Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

This is the year our social media innocence died. Sadly, the biggest tech trend this year is the one that has dominated headlines: how social media, despite its personal sharing intentions, has become a cesspool of hatred, trolling, threats of violence against women and revenge porn.

It has been easily manipulated by Russian propagandists and right-wing fascists, as well as other fringe groups. And then there is the rampant misogyny, disgraceful attacks on prominent women (and the threats of rape) and the seeming indifference of Twitter and Facebook towards preventing such abuse. Social media, in short, has been weaponised. Created in a democracy and used by people to express themselves, it has been turned into a tool for powerful manipulation by narrow interest groups.

The rot is there, and has taken hold of how our societies communicate

Then there are the millions of "bots" used to foment propaganda, like those used by the Guptas and their various malevolent lackeys, including the disgraced Bell Pottinger.

Social media is no longer just about fear of missing out, or reaching an audience, or building a community. Social media has been captured.

A stream of high-profile former executives and investors, particularly from Facebook, have gone public to express their remorse at the monster they say they helped create.

Justin Rosenstein, the man who built Facebook’s Like button, flagellated himself for helping create what
he called "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure ... everyone is distracted.
All of the time".

His comments follow former Facebook vice-president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya’s that "we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works".

Social media not only takes people’s attention away from real news, and real sources of news, but is eating away at media organisations by stealing the digital advertising that supports a free and accurate media.

Equally, fake news is a major threat to our democracy. But it was only towards the end of the year, during US senate hearings into Russian electoral manipulation, that executives at these powerful firms admitted just how bad it was.

Perhaps the most damaging is the slow, irreversible way we have surrendered our privacy online — giving away this precious commodity to social media networks, oversharing our activities, posting endless pictures of our children and other things that should stay private.

The death of our privacy will be the thing we regret the most.

What is the solution? The jury will spend a long time debating that. But just as we know Markus Jooste did something that caused Steinhoff to implode, we know social media has moral accounting and democratic auditing problems whose far-reaching consequences are being revealed.

The rot is there, and has taken hold of a now vital part of how our societies communicate. We just don’t know how gangrenous it is.

• Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine