October 20, 2020

Our own Social Dilemma

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Have you deleted all your social media apps? Is that truly the right way moving forward?
Christos Constantinou
Christos Constantinou

Director of Operations at Brave Bison

New Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, has sparked a lot of conversation around some of the benefits, but, far more prominently, the many disadvantages that come with a social media-obsessed world.

Some viewers were filled with anxiety and nervousness when finding out that social media companies can track users’ actions when spending time on social platforms.

The documentary explores a lot of the problems and challenges that we are currently facing with social media and it tries to bring to light how the social media algorithms really work and can change your behaviours. Likewise, the documentary also explains how tech companies actually monetise content on social platforms and how some have now become the richest companies in the history of humanity. 

5 important issues the documentary raises:

  1. Humans are products, with advertisers and apps symbiotically competing for your time
  2. Social media has impacted our generation and has been the cause of issues including mental health challenges, addiction, isolation and depression. Suicide rates of girls aged 10-14 have increased by 159% in the US since 2010/2011 (Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) 
  3. Social media has the ability to gradually, slightly, imperceptibly change your own behaviour and perception. Changing what you do, what you think and who you are.
  4. This is certainly not a new topic, but still extremely important: Fake News. 
  5. Even though newspapers, TV and telecommunications companies have laws and regulations around the world, social media platforms (AI in most cases) are their own regulators.

Although I could talk about all 5 subjects for hours, I’m going to explore the first point in this piece.

Humans being treated like products is not a new thing. People have always been considered as products, with advertisers or sellers trying to find the best way to get to the consumer and sell their merchandise, using billboards, radio adverts, TV ads, physical stores, etc. We’re consumed by social media every day and users will see ads everywhere across platforms, so it is easy to put two and two together and understand that ad revenue is the foremost way that these platforms get paid. Most platforms give 55% of all advertiser revenue back to the publisher or creator, which then allows them to create and produce more content. That revenue flows through our economy and allows more people to have the ability to become entertainers/producers/screenwriters outside of the traditional mediums.

How do platforms and advertisers work together?

The platforms are storing every single move that you make and are especially interested in the number of times you engage with specific posts and videos. The platforms can then identify what kind of post/video you engage with the most. Is it sports, science, travel, animals? It’s this insight that allows for the platform’s algorithm to place users into content categories that you are most likely to interact with. These categories are then used by advertisers who are looking to target specific audiences. 

For example; I am 35 years old and I read and view a lot of football content on social media. If an advertiser like FIFA or Nike has created a football ad and they are pushing the ad on social media, targeting 18-35 year olds, then I would most likely receive their ad. If you watch a lot of beauty videos, you would most likely receive more beauty product ads.

Now, I acknowledge that it sounds a bit scary to be put into a box with an algorithm always checking what I like and trying to understand who I am. But, first things first. There is no way that a human can go and find your profile directly and read specifically what you have been doing or who you are. So, even though many data insights are stored about you as a user, they are used only by the algorithm and the software itself to help serve advertisers. Secondly, the acquired data is only accessible via the social media platform; advertisers have no viewability or access to the users themselves and can not take that data and use it for something else.

What’s next?

The ability to target someone as granularly as possible – and the ability to create lookalike audiences that are found on social media platforms – is not only given to advertisers, but whoever wants to grow their “Page” or “Profile” or launch any sort of campaign. A tool that powerful, with few regulations and an AI system acting as a gatekeeper, leaves itself vulnerable to whoever has money and wants to manipulate, incite fear and cause divides across society. Following the Russian interference scandal around the elections, Facebook announced that they would not allow any sort of political messages to be pushed on their platform using this tool.

Facebook has also said that they need to develop more AI tools that recognise users’ behaviour patterns and allow them to combat these sorts of issues. Human expertise and better regulations are the only way forward in combating this issue. However, we need to stop being reactive and be a lot more proactive with the regulations. YouTube employed 10,000 humans to monitor their content 3 years ago when they lost a lot of advertisers due to brand safety concerns and they have also stopped using programmatic advertising on kids’ content last year. However, this was a reactive measure after the issue actually came to light. Each tech company has experienced different challenges and issues around regulations and all have made their own mistakes, so it is now time for all of them to align their efforts with a council that can create responsible regulations. This would also prevent a new social media platform from making the same mistakes in allowing user data to be manipulated again and consequently bringing more chaos.

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary, you really should.

Knowledge is power and all social users should understand how social media works, which will allow for fewer mistakes and less manipulation going forward. Always be aware of the impact of misinformation and think twice about what you are reading. YouTube and Facebook are making strides to authenticate Verification ticks, which, so far, has included removing quite a few channels that didn’t meet standards. Every social user should ensure that their information is coming from a legitimate and trustworthy source. This is not something that we would ideally have to do ourselves, but unfortunately until another solution is found, social media users must act to police the content they consume and break through the Fake News barrier to find authentic and honest content that can help make social media a safe place for all.

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