Social media refers to online platforms that people use to connect with others who share their interests. The types of media posted and exchanged by social media users include images, blog posts, videos, direct and group messages, podcasts, newsletters, music, and links to external websites. Social networking sites are a form of social media wherein users actively engage with their peers, followers, and the general public. The popularity of social media has generated debate on a range of issues, from user privacy and safety to its long-term social and political effects.
Function and Components of Social Media Sites
Prior to social networking sites, which emerged following the public launch of the World Wide Web in 1991, computer users connected with one another through bulletin board systems (BBS) and subscription programs such as America Online (AOL). Classmates.com and SixDegrees.com are considered the first social networking sites, but neither approached the scale of twenty-first-century social media giants such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Social media applications (apps) for mobile devices became more popular as the use of smartphones and tablets grew in the 2010s. Mobile apps allow people to use social media sites in novel settings and ways, such as livestreaming an interaction with law enforcement or live tweeting a lecture.
Most social media companies generate revenue through advertising, with industry leaders generating enormous revenues from their advertising operations. Facebook's parent company Meta, for example, earned more than $114.9 billion in advertising revenue in 2021. Advertisers use social media platforms to gather information about users to create ads targeted to their particular interests and needs. Companies use direct advertising methods such as banner ads, as well as indirect approaches such as when a company creates a social media profile and invites the platform's members to like or become fans of its page. Brands, companies, educational institutions, and other organizations also use social media to announce events such as concerts, product giveaways, and special sales.
Popularity of Social Media
According to the digital media research and advisory firm Kepios, approximately 270.1 million people in the United States used social media as of January 2022. Though Kepios acknowledges that the online behaviors of specific users may indicate slight variances in the data, the figure represents nearly 81 percent of the US population. Kepios also tracked a 12.5 percent increase in the number of US-based social media users between 2021 and 2022. In terms of popularity YouTube led all social media platforms tracked by Kepios, with 247 million US users in early 2022. Other leading platforms include LinkedIn (180 million users), Facebook (179.7 million users), Instagram (159.8 million users), TikTok (131 million users), Snapchat (107.1 million users), Pinterest (86.4 million users), and Twitter (76.9 million users).
A notable trend in social media is its increasing appeal to older users. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center analysis of data compiled in 2021, about 11 percent of US adults ages sixty-five and older used social media in 2010, a figure that grew to 45 percent by 2021. Pew additionally found that YouTube tops all social media platforms used by older US adults. The percentage of Americans ages fifty to sixty-five who have used YouTube rose from 70 percent to 83 percent between 2019 and 2021. However, platform usage varies widely among different age groups. For example, Pew found in 2021 that Snapchat and TikTok were used by 65 and 48 percent of US adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine, respectively, but by only 2 percent and 4 percent of those over age sixty-five.
Privacy and Safety Concerns
Personal safety, particularly that of children, has long been a concern of social media users and critics. Some people use the information others share on social media to target and track users for criminal purposes. Observers note that personal risks rise as users post increasing amounts of information. Cybercriminals can harvest user-posted data to crack passwords, steal identities, commit financial crimes, and launch phishing attacks, among other illicit acts. Given these hazards security specialists strongly recommend caution in choosing what to share online, and with whom to share it. Malicious actors often choose to target children and adolescents with their social engineering scams because young users are more likely to click on dangerous links and follow through with other actions that put their data and their parents' data at risk.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also specifically recommends against children and teens posting their full names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, or other personal information online. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) prevents companies from tracking children's online behavior and limits the collection and use of personal information of users under the age of thirteen. Many social media apps and websites have established user age limits, but minors can easily circumvent these restrictions because companies do not have the means to enforce them.
Security experts emphasize that social media users should be extremely careful when communicating with strangers online, as people can claim false identities. In March 2022 Reuters reported that Facebook removed 1.3 billion fake accounts from its website between October and December 2021 alone. Facebook estimates that approximately 5 percent of its user accounts are fake, according to a December 2020 New York Times article. However, some industry observers believe the actual proportion of fake accounts on the site is much higher. Though people set up fake accounts for many different reasons, criminals may choose to misrepresent themselves to scam users out of money or deceive people for other malicious motives.
Many fake Twitter accounts are operated by software commonly known as bots, which take advantage of the platform's application programming interface (API) to post content automatically. Debate over the exact number of bots on Twitter became a point of public debate after billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk launched a bid to buy the social media site in April 2022. Against the backdrop of Musk's acquisition attempt, Twitter claimed that less than 5 percent of its monetized accounts are bots, while Musk counterclaimed that the actual figure could be up to four times higher. In September 2022 the digital research firm Similarweb estimated that 21 percent to 29 percent of all monetizable Twitter content is generated by bots, while a 2020 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that bots were responsible for approximately 45 percent of all messages related to COVID-19 on Twitter. Though bots can be used to deceive people and promote misinformation, many bot accounts are used for practical purposes. Some active bot accounts, for example, are used by public agencies to disseminate news and information regarding natural disasters, school closings, and other emergencies.
