bring the stories out with care,” Costain says, “to develop and facilitate community, we must think about who we’re reaching and how.”

For that, the choice of platform matters.

Costain’s research showed that on TikTok, “hate speech is ramping up.” As well, they warn that X (formerly Twitter) is problematic because it tolerates and actively encourages racism, discrimination, and misinformation.

“I don’t want to put stories and research findings in a place that is encouraging and allowing structural violence. We don’t want to continue the cycles of harm, especially when working with vulnerable research communities,” they say. However, they acknowledge, X can be useful to direct people to longer-form stories elsewhere.

Individual use of digital media platforms is a matter of personal choice, of course. For systemic purposes, however, Costain says, “We need to have more practical strategies in place to guide research and researchers, starting with the ethics phase.”

Particularly in human social research, transparency in the research process and resarcher behaviour may be a key ethical consideration. At the same time, it’s important to protect the researchers’ privacy online, both in their personal and professional lives. If an individual’s Instagram account is hacked, it’s easy to access the information in their professional account, and vice versa. For researchers using social media as a tool in their research, as a means of reaching their research participants for example, it can be challenging to set boundaries that protect the researcher’s personal information while still facilitating a sense of trust, rapport, and connection. This consideration engages a much more complicated issue of data protection, data mining, and hacking.

“Locking out” is a potentially devastating form of hacking.

“Data makes money,” Costain explains, “and older accounts are valuable because they have lots of data that can be sold. If a person has been locked out of their X or Meta account, the platform has no record of that person and the hacker has complete control of the account. If the same password has been used for other accounts, the hackers can then springboard into them as well. When accounts have been taken over, they can potentially be used to share misinformation which can be disruptive to online communities. If individuals are using their social media as a life record and as a place to store information, being locked out of an account can feel catastrophic.

“It’s not a harmless thing,” Costain says, “for the person or for their reputation.”

Clearly, social media are more than tools and platforms. As with mazes, it’s important to know whether you’re there simply to be in the thick of it or whether you’re moving strategically toward a goal.

“I think about how to share stories online in a way that doesn’t cause harm,” Costain says. “Who is my digital audience, and what are their vulnerabilities? What are mine?

“This is important to me because I see the potential of digital communications to develop community and care for each other.” 

Bonus points

  • A simple way to avoid being locked out is to use multi-factor authentication such as Duo, which UVic has implemented, or a password keychain connected to a fingerprint.
  • Costain has been testing the waters of Meta’s (formerly Facebook) Threads because, at the moment, it doesn’t have the same culture of hate as X. They aren't yet putting research there, though, because the community they want to reach isn’t yet using it.
  • Reels, short-form videos on Instagram and Facebook, can be a way of finding your people (and for them to find you) more organically than algorithmically.
  • LinkedIn has been used more for professional networking than for public advocacy or education, but that might be changing. Younger people, including high school students, are engaging with the platform in growing numbers. According to an Oct. 6, 2023 article in The Cut, they find it “a zero-irony zone — a sanctuary from the angry rants, dark humor, thirst traps, and FOMO characteristic of other social-media networks.”
Rachel Goldsworthy