Social media: Not so social

If Facebook is in peril, Twitter is disintegrating under the anarchy of its new boss, a raving egomaniac, the writer states.

Govind Bhattacharjee

Govind Bhattacharjee

The Statesman


Instagram office building located in Silicon Valley. (Photo: iStock)

December 13, 2022

NEW DELHI – It is perhaps not a coincidence that just about the time when cryptocurrency has lost its sheen and been laid bare for what it really is, that is a worthless object, social media is also gasping for breath. Both rose to dizzying heights so abruptly that their fall does not surprise many.

Both were similar in their lack of any credible basis, and both bypassed accountability and vigilance with enviable ease. Now their miseries are mirroring each other perfectly. FTX, founded in 2019, was one of the world’s largest trading platforms for cryptocurrencies valued at more than US$30 billion earlier this year.

All that changed in a span of just two weeks in November. As news about customers’ funds being transferred to a related asset-trading firm called Alameda Research broke, panicked investors rushed to withdraw their funds from FTX.

The company went bust with its share price falling from $24 to less than $4 within a week and it filed for bankruptcy. All real assets like real estate or gold or bonds or shares have some intrinsic value determined by the market, based on which they are traded.

A national currency, known as fiat currency, though not backed by an underlying asset like gold earlier, is backed by sovereign guarantee. But cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ether, Dogecoin and thousands of other “alt-coins” and “meme-coins” have no such intrinsic value which made them ideal for speculators to sell to someone else holding out the promise of fabulous returns.

In that ethereal, unregulated world of cryptocurrency sustained only by the limitless greed of a few people to grow rich overnight, dreams were traded at unbelievable prices. Now millions have lost their life’s savings and their dreams lie shattered.

The total market cap on cryptocurrencies now stands at $820 billion, less than 70 per cent of its peak a year ago. Even before this implosion, the “value” of cryptocurrencies had dropped from a peak of US$3 trillion to US$1 trillion.

On May 11 this year, shares in another cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase had plunged and the next day yet another cryptocurrency called Terra which had a market capitalisation of US$18.7 billion a week earlier, crashed.

Terra claimed itself as a “stablecoin”, something that is pegged to a real-life asset like dollar through treasury bills or bank FDs. Tokens issued against such real assets could be redeemed through the exchanges. Fear set in after Terra’s collapse, and fear being the essence of the crisis, triggered widespread sell-off.

Within 24 hours, $200bn had been wiped off the value of crypto assets. On May 12, bitcoin traded at around $29,000, just 40 per cent of its all-time peak in November; ether also lost by a similar amount.

Social media is similarly getting enveloped in chaos and unravelling fast. In September 2021, just before Facebook became Meta, its market cap had reached an astronomical US$1 trillion. But once Mark Zuckerberg, spurred by his ambition of etching a permanent place for himself in history, conceived of a “metaverse” to supplant the Internet by merging virtual life with real life to create endless imaginary possibilities for everyone and to reach a billion people within the next decade and “host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce” to create unlimited wealth for himself, his greed did him in.

Since then, Meta has lost 75 per cent of its value and laid off 11,000 people. Its metaverse fantasy is rapidly evaporating into the rarefied air of vanity and greed. It is moving along a downward spiral with investors dumping its stock which is trading at its lowest since January 2019 and its business model is in utter ruin.

Of course, Facebook is at no risk of going out of business anytime soon. It has spread enough toxins in society to sustain itself for many years. Meta still generated $ 27.7 billion in revenue and $4.4 billion as profit in the third quarter (Q3) of 2022. With his metaverse obsession consuming humongous resources, investors are wondering whether Meta has a core business any more.

If Facebook is in peril, Twitter is disintegrating in the anarchy its new boss, a raving egomaniac, Elon Musk has unleashed. As someone aptly remarked, Twitter has turned into a “Qwitter”, with half its 7,500 employees being sacked and its top management departing in disgust. Advertisers have stopped spending on it, and whosoever stays at Twitter may have to adjust to a brutal work regime extending over many gruelling hours.

