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Should you unfriend the NSA?

My name is Liz, and I'm a social media addict. It's become worse since I got my first iPhone a year ago (why yes, I am a late adopter, thanks. Grad students do what they can.) I check my accounts when I wake up; I have my phone anyway to turn off my alarm, so why not? It's right there. And when I go to bed; I'm plugging my phone in to charge, and it's right there. And pretty much every hour in between.

After all, how else would I know that my best friend's husband's little sister likes the same band I do, or that the girl I sat next to in freshman psychology just had her second kid?

Facetiousness aside, I really do like keeping up on the news, the vital (Syria updates) and not so vital (latest trends in planking.) Whether or not you agree with me, you may have been surprised to learn the extent of the National Security Agency's sharing of our communications, including phone calls, emails and Internet use, with little to none of the protections we thought we were afforded. The recent revelations made by Edward Snowden are nothing if not unnerving, and they keep coming.

Knowing  your Tweets may be making their way to Israel, London or the very least the branch of the friendly NSA office near you may give you pause. As one person said on Facebook recently, “I use Facebook and Twitter a lot and I'm struggling. By encouraging use of these sites through my own sharing, am I contributing to the unethical way these companies and governments exploit the information of the people who use these sites? The more I learn, the more I want to delete my accounts and encourage others to do the same.”

But is this a viable option? Will closing your Facebook, tweeting your last and swearing off YouTube and Instagram protect you from the widespread corporate and institutional abuse that has characterized many companies and parts of our government for the past 50 years?

Maybe. Maybe not.

As of September 2013, Twitter boasted 288 million users, and Facebook 1.15 billion. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Forty-five million photos are uploaded to Instagram each day. (Forty million of those are taken by the same teenager attempting the perfect selfie in her bathroom mirror. But I digress.)

Social media is used by any business worth their salt. Seventy percent of business-to-consumer marketers gained customers through Facebook in 2013, and it's projected to account for 13 percent of worldwide mobile ad revenue this year. That's just Facebook — I won't bore you with stats from LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and other big players, because I believe my point is clear.

A bunch of people are using social media.

They're using it to talk. The world's conversation is now taking place on the Internet. As much as we wax nostalgically for the times when people talked in person, the bulk of our public discourse now takes place over message boards and on various social media platforms.

People who (understandably) desire to distance themselves from corporate and governmental corruption usually do so for two reasons: it personally bothers them, and they want to make a difference. If swearing off social media helps you sleep better at night and that's what you want, hit that delete button and don't look back.

But if you're doing it to make a difference, are you sure you're making the right decision? I would argue you're not. By deleting your social media accounts you're missing out on the chance to participate in the larger public discourse on important social issues of our time — civil and voting rights, gun rights, race relations, whether or not to go to war, religion, and women's rights, among others. All these discussions take place on the Internet. Yes, they also take place in person. But the Internet and social media allows conversations to include a wider and deeper audience than ever before, and geographical barriers no longer exist.

Deactivating your accounts hardly distances you from corruption, by the way. If you live in America and choose to buy gas for your car, use a cell phone, purchase postage stamps or buy packaged foods of any kind, you're most likely supporting some kind of corporation or subsidiary that allows or enforces corruption, mistreatment of workers, substandard pay or pollution. Not only do these corporations have an extremely wide reach, each corporation often owns many other corporations that many consumers are unaware of, including media outlets.

Why not use your power as a social media user to make a positive difference, like the petition-signers on Change.org, or the makers of the To This Day anti-bullying project on YouTube? Tell the world about injustices being done by the big corporations. Too many people, especially religious people, choose to retreat from the world in disgust. While that emotion is understandable, it's not going to create any change.

I believe in meeting the people where they're at. Like it or not, the world has adopted social media. That doesn't mean “real” conversation no longer has a viable place in the public discourse, it's just made room for a different kind of talk. I'd like to be a part of that conversation.

About Elizabeth Backstrom

Elizabeth Backstrom majored in journalism at Western Washington University and currently works as a content analyst and grant writer in Spokane. Her background is in newswriting and features, but if an overabundance of caffeine is consumed, she has been known to write a humor piece or two. Backstrom attended various Christian churches growing up in Spokane and currently attends First Covenant Church, an inner-city ministry in downtown Spokane.

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One comment

  1. Mike, on Facebook said, “Very helpful post! I still go back and forth on some of this particularly as these companies use the data to put together apps, programs and other products that are – literally – irresistible; as governments groups are using this data to try and break political movements (as they and corporate interests used it with Occupy); and as predictive/relationship software was used to arrest anarchists from Olympia and hold them in detention because of the information it was assumed they were withholding. If the ability to share an opinion on social media also means that organizing work to change policy or systems can be undercut before it begins then the the trade off of using social media is not an even one. These organizations are getting more from me/us than we/I are receiving. The benefits of using social media are, without question, huge. But the problems might still be larger… We trusted these organizations and they have proven untrustworthy, duplicitous and manipulative. So, what do we do?”

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