Doing it for the ’gram

From vacation pics to body positivity — why are we still posting our lives on social media?

Doing it for the ’gram

Facebook has been going through some stuff recently: alleged election-meddling Russian agents, a leak of 87 million users’ data to Cambridge Analytica, more election-meddling scandals, a $119 billion loss in July, and more.

But even as an increasing number of users try to ditch Facebook’s original platform, the company still has one major thing going for it: Instagram. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, and its value has since increased to over $100 billion. While Facebook broke records for most money lost in a single day, Instagram reached one billion users in July, up from 800 million just last fall.

These gains aren’t particularly surprising, given that so many of the people I know who use Instagram seem to genuinely enjoy doing so. And that’s what separates Instagram from so many other social media networks that a lot of us still use just because they’re so inconvenient to leave cough, Facebook, cough.

I have numerous friends who actively espouse their love for Instagram. What’s more, the social network has become a powerful platform for activism — which is more than can be said for most other sites.

In case you couldn’t tell, I generally count myself among the Insta-fans. For me, the appeal initially lay in the artistic aspects. Much as it may inspire some eyerolling from non-believers, I maintain that Instagram is a wonderful creative outlet, even for those of us who don’t typically think of ourselves as artists. As I delved a little deeper, however, I found myself more entranced by the communities that put down roots on Instagram in its early days and have since flourished.

Of these, a personal favourite is Body Positivity (BoPo), a movement largely centred on sharing images of bodies that do not conform to societal ideals. Largely targeting people in recovery from disordered eating, BoPo is pretty niche, but the most popular accounts, including Tess Holliday’s and Megan Jayne Crabbe’s, have amassed over a million followers each.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times also detailed the utility of Instagram for finding self-representation as an ethnic minority, in this case as an Afro-Latina, when representation in mainstream media remains elusive. These groups, which are easily discoverable through tags, give millions of people the chance to see other people who look like them and have been through the same experiences as them.

For many of these communities, Instagram is a natural fit. For one, putting imagery front and centre lends itself well to groups seeking to normalize certain aspects of the physical self, be it body mass, disability, or race. Just as importantly, Instagram has traditionally served a different social function than its competitors: it is less of a hub to connect with friends and family and more of a place to explore photography, art, and other content that interests you.

Now that Instagram is on its way to being the “next Facebook,” however, there’s a chance that a lot could change. The recent uptick in new monthly users — while Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a slowdown — reflects an intensified, systematic effort by its owners to make sure that the social media network is constantly improving, which is admittedly a strategy first adopted by Facebook.

However, one consequence of many recent changes is that Instagram really is starting to feel more like Facebook; the creative side has been downplayed and the social side emphasized. You’re not posting that vacation photo because it’s pretty; you’re posting it because you want your followers to see how pretty your vacation was.

The other problem with this ethos, naturally, is money. When Facebook says it wants to make Instagram “better,” they don’t mean by making it more enjoyable or beneficial to the user; it means bringing in more eyeballs to look at more ads.

If indeed Facebook is losing steam, then Instagram will inevitably need to be retooled, given that, in its current state, it is not particularly profitable. That means prioritizing advertisers and sponsored content over the user experience.

Exhibit A: A healthy dose of ads for weight loss programs, mixed into my Body Positive feed. The algorithm doesn’t care about safe space, and if Instagram is no longer a safe space, then it will no longer be the place to grow a community.

Obviously, I can’t knock Facebook for wanting to profit off of its $1 billion acquisition. But, if Instagram goes the way of Facebook and is transmogrified from a friendly, artistic space into one that is shaped solely by the single-minded aims of Silicon Valley, I truly think that it would be a loss. I can only hope that the folks at the helm understand the reasons why Instagram is so loved right now. 

Facebook is fuelled by dollar signs, not democracy

The company’s profit-motivated responses to fake news and echo chambers should push us to take matters into our own hands

Facebook is fuelled by dollar signs, not democracy

In November of last year, I wrote a piece called “Fact-checking Facebook.” In that piece, I identified two distinct ways that social media threatens our democracy and our discourse: the way it can facilitate the proliferation of false information and the way it can minimize dissenting views or make them inaccessible. I was skeptical that Facebook’s ultimate motivations as a business would lead them to make the substantive changes needed to confront these issues.