In this pressure-cooker situation, Twitter itself may implode and unwind. Like Meta and Twitter, Big Tech is also gasping for breath. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s five big tech giants, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, the mainstay of US stock markets and economy, have collectively lost over $1.5 trillion in market cap in less than a month in November, Amazon taking the hardest hit.

People perhaps are now beginning to realise, albeit slowly, that social media was the most unnatural way to socialize, though it has become almost our second nature. In an Atlantic article titled “The Age of Social Media Is Ending: It never should have begun”, the American academic Ian Bogost said, “The possible downfall of Facebook and Twitter (and others) is an opportunity – not to shift to some equivalent platform, but to embrace their ruination, something previously unthinkable.” Social media was absent even 20 years ago, and when it evolved, the idea initially was networking rather than publishing or even connecting, but once the smartphone evolved around 2009, publishing and propagating content became its primary business and pastime.

Now everyone could reach a massive audience at a low cost, spread across the globe. As this idea caught on like wildfire, naturally there was an explosive proliferation of the platforms of social media ~ MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, Tiktok ~ the list is almost endless.

These platforms gave everyone unfettered freedom, without the essential restraint and accountability which had hitherto characterised all public communication. It was indeed a terrible idea to allow everybody absolute freedom of speech without accountability, without the reasonable restrictions the Constitution imposes on every fundamental freedom.

It virtually gave a license to people to say anything they liked, claim the most preposterous falsehood as truth, propagate anything including extreme hatred and violence in an instant across the globe, without any system of validation and scrutiny being in place. The world has not seen anything like this ever before; weird opinions were there of course, but there were limited channels for their propagation, and some modicum of accountability and responsibility, however loose, still operated. Social media obliterated all such barriers and constraints.

It altered the social contract between the citizens and the state, and between the citizens themselves, cutting across all geographical or ethical boundaries. Everybody felt it was their right to be heard and believed, and any regulation amounted to suppression of their individual liberty. It thus emerged as a most potent tool, both for good and evil.

Politicians loved it, terrorists exulted. History shows that when we have a double-edged sword like this, it inflicts more fresh wounds upon society than it heals. So social media promptly became an arena for truthism, a popular playground of a posttruth world where truth, alternative truth and utter falsehood played ball together and eventually were indistinguishable from each other.

The hyperactive system delivered this lethal cocktail of truth, half-truth and unadulterated falsehood in an endless stream of content round the clock which started spewing its toxic venom of hatred all across the social fabric, disfiguring it beyond recognition. The more toxic the content, the more the outreach. Social media companies too discovered this truth.

“The more emotionally charged the content, the better it spread across its users’ networks. Polarizing, offensive, or just plain fraudulent information was optimized for distribution. By the time the platforms realized and the public revolted, it was too late to turn off these feedback loops”, as Bogost says.

Many of our primetime TV channels have now perfected this game that plays before us every night. In such an unregulated ionosphere of unlimited ambitions, anything was possible. Governments were powerless against it.

So, WhatsApp Messages were used to propagate hate and provoke lynching and murder of innocents on any pretext from selling cow meat to lifting children, with impunity. Journalists started depending on Twitter and Facebook feeds for news, and people lost the distinction between fake news and truth. Fact became fiction and fiction became fact.

Terrorists started using social media for recruitment and spreading hate. Social media became newsmaker, celebrity maker, tastemaker, opinion maker, and also money-maker for those who had some talent to showcase.

Everybody was revelling in this new wonderland where people felt they had the right to an audience and their appreciation. Social media also became an influencer of the economy while their owner-oligarchs started minting astronomical sums of money.

Now that the whole thing is unravelling and like a yoyo, has come to the point where it began from, we should undertake some serious introspection about our choices between the paradise promised by social media and the deadly toxins being released by it, may be to choose a world less connected but more alive.

scroll to top