Cyberbullying, another form of malicious behavior found on social media, can take many forms. Users can write cruel messages, post embarrassing photos or videos of people without their permission, forward private communications, or circulate negative rumors or lies. All fifty states and the District of Columbia (DC) have enacted legislation against bullying, with laws in forty-eight states plus DC specifically addressing cyberbullying or online harassment. According to an analysis published by Security.org in August 2022, YouTube is the most common social media platform on which children experience cyberbullying at 79 percent, followed by Snapchat (69 percent), TikTok (64 percent), and Facebook (49 percent).
The Use and Misuse of Social Media by Employers and Law Enforcement
Adult users are often advised to exercise discretion in what they choose to share on social media. Potential employers, for example, have been known to check a person's Facebook or LinkedIn profile before deciding to hire a candidate. In 2010 an officer with the Maryland Division of Corrections informed his local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the state was requiring officers to provide login credentials and passwords to their personal social media accounts. The ACLU cautioned that such behavior violated employees' rights to privacy, ignored provisions of the federal law on unlawful access to stored communications, and placed the employer in a legal gray area that could open the door to lawsuits. As additional stories of employers requesting access to private accounts surfaced, some state legislatures took action.
As of October 2022 lawmakers in twenty-seven states, including Maryland, had passed legislation to prevent employers from gaining access to employees' personal online accounts, while at least three additional states had legislation pending. Sixteen states plus DC had passed similar laws forbidding colleges and universities from requesting account access from prospective students, and one state (Wisconsin) had passed a law applying to landlords.
Law enforcement officers use social media sites to identify criminals and help solve crimes. However, the use of social media to aid in criminal investigations has aroused concerns about privacy violations and other misuses. In 2016 the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter had allowed developers to access user data to create surveillance products that were widely used by police departments. Further, the ACLU's investigation uncovered that these products had been marketed as tools for monitoring political activists. Publicity surrounding these reports led to social media companies changing their data access policies. However, law enforcement has continued to use social media to aid in their investigations and bolster their public image. In 2020 reports indicated that local law enforcement had viewed livestreams of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and employed facial recognition technology to identify participants. Federal law enforcement made similar use of social media posts to identify and apprehend people who participated in the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Social Media in Social Activism and Politics
Social media has proven to be an effective tool in raising awareness and coordinating on-the-ground actions for social movements. Such online activism is sometimes called "hashtag activism" to refer to the use of the hashtag as a metadata tag. A metadata tag is a unit of descriptive information added to digital content to allow for more efficient aggregation and search retrieval.
Though sometimes dismissed as slacktivism (activism requiring little effort and having little effect), hashtag activism has helped launch several prominent social movements. A Facebook post with the phrase "black lives matter," reacting to the acquittal of the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and a subsequent tweet with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter launched the global movement of that name in 2013. Online activists made headlines in 2017 when, in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against high-profile figures, millions of users shared their personal experiences with sexual harassment and assault using the hashtag #MeToo. In 2018 student activists employed the hashtags #NeverAgain, #MarchForOurLives, and #IfIDiedInASchoolShooting to advocate gun control legislation. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has used social media to galvanize a youth-led movement. Thunberg led the successful series of rallies in 2019 called the #GlobalClimateStrike, during which millions of people filled the streets in cities around the world to demand governmental action on climate change.
As in activism, social media has become an essential element of US politics. Its use was seen in presidential campaigns as early as 2008. Many political candidates use social media for traditional purposes such as fundraising, making official statements, livestreaming speeches, and posting photos with supporters. By 2016, however, observers began to express concern over the expanded role that social media appeared to play in electoral politics and the opportunity for misuse, particularly the spreading of misinformation. In addition to the prevalence of misinformation appearing on social media, experts worried about organizations' ability to use social media to target specific groups with disinformation campaigns.
Newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom revealed in 2018 that the Trump campaign had employed a data-driven political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, that had mined information from over eighty-five million Facebook accounts. Journalist investigations, spurred by disclosures from a whistleblower, discovered that the firm had engaged in a wide range of questionable behavior including creating psychological profiles of social media users to target for disinformation and influence their behavior.
Federal investigators also determined that Russian intelligence operatives had used social media in the 2016 election in hopes of swaying the outcome and sowing social discord. In subsequent elections, US intelligence agencies have observed an expansion of such operations. To address misinformation and foreign interference, social media companies have experimented with different policies such as banning political ads in the days leading up to elections.
Social media has also served as a facilitator of conspiracy theories and extremist content. Though social media companies have made gestures to address its spread through content moderation, critics allege that social media algorithms favor such content because of its potential to drive user engagement. In 2017 an anonymous user claiming to have Q-level (top secret) security clearance began to attract attention from social media users, leading to the development of an online conspiracy theory community known as QAnon. Social media companies including Facebook and Twitter began removing high-profile accounts linked to QAnon after the movement was tied to the violence that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.