Social media was going to solve all our ills. It was going to bring people together, let everyone share ideas, catch up with old friends, and unite like-minded people for events and causes.

Facebook would be a giant international forum through which anyone would wander, greeting old friends and new. Twitter would give experts and journalists a place to quickly break news and swap thoughts. LinkedIn would be a kind of super-conference, helping professionals to find work, make connections, and land new clients. And Snapchat? Well, kids needed something that the grown-ups didn’t understand.

And as for businesses, wherever people gather you’ll always find brands trying to talk to them, engage with them, and push their messages.

Unmet expectations?

It hasn’t quite worked out that way—at least not entirely. Although social media is still popular, Facebook’s growth slowed at the end of last year, with the number of daily active users in the US and Canada stagnant at 185 million. In Europe, the platform lost a million daily users. The 126 million daily active users on Twitter are growing at a healthy 9 percent, but there’s another statistic in the figures Twitter released in February 2019 that’s much more revealing.

The number of monthly active users on Twitter is declining. The platform said that it had 321 million monthly users in February, a drop of two percent, or nine million, from the same period last year.

One reason for that fall is a clean out of fake accounts: the bots that churn out automated content en masse. In October 2018, Twitter published a list of 3,841 accounts run by Russia’s cyber-information arm, the IRA, and another 770 accounts that might have come from Iran.  The company said that that those accounts had published more than ten million tweets and two million images, GIFs, and videos. The move follows Facebook’s removal earlier that year of some 583 million fake accounts.

Government-produced misinformation on social media is one problem. But it’s not the only one. While bots and trolls deliberately try to create argument and division on social media platforms, the reason they’re hard to spot is there’s already so much vitriol on social media. Twitter might be a place to speak your mind but the people speaking their mind tend to be those with the most strident opinions. The platform has become a hotbed of outrage and anger.

Consumers woke up

At the same time, users of Facebook are starting to understand just how much information they’re giving away to the company—and how little it cares about their privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook let a third party harvest the data of 50 million profiles, suggested that the company just can’t be trusted. In April this year, Facebook was by hit by three privacy investigations in three different regions in the same day.

Add to those problems the growing concerns about the strange stuff that YouTube’s algorithms recommend to children, and the transformation of Instagram into a platform for cosmetics influencers and it’s clear that social media isn’t quite turning out the way we’d hoped.

And yet social media remains popular because at its heart is an ability to bring people together from around the world. That desire remains strong and it’s a need that a smart company can meet. If the social media platforms are going to grow healthily, they’re going to need to be transparent about the data they hold about their users, and protect that data from unauthorized use. They’ll also need to be quicker to remove bots and trolls, and promote high-value content that sets the standard.

There are signs that social media companies are already acting to clean up their platforms. Facebook has cut off third-party services that trawl data, and Twitter is actively looking for bots. If they don’t do it, a new company will.