Last week, the social media behemoth provided us with an opportunity to re-evaluate that prediction. In a somewhat confounding series of posts called Hard Questions, Facebook reflected that social media had originally “seemed like a positive” when it came to democracy. They conceded that the 2016 American election changed that impression. You don’t say.

Alongside this acknowledgement of the problem came two attempts at a solution. Though these represent a step in the right direction, we ought to be skeptical of the extent to which Facebook will be willing to enforce them. As a corporation, Facebook is transparently driven namely by profit and not by goodwill — meaning it is unlikely to pursue solutions that will ultimately hurt its bottom line, even if doing so would be in the best interests of its users.

First, there is the issue of the proliferation of fake news. Facebook’s solution is to double-down on incorporating a fact-checking mechanism into the way posts and stories are shared and viewed on the site. The new feature, which is a partnership with Politifact, flags content when enough users have tagged it as potentially unverified. While a commitment to fact-checking represents an important step in the right direction, it does seem antithetical to Facebook’s current model as a place where views can be shared and discussed, even if those views are based on falsehoods. If Facebook becomes inhospitable for those of certain political orientations, it seems almost inevitable that they will lose users.

For this reason, stringent fact-checking may be bad for the bottom line. The events of the last few years have demonstrated that people will enthusiastically contest the credibility of long-established and imminently respected sources in the service of confirming previously held beliefs. If Facebook positions itself as the arbiter of truth, this might provoke a backlash from those who find the truth incompatible with their point of view. While this might not be a bad thing for democracy, it will push people off the site, and it’s not clear whether that’s a result Facebook will tolerate.

Another pressing issue is the way in which Facebook facilitates and sustains online echo chambers, which seriously hinder constructive dialogue. Echo chambers are the result of social media’s proclivity to confirm existing views instead of presenting challenging new evidence or dissenting opinions. Instead, sites like Facebook siphon conversation into self-affirming silos, which thwarts discourse.

Facebook’s proposed solution in this regard — offering a more varied selection of sources in the Related Articles tab associated with a link — is totally impotent. If Facebook were serious about fixing this problem, it wouldn’t focus on a rarely visited and isolated feature on the site — instead, it would take the radical step of diversifying the content served up on the News Feed. But Facebook has so far neglected to do so because the need for civil and constructive discourse is substantially less compelling than the financial incentive to keep users’ eyes on advertisements.

This incongruity is made plain given that, in June 2016, Facebook announced changes to the News Feed, reaffirming that it would continue to tailor its content to suit the preferences of each user. Facebook’s Vice-President of Product Management confirmed that the organization’s objective “is to deliver the types of stories… an individual person most wants to see” because doing so “is good for [Facebook’s] business.” Put simply, providing users with content that confirms their existing views and shuts out dissent is part of Facebook’s business model. According to that same vice-president, “When people see content they are interested in, they are more likely to spend time on News Feed and enjoy their experience.”

I’m not optimistic that this basic premise will change any time soon. And unless it does, Facebook won’t be changing either. Solving the problem of the destructive effect of social media on democracy won’t be achieved by waiting around for Facebook, a profit-driven entity, to make itself less divisive. Rather, if we wish to dig ourselves out of our respective confirmation feedback loops, we need to take steps to fundamentally change our relationship to social media.

First, it is important that we consciously reduce our reliance on social media for information. Pew research from last August showed that two-thirds of respondents get at least some of their news from social media. Using social media as a news source fundamentally affects the type of information received. While copy editors and fact-checkers used to be in a position to prevent untrue information from being widely disseminated, social media does not provide that kind of filter. Also, while it is established practice to hold traditional news sources accountable for making unverifiable claims, the same rules do not apply online. Changing our sources of information will go a long way toward repairing our discourse.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, echo chambers are only effective so long as they remain covert — or at least passively unacknowledged. They work because it’s one thing to understand that Facebook feeds you exactly what you want to see, and it’s another thing to internalize that fact and allow it to tarnish your experience with the site. The most important measure we can take to de-silo our discourse is to recognize the isolation and to understand that what we see is not all that there is to see. If we can learn to take what Facebook shows us with an ocean’s worth of grains of salt, then Facebook may actually be prompted to make the substantive changes that would be most effective. If last week is any indication, waiting for them to take initiative won’t do much good.

