Social media is so intertwined with our everyday lives that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It has in many instances been a boon to humanity, allowing people to keep in touch quickly regardless of distance, to warn of impending disaster, to coordinate in times of crisis, and to provide support during turbulent times.
As with anything though, there’s always a dark side. I don’t just mean the hate speech or the extreme political rhetoric; I mean the way social media is capable of manipulating its users.
Why would they do that? The answer is commerce. If a platform makes its money from selling advertising, then it stands to reason that it would want to maximise its profits.
Let’s be clear: Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like are not just social media applications, they’re giant corporate bodies with their own designs and desires on the world. We like to connect and chat with people of similar interests as well as keep up with friends and family. Social media is the umbrella term to cover anywhere online that we share media (videos, images, quotes and posts) that we’ve created or discovered. Very profitable.
It’s also important to note that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram don’t produce any content themselves. Nothing, nada, zilch, zip. This does not stop them from multi-billion dollar valuations.
Who does create the content then? Well, we do. We are both the consumers and creators of the content that makes billions in advertising profits for these companies, and we don’t get our cut.
In order to maximise profits, the platform needs to know all about you. The more they know, the more valuable the data is to advertisers. The more data advertisers can get, the more successful their advertising is and the more money they make from you.
Facebook, Google, and others follow you around the web, observing what sites you visit and what you do on those sites. Google, through its free Gmail service, scans the content of your emails. It announced in June that it would no longer scan them for advertising, BUT it hasn’t confirmed that it will not still scan them.
Think about that for a moment, you think that your Gmail is secure and private, yet Google scans each email. It’s looking for ‘keywords’ that would be useful in knowing what ads to place before you.
Ever wondered why after you’ve been searching for something, you get ads from sites you’ve visited or related sites showing up in Gmail? Now you know.
Google, who creates no content, scans your most private content to ensure you get targeted by the right ads. Personalized for you, by you, without your consent.
Just in case you were confused, Google has two main places for advertisers to catch your attention. The search results–where the first results you see are ads–then what they call the ‘display network.’ This is a network of sites not owned by Google but which ‘display’ ads from Google.
Your interests are valuable assets for the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
Facebook has apologised for manipulating the emotions of its users in “emotional contagion experiments”. So, there is no doubt that they do manipulate us, even for their own R&D.
We’ve established that they do manipulate us, and why. It all comes down to money. Do they censor us though?
Yes, as a matter of fact they do. Not by refusing to display something on the platform (other than content that is firmly illegal like child porn), no they censor what we see with the use of their algorithms.
The Facebook newsfeed algorithm determines what you see based on many factors, most of which Facebook keeps secret. However, it’s safe to say that the more you interact with content, be it from a friend or business page, the more content you will see from them.
You won’t see all the status updates and posts your family and friends make unless you have so few and don’t follow any ‘pages’. Even then, Facebook will show you sponsored posts based on what you’ve shown interest in across the web. Remember, I did tell you that Facebook was following you around the web along with Google and others!
Is this good or bad? In my opinion: bad. Think about this, in 2010 Facebook conducted an experiment. Here’s a quote from the abstract of the research paper:
Human behaviour is thought to spread through face-to-face social networks, but it is difficult to identify social influence effects in observational studies, and it is unknown whether online social networks operate in the same way. Here we report results from a randomized controlled trial of political mobilization messages delivered to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 US congressional elections.
The results show that the messages directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people. Furthermore, the messages not only influenced the users who received them but also the users’ friends, and friends of friends.
They admit that they played with the political scene. Did this actually affect the outcome? Strangely enough they don’t say. But you can read for yourself here if you’re interested.
What if a political party had access to this type of influential manipulation? Would you still be happy about it?
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s also a different kind of censorship. It’s the censorship that happens when the big dogs on the platform have the money to drown the little ones.
If you’re an activist, you used to be able to reach a fair amount of people with your message. Now it’s a different matter; without money to spend, your message is unlikely to reach a wider audience. If you’re just posting about what you did last night (so not an activist) then you probably don’t care too much.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to raise awareness of something locally, nationally, or globally then it’s a very different matter.
Without money to pay for ‘sponsored posts’ your reach is severely curtailed. Why? Because they’re not making any money from you directly, though they’re still making money from your content.
