Though it remains disputed as to who coined the term ‘Social Media’ as there are many people claiming to have used the term before others did, prominently hacker Darrell Berry and Tina Sharkey of AOL, what remains indisputable is the fact that whoever coined the term had been extremely optimistic and rightly so. Although the history of social media goes as far back as 1970s when internet entered into our lives with its wobbly feet, social media actually went mainstream with the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s when computers became truly personal in every sense. Six Degrees, created in 1997, is considered to be the first social media site. The site allowed users to make personal profiles and make friends online. Six Degrees got shut down in 2001 and the nascent social media experience was carried forward by sites such as Friendster started in 2002, MySpace etc.
However, when Facebook wriggled out of Harvard in 2006 and made inroads into public social media space, it quickly outshone every other social media site, and has today become the third most visited site after Google and Youtube, as per Alexa Traffic rankings. Mark Zuckerberg and his friends might not have imagined even in their wildest dreams that their invention of Facebook in 2004 purely for Harvard students would soon change the contours of social media and create history. Today, there are more social media sites than we can count! However, nobody would have imagined that the very ‘social’ media would transmogrify so soon into something detestable and unsocial. Today, even many of the ‘social’ media evangelists will admit to a large extent that the platform has become anything but social. Many might resent the pessimistic connotation right at the beginning of this piece but given the fact that the social media platforms have turned into a breeding ground for anti-social elements, frauds, criminals, terrorists etc., the social media platforms no longer remain either safe or social.
How ‘social’ is Social Media today?
Almost every social media platform is created with good intentions. However, the world is not populated by good-intentioned people alone. Our presence on social media exposes us to every kind of frauds and criminals ready to take advantage of our ignorance of safety measures and precautions. According to Alok Mittal, Chief of National Investigation Agency (NIA), every sixth cyber-crime is committed through social media. What’s more alarming is the fact that there has been around 70% increase in cyber-crimes between 2013 and 2015 against 17-18% rise in theft and robbery, according to NCRB. More disheartening is the fact that, as per the government’s own admission in Parliament in June 2016, rate of conviction of cyber-crime is ‘very low’. The proliferation of unsuspecting users on social media have turned social media platforms into a goldmine for frauds and cyber criminals who have turned intrepid due to this very low conviction rate. It is estimated that around 462 million (46.2 crore) Indians are online. Though a study is yet to be done to ascertain as to what percentage of the Sikkimese are online, the percentage is fairly large and almost every teenager in Sikkim has a social media presence which is unsettling.
Teenagers are especially vulnerable to criminals, psychopaths, sexual predators, human traffickers, bullies and every hue of anti-social elements. The very fact that the seventh edition of Anti-human trafficking conclave organized by the US Consulate General, Kolkata in association with the NGO Shakti Vahini last year highlighting ‘social media as the biggest route for luring schoolchildren into trafficking’ spells out the grave risk the presence of teenagers on social media exposes them to. We frequently get to read stories of even adult women pushed into prostitution by luring them through Facebook and other social media platforms. Imagine how easy it is for these seasoned criminals to lure and entrap unsuspecting and gullible teens. Bullying, harassing and shaming on social media has become quite commonplace these days.
A case in point
Social media today has become also a platform to bully and slander people. On many an occasion, faults are also ours for we often ignore safety precautions or are ignorant to the kind of grave risks even as simple a thing as sharing an email password, poses. I find it pertinent to briefly narrate an incident that happened last year in Namchi. A teenage girl had shared her email password with her boyfriend. When the two parted their ways, her boyfriend started harassing her, threatening her to share her private photos on Facebook. For those who might be thinking how he got access to her private photos, the girl had shared her email password with him. As well know that Google syncs photos and other stuff from our android phone which can be accessed using the Gmail account registered on that phone. Her guardian called me up and asked if I could help. I suggested the guardian to lodge a formal complaint with the Police and have the Police speak to that guy, they did and a little ‘rough’ talk by the police was enough to crack the guy and he gave in. However, on countless of occasions, such incidents have forced many to not only totally surrender to the perpetrators but have also led many to take the extreme step of committing suicide. The anonymity that Facebook and other social media platform offer to users have made these platforms a much sought-after choice to slander and shame people. Impersonation is another big threat on social media. Impersonation means that an unknown user will steal all our photos and create another account by the same name with malicious intent. Most often, the case of impersonation is done by those who know us closely and their intention, more often than not, is to slander the person being impersonated. There are several other methods used to shame and harass people. And about politically motivated attempts at character assassination and mud-slinging that we witness regularly on Facebook groups, the less said the better. Thus, social media, for want of sufficient safety measures on the part of the platforms and precautions on our part, has become a minefield where one needs to watch every step with extreme caution. It no longer remain social.
Better safe than sorry
It’s not that social media has turned into a playground only for crooks and criminals. There are good guys, too. We get to do and be done to many good things on social media. However, the focus of this article is about the dangers that our ignorance of safety measures and precautions pose to us. Though the vortex of social media has sucked even cautious adults, teenagers, especially the school-going kids are extremely vulnerable. In case of adults, it is their conscious decision (to engage with strangers, use applications and join groups). However, teenagers are often lured by traffickers and abusers. Therefore, parents need to keep a very careful watch of their children’s social media presence and ensure that their presence on social media is safe and secure. Just because parents don’t know whether their children have online presence or not should never be an excuse to put the guards down. The problem though is that many parents themselves don’t know about the importance of security and privacy that one needs to exercise while being online. Our schools have prohibited the use of mobile phones, but I bet that every school-going kid above class 8 has online presence. They know nothing about the dangers that lurk on social media, and they also don’t know the level of privacy and security that they must exercise in order to be safe on social media. Thus, we need massive awareness drives in schools both for parents and students. Though it might sound illogical to conduct such awareness programmes in schools because mobile phones are prohibited in schools, I’m sure even teachers know that their students are on social media (mostly Facebook & Instagram) and they might even be friends there! Being extra cautious on social media will prevent our children from falling prey to sexual predators, bullies, abusers and traffickers. It can also save adults from either embarrassing or harrowing experience which our oversight of security and privacy might make us undergo. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
About the Author: Subba is by training a software programmar with deep interest in literature and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @sonupondhak