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity‘s Current Affairs Columnist.

What’s in a meme?

U of T meme groups on Facebook offer an accessible vantage point into the student experience

What’s in a meme?

If you’re even slightly active on Facebook, chances are that you’re probably in a meme group of some kind. The most popular meme groups at the University of Toronto are ‘UofT Memes for Edgy Teens,’ which boasts over 13,500 members, and ‘UofT memes for true 🅱️lue teens,’ which has over 3,000 members. These groups have moderators, and although some content may not be approved or kept up for long, the groups are ultimately a free space wherein anyone can post whatever they want.

Merriam-Webster defines a meme as “an amusing or interesting item… spread widely online.” I like to think of memes as inside jokes for the internet, and often as inside jokes for a group of people with shared experiences. In the case of U of T meme groups, that experience is being a student at this university. Although some might question the wisdom of taking these memes too seriously, I think they express student concerns and anxieties better than any other medium.

This is not in spite of the informality of the medium — it’s because of it. As Marshall McLuhan would say, the medium is the message.

McLuhan was talking about how mediums like television, print, or radio would shape the way we think about the world and process information. Yet we can see his insights reflected in memes and internet culture as well. The fact is that memes permit a type of self-expression that is normally unavailable in other forms of discourse. Expressing qualms about the university through a meme is easier than filing a complaint through official channels, and it often garners attention nevertheless. Compulsory respect for public figures when expressing oneself, conversely, is unnecessary, and few if any topics are wholly off limits. All that is required to create a good meme is a sense of humour and a knowledge that the meme will be understood by the community.

In Elizabeth Bruenig’s Washington Post article “Why is Millennial Humor So Weird?,” she discusses how the absurdism of life for millennials, from economic anxiety to uncertainty about the future, has given way to embracement of the bizarre and strange. You can find plenty of especially strange memes in both U of T meme groups. One meme, for instance, explains how to look like a Rotman Commerce student — wearing an expensive but unremarkable suit and tie and purchasing a potato chip to place on your shoulder. Another meme, in rebuttal to a Trinity College student’s denial that the college is “extra,” displays a stained glass window depicting an angel holding a photo of the college in its hands.

To an outsider, these memes might seem nonsensical, yet they manage to convey the anxieties and oddities that are unique to U of T life — in this case, those anxieties and oddities that are unique to certain programs and colleges. Similarly, other memes in the groups focus on other commonplace concepts within the U of T community, such as the antics of Jordan Peterson or all of those posters around campus that call the university ‘boundless.’

The stresses of our lives, including extreme academic pressure, sky-high tuition fees, ever-increasing job insecurity, and a crumbling mental health system, have inevitably given way to the “the surreal and bizarre,” as Bruenig puts it. But memes have distilled our anxieties into something else — something that is, dare I say, boundless. Memes help us communicate and share inside jokes and references about the student experience without having to rely on formal language, reinforcing our sense of community as students at this university. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the content these memes could be expressed in any other medium.

Our memes have tapped into something that few other student publications or organizations have been able to truly understand, and they have helped us raise common thoughts about the student experience that might have previously stayed private. Since so many people are in one meme group, sharing thoughts on any given topic only requires creating a post. The impact of that accessibility can be unexpectedly far-reaching, especially for this campus — consider that only 4,403 students cast votes for UTSU President during the first round of last year’s UTSU elections, a figure lower than the amount of people who belong to ‘UofT Memes For Edgy Teens.’

In a way, memes are more representative of student beliefs than anything else, as they are so easily accessible and the groups are so democratized. If you really want to understand what’s going on in the student mind — what has resulted from our unique circumstances, and what issues actually draw people’s attention and concerns — look no further than our meme groups.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women & Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

Fact-checking Facebook

How getting our news from social media changes the nature of the information we receive

Fact-checking Facebook

On October 31, The Independent reported that more than 126 million Americans may have been exposed to Facebook posts “disseminated by Russian-linked agents seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election.” This astounding figure, representing more than half of eligible American voters, is indicative not only of the serious effects that foreign agents may have had in the 2016 American election, but also of a larger trend in the way that people access news.