Social media, as it is today, is centralised (under the control of the corporation), authoritarian, biased towards powerful entities, and makes fortunes out of our content.
Is there a better way?
Ever heard of bitcoin, Ethereum or blockchain? I’m not going to try and explain these here, because we’re talking about social media. In short, blockchain is the underlying technology for both bitcoin and Ethereum. It’s also a technology that decentralises control.
If we take Facebook as an example, all of the information that Facebook collects about us resides in a central database (a ledger). We have no control over that data and no access to it. Even if you delete posts, you have no way of knowing whether those posts (and the sentiment data they provided) is deleted from that central database.
There is also an inherent security risk in a central database: it’s easier to hack something where you can spend months probing for a weakness. Just think about the number of news stories about large companies being hacked and YOUR personal information being stolen.
A decentralised database on the other hand has two main things going for it. The first is, of course, that the database is held on many computers worldwide. Therefore, the risk of hacking is reduced to practically zero (although no one would say it’s not theoretically possible) and your personal information is safer. The second benefit is from what is termed the ‘consensus algorithm’ used in blockchain technology. This simply means that each copy of the database must match (yes for the techies among you, the majority must match) for a change to be accepted.
See this video for a simple explanation:
Blockchain, by providing this level of decentralisation, can take control away from the corporate raiders and puts it firmly back in our hands.
Social Media on the Blockchain
If you create content on the blockchain-based social media platforms, it remains yours. It no longer becomes something that corporations can use to make billions, unless you decide to allow it.
There are several up and coming platforms in the blockchain-based social media space. Some of them pay you to do what you already do on Facebook. Some of them are more like decentralised publishing platforms like Medium. These make publishing your own content easier even though you’re not going to get the reach of Amazon. But then, you also won’t pay the royalty fees either. Amazon won’t promote your book unless you pay money, a lot of money if you’re a new author.
- Ong Social
Ong Social is both a Facebook-like sharing platform and a social media dashboard for sharing to other sites. It’s issuing its own coins, the ICO has ended and the site should go live in the next month.
It sells advertising and shares the revenue, allows you to control which ads are shown alongside your content or even whether or not ads are shown alongside your content. You can earn tokens by sharing, reposting, commenting, etc. You can share to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks including Steem. So if you just want to use a more honest social media platform, this is one to consider.
Embermine is aimed at creatives, that is, writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and anyone who needs/wants to publish original creative work. This is a place where you can not only publish your content and pay NO royalties, it’s a place where you can find collaborators for your artistic endeavours. If you’re a writer, you can find editors and book cover designers to work with. While it’s main function as a commercial platform is to streamline the collaboration and distribution process, there will be community engagement that will generate signal boosts and discussion around projects. It has an enthusiastic and dedicated community which supports each other.
Steem is a social blogging platform that incentivizes the creation and curation of good content. The more interesting and popular your content is, the more you potentially earn. Although still in beta, Steemit has managed to develop a vibrant community, making it one of the most popular blockchain-based applications available. More like Medium than Facebook. It costs nothing to join, you post what you want, and if people like it, you earn rewards.
Yours is essentially Medium with a paywall. No quick status updates here. You essentially set a paywall with a certain cost to reveal the rest of the content. Currently, the earnings are in Bitcoin Cash, not Bitcoin.
Akasha is ‘a next generation social media network.’ It seems stalled in the early stages of development, but there could be any number of reasons for this. It seems to be an censorship-free alternative to Facebook, built on Ethereum and the Inter-Planetary File System (IPFS). If anyone has more info, please comment.
The use cases of blockchain go beyond financial applications. It’s a technology that has the potential to change the way we do almost everything from supply chain verification to ensuring charities spend the money you give them where they say they will.
Many applications also have their own tokens which they offer for sale. Some are just for internal use on the platform, others are for trading and converting to fiat currency. If you want to support or invest in these projects, make sure you do your own research and due diligence. ‘Caveat Emptor’ (buyer beware).
- http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full.pdf – Facebook experiment on emotional manipulation
- https://www.minds.com/ (censorship-free, cooperatively owned social network, without blockchain)
Image via Adobe Stock