Algorithmic Manipulation & Privacy Intrusions: 

the slippery slope of social media and electronic devices.

by Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

“Even being outdoors does not dissuade people from getting off their phones. They still stare at their tiny screens … liking photos of people they’ve never met … commenting on their lives while they comment on yours. Do you have any idea of what’s happening in the world we live in? Do you think the photo on your screen has anything to do with that world? Do you realise that the world we live in is slowly shrinking? Are you aware there is a tiny group of men who are buying it and striping it naked … and selling you what they extract. They are raping your world and selling you what they take. They are selling you the water we drink … the air that we breath … and we line up for it like sheep. They will kill your brother and steal your child and pollute everything you love — and you’ll never notice because you’re so hypnotised by a world that doesn’t exist.”

This month’s “Perspective” begins with an ominous passage from the TV drama series Yellowstone, which is intended to challenge and provoke readers about social media in general and the technologies associated with it. No doubt many of you will resist or roll your eyes at what I’m about to suggest — that the time has come for us to have a serious review and renegotiation around social media. In fact, this process is long overdue. A recent Neflix documentary film (The Social Dilemma) has also come to a similar conclusion, raising a range of concerns and alarms, including that of psychological manipulation.

Who doesn’t love all the cool technological wizardry that comes with our phones and devices today? However, the thing is, most people have not realised that there is a rather significant trade off for all the amazing things we can do with our toys. And the cost for it is that we (willingly) handover our personal information and details as the price we pay for all that amazing stuff. What so many are unaware of, or worse are apathetic about, is that the small handful of companies involved exploit and manipulate the use of this information on multiple levels to further advance their business model, and make even more profits. They (aggressively) track your browsing habits to sell to targeted advertisers and sell off or provide this information to other companies which we may not otherwise have done ourselves.

Beyond that (as if that wasn’t serious enough on its own), another concern is related to the enormous volume of misinformation that is peddled on social media. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok and numerous others have become so entrenched in our day-to-day ways of being that they have become primary sources of news and information for many. Yet, they are not held to even similar standards that other journalistic platforms operate under. 

It is well documented that the previous President of the United States has publicly lied to the American people well more than 22,000 times during his term in office. And his “big lie” continues to perpetrated and impact democracy in America even to this day. According to a new study from Cornell University, Trump is the worlds biggest spreader of coronavirus misinformation. And only recently has there been any effort at all to address his efforts to foment so much derision and misinformation — that is patently false. The response from these companies defending the integrity of America’s democracy from infections like disinformation and violent extremism that fester and spread online have been sorely inadequate.

The practice of determining effective business service or outcomes based on the amount of “likes” your site can generate is a dubious enterprise in my view. I find social media influencers generally contribute and advance the disingenuousness of how we consider such a process. In fact, such a process often doesn’t actually attempt to measure effectiveness or satisfaction at all, but rather some alternate social media popularity component. Underlying this dynamic is a systematic “dumbing down” of America’s intellect. The current business models of social media companies do not thrive in an environment of enlightened critical thinkers. Rather, they filter and fragment users into smaller groups using algorithms that redirects them to like-minded or similar groups that ultimately reinforces a (false) reality bubble that is often at odds with facts or the truth (or reality).

Big Tech’s top companies have achieved market power of historic proportions within the global communications infrastructure. What’s more, they’ve systematically exploited data and attention at the expense of individual consumers, public safety and the health of democracy. There is an entire industry of people devoted to ensure we become addicted to their social network or app and remain addicted. So, along the way these devices that were once applauded as “tools” to enhance our lives became something far more sinister and destructive.

Ironically, our addiction to these social media networks have changed our relationship with the world and even ourselves. People are more isolated than ever, even though constantly connected. We’ve become addicted to these apps and find it hard to get through a day without them. We don’t know what people look like anymore, because we’re so used to seeing everyone behind a filter. We don’t know how to be in the present moment anymore, without sharing that present moment on social media. What started out as networks to connect us, have left us more disconnected and fragmented and angrier than ever. Some time over the past 10 years we began to live in separate bubbles and we completely lost our ability to understand where the other side is coming from.

In an orientation for casual academics, there was a concerted effort to promote an in-class app to monitor if students were travelling well. You know the drill … in order to execute this, one had to set up an account; access the University wi-fi; and log in to receive messages, yada … yada. Rather than ask the class to raise their hands if they liked something, there was clear pressure to go through multiple steps to accomplish the same thing on an electronic device. Last week in a staff meeting, a similar experience was suggested. Rather than engage with each other directly, with each professional taking a turn to lead the group in such an experience; the suggestion was to create a professional circle where we could all share a meditation app. 

I find the tendency to push everything to a screen or electronic device when it is both preferable and more efficient to engage and communicate directly to be disturbing. Consider our young people today. In the midst of the pandemic their education shifted to zoom classrooms. Most of their homework and assignments are accessed online. Their social interaction unfolds on social media platforms as well as texting, messaging, etc. Entertainment is now also predominantly accessed via streaming services or via video games. Nearly every waking moment is hijacked by an electronic device or a screen of some kind.

India is an example of a country that made a statement by turning away from some of these things. India was TikTok’s fourth-biggest market, and Indians were using TikTok widely — but the Indian government decided that the privacy and security risk was simply too great and shut the app down in the country. While Trump made initial superficial attempts to do similar things with apps from China (albeit for his own convoluted reasons and rationale), the outcome may may be worthwhile in the end. We should also applaud the Australian government who recently stood up to Google regarding news feeds. 

Facebook however, is a global powerhouse that many are increasingly concerned with. Their actions in Australia demonstrate that the company is not compatible with democracy. Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power. It is high time that governments around the world limit the market power of such gatekeeper platforms. It’s an illustration of the extraordinary power a private company wields in a public space. 

Many governments and politicians around the world are concerned about that and want more direct political and regulatory oversight over how they wield that power. Facebook’s actions demonstrate why regulators need to coordinate globally to create a truly level playing field between the tech giants and news publishers.

Ultimately, this is about social justice — an underlying principle in the Social Work profession. And thus, I call upon the AASW (and other organisations as well) to review their policies around using and promoting social media platforms across all of its portfolio’s. Is campaigning for “likes” really the evidence-base data you’ll accept to determine effectiveness of your services or programs? Do we really want to use Facebook groups to communicate, when Facebook is notorious for disseminating so much mis-information? Does AASW really support electronic-based service delivery (relying heavily on social media platforms) over live interaction and human connection?

In the end, we all need a new digital contract — a new bargain between companies whose profits have become extraordinary and users whose privacy has become nearly extinguished. It’s about ensuring the power from these companies does not exploit consumers. That’s the problem right now: Google searchers, iPhone carriers, Facebook posters and Amazon shoppers are facing daily privacy intrusions, algorithmic manipulation and disinformation propagation that they’re not prepared to address through individual choices, given the astounding market shares these companies enjoy.

Such negotiation will be short-lived however, if we are unwilling to set down our phones and go outside and enjoy the sunshine every now and then.

References

  1. Yellowstone TV Drama Series. Paramount Network.
  2. The Social Dilemma. Neflix.
  3. Siemaszko, C.  Why are Americans so confused about Covid-19? Blame Trump, Cornell study says (2 Oct 2020). https://www.syracuse.com/coronavirus/2020/10/cornell-study-president-trump-is-biggest-source-of-coronavirus-misinformation.html