Accessing news from social media instead of from more traditional providers like television and newspapers is becoming increasingly popular. According to Pew research from August, two-thirds of Americans report that they get at least some of their news directly from social media sites, with 20 per cent confessing that they do so “often.”

The source from which news is accessed has an important effect on the nature of the information received. And although it is easy enough to mandate that social media platforms regulate themselves by blocking or labeling misinformation, this may prove to be far easier said than done.

While we should be concerned that news providers — in this case, Facebook and Twitter especially — are motivated by profit instead of by truth, the problem is far more nuanced than that. Media sources have long been businesses first and foremost. The first news program to be broadcast in colour was Camel News Caravan, brought to you by Camel cigarettes. Walter Cronkite, long known as “the most trusted man in America,” uttered slogans for Winston Tobacco between segments.

It is not the profit motive that makes getting news from social media so dangerous; rather, it is what profit motivates these platforms to be. Whereas concern for the bottom line prompts traditional media to be fair and balanced, the effects it has on social media are far more nefarious.

Before the ubiquity of social media, a lack of options made the average consumer occasionally frustrated but generally informed — and on the same page as his neighbour who, regardless of political affiliation, ultimately got the same set of facts.

This is because, perhaps paradoxically, the business side of traditional news outlets actually incentivizes balance and parity of points of view. As long as the information cannot be tailored to suit the preferences and biases of each individual viewer, fostering a sense of fairness and impartiality is simply the best way to maximize viewership. The left-leaning viewer and the right-leaning viewer are forced, due to simple dearth of options, to get their news from the same source. For this reason, to avoid losing half of the market, traditional news outlets have had to be balanced enough to keep people of all political stripes tuning in.

Today, the algorithms that determine our news feeds are not hindered by lack of options. It turns out that people prefer confirmation to truth, agreeability to variation, and corroboration of previously held views over new, challenging evidence. Within Facebook’s incessantly shifting network are innumerable echo chambers, enclosed by a barrier that is impenetrable to dissenting views: profit. Now that the news provider can tailor the information it provides to the exact preferences of the viewer, the profit motive — which seeks only to ensure eyeballs on advertisements — no longer values impartiality, but rather the continued confirmation and exacerbation of those preferences.

As long as we prefer to return to sources that confirm our views, it is difficult to foresee how getting news from social media could be anything but divisive. Many have called for the platforms themselves to clearly distinguish disreputable information on their sites; Facebook has begun to do so by designing a new banner that will alert viewers to posts that are disputed by the requisite number of sources.

However, these measures can only address a small part of the larger problem. We need to begin by distinguishing two issues: the proliferation of false informatio and the entirely different issue of inaccessibility of dissenting views.

The first issue seems, at least at first glance, far easier to fix — social media should clearly indicate when false information is being presented. However, this solution is not as simple as it seems. For starters, it’s one thing to remove an unfounded news piece from the site, and it’s quite another to censure the contributions of actual individual users.

Using social media as news sources blurs the line between news providers and news consumers. This is troubling because while there is a long tradition of holding news providers accountable if their content is manifestly false, the rest of us are not usually held to the same standard. But social media is built around the contributions of individual users, and there is a big difference between fact-checking content submitted by third-party sources or corporations and censoring the views of regular people.

This applies just as much to opinion as it does to news. For example, I might write a status about how the Star Wars prequels are better than the originals. As obviously false as most would think this claim is, is it Facebook’s responsibility to correct me?

Once social media sites begin marking the submissions of individuals as plainly false or fallacious, it seems inevitable that there will be considerable backlash, even if the demarcation is correct. Also, if the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that people will doubt the credibility of news outlets long before they will doubt their own views. If Facebook positions itself as one of those authorities, it will lose eyeballs and then profits, which will seriously test its resolve.

It is not clear that the problems presented by making social media our primary news source can be solved by intervention from those platforms. This is especially true due to the inaccessibility of challenges to our views. Indeed, the only real solution may be cognizance. It is only awareness of our vulnerability to bias that will make us less vulnerable to misinformation; it is only consciousness of our inherent hostility toward dissent that we might become more accepting of it. If we can learn to question our own biases, to pause for a moment before hitting the ‘share’ button to consider our own motivations, then perhaps we can begin to undo the damage that has been done. One thing, however, is abundantly clear: whatever we’re doing now is not working.

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

Writing on the wall

When it comes to social media, the best strategy is to think before posting

Writing on the wall

The next time you are miserable at work and want to share your unhappiness on social media, you may want to exercise some restraint. This is because an increasing number of organizations are scanning the social media presence of prospective employees, and are unlikely to hire someone who has demonized a former superior. Just one example of this is the case of an Edmonton-based Canada Post clerk, who posted inappropriate comments about the management at her workplace on Facebook and was subsequently fired.

As individuals who are soon to enter a competitive, global job market, these practices concern university students directly. The internet has become the first point of contact for students looking for internships and jobs. Websites for both major and minor organizations make information freely accessible to accommodate, or perhaps respond to, this trend.

Similarly, as noted by Forbes writer Jacquelyn Smith, the use of social media has become an indispensable part of job hunts. In fact, students can proactively pursue the job hunt by following or liking the social media pages of companies that they are interested in.

Therefore, it is imperative to understand that it is the way in which students use social media — not the medium itself — that may create professional hurdles in the future. If students post photographs of themselves indulging in various substances, make prejudiced comments on an online forum, or lie about their qualifications, they are likely to sabotage their employment prospects.

[pullquote-default]It is imperative to understand that it is the way in which students use social media — not the medium itself — that may create professional hurdles in the future.[/pullquote-default]

An example of online activity that has been popular among students and that can damage both their employment prospects and their lives, is the infamous drinking game called “Neknominate,” which has quickly become popular around the world. The game, which requires players to drink a substantial amount of alcohol and then perform a certain task, is filmed and posted on Facebook by onlookers. Consequently, it remains there for anyone to view, and becomes incriminating evidence of idiocy against those who have participated in it. While some players are ridiculed for their stupidity — such as in the case of students holding a peer upside down in order to enable him to drink from a toilet bowl — other games have ended in injury, or even death.

There is a certain degree of peer pressure involved in the online antics of student, so there is plenty that universities can do to help. First-year students, upon arriving at university, are often educated about the dangers of underage alcohol consumption and unprotected sex, and this practice can be applied to the dangers of thoughtless posting. Explaining the patterns of peer pressure that influence our online posts to students is a further, helpful step, as it discourages students from participating in highly risky and careless behaviour.

A lack of awareness of the potential consequences of online carelessness among students can also be addressed by actively sharing this information on campus. For example, colleges can encourage their career advice centres to conduct specific seminars to educate students about what is and what is not acceptable to post online.

At an individual level, students can help each other by spreading awareness about this issue among their circle of friends. Students may remove potentially controversial information from their social media profiles, while being extremely careful about the contents of future posts. This may be challenging given an emerging global culture of instant sharing and detailed, regular expression of personal beliefs, and can only be achieved through focused effort.

[pullquote-default]Colleges can encourage their career advice centres to conduct specific seminars to educate students about what is and is not acceptable to post online.[/pullquote-default]

Social media is slowly, but surely, becoming pervasive in all spheres of human interaction. Therefore, it is likely that its role in our professional lives will continue to expand. It is clear that, if not used wisely, it can harm students’ career prospects. Therefore, we must make a conscious effort to use it thoughtfully.

Sonali Gill is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying criminology and international relations.

Edgy thoughts 

The radical ideas of online fringe groups can make a real world impact

Edgy thoughts 

Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.


The Internet has the ability to affect nearly every facet of a student’s life. If you need to search for a library book, the catalogue is online. If you’re not sure how to cite a source, you can Google it. When you want to know when the next event for a student society is, Facebook is often to first place to check. Even during lectures and classes, students browse websites such as Twitter and reddit, reading the most recent updates on their favourite forums. They are part of different online communities, where they can interact with other users who share their interests and hobbies.

Online communities offer acceptance, support, and rapport. In January, reddit boasted over 19 million unique visitors, and hosted 800,000 individual, user created forums, or ‘subreddits’. Twitter has approximately 320 million monthly active users, while Tumblr has 555 million, and social media behemoth Facebook averages over 1.5 billion active monthly users; most students are members of at least one..

While these sites can provide easy entertainment through bad jokes, cute animal pictures, or inspiring stories, they are also home to more tumultuous communities. Fringe groups, especially those that advocate for radical social and political change, are very active  online. These types of communities — anti-vaxxers, Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) — can become talking points in the public sphere.

Many men who identify as part of the MRA movement believe that there are significant social and legal inequalities affecting men that are not being addressed by society, and particularly by fourth-wave feminism. Issues such as paternity rights and sexual assault are popular topics of discussion on MRA subreddits and Twitter accounts. The forums rarely contain original content; instead, users share newspaper articles which they then discuss. The men’s rights subreddit page (r/MensRights) has 115,676 unique readers, the largest of all mainstream men’s rights related subreddits. r/MensRights is in the top 400 subreddits based on number of subscribers, an accomplishment on a website as popular as reddit. MRA activists are also active on Twitter with several hashtags and accounts devoted to the cause.

Online MRA groups often the cause of controversy. r/RedPill is a subreddit that references The Matrix, where the protagonist takes a red pill to make himself aware of his true surroundings. The majority of its 142,000 subscribers are male, and unlike mainstream MRA groups, these subscribers create the majority of the content. Outrage and anger is expressed at posted personal anecdotes of men being scorned by women, and congratulations are offered for stories about subscribers’ successful sexual encounters. r/RedPill embraces the MRA philosophy of turning “beta” males into “alphas”, anti-feminism, and the techniques of so-called ‘pick up artists. There is a strong sense of community and loyalty in r/RedPill, which some have gone so far to describe as cult-like.

Recently, notorious pick-up artist Daryush Valizadeh, or “Roosh V”, made headlines by calling for the members of his website “Return of Kings” to meet up in person on Feb 2, 2016. While the meetings — one of which would have been held in Queen’s Park — were cancelled two days later, the plans garnered international media attention. This is merely one example of how the actions of a online fringe group can have real world ramifications. 

Online threats of violence against female U of T students were made last September. In an instance of online threats being put into action, in 2014 Elliot Rodger — an active member of the MRA community — committed a mass murder-suicide in California. Before committing the attack, he posted a video claiming that his motives were retribution against women who had rejected him sexually. These events don’t necessarily suggest that online communities are the cause behind such behaviour. However, they offer a unique outlet where radical thoughts can be expressed without judgment or fear of real repercussion. 

Some online communities even have enough clout to influence mainstream politics — anti-vaxxers are a good example. The movement, which began in 1998, believes that vaccines cause autism, among other problems, in young children. Proponents of the “Vaccine Resistance Movement” congregate on Facebook pages and use Twitter to target politicians and lobbyists that are pro-vaccine. They base their beliefs on a now debunked scientific study on the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by a British physician who lost his medical license due to the study. It is now believed that his findings were a correlation, not causation, as signs of autism typically emerge around the same time the MMR vaccine is administered.

While any immunology student studying in Gerstein can tell you that avoiding vaccines can cause serious problems, it wasn’t until last year when a measles outbreak in the United States reinvigorated the public conversation on anti-vaccine philosophy. As such, California lawmakers have now passed legislation preventing parents from citing “personal beliefs” as a reason for not vaccinating their child. It is now mandatory for all children in public schools to be vaccinated. This is a way of preventing the spread of measles and other viruses to not only children, but also to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Even Rand Paul, member of the US Senate and trained physician, has come out against vaccines, but has since become pro-vaccine due to backlash.

As we spend more and more of our time online, we have to be critical with the content of what we choose to engage with. Fringe ideas are making their way to the forefront of our lives with the click of a button. While many of them may be harmless, it’s been proven that radical online thought can incite real world danger.