Why is social media so popular? What is it that is bringing 16 new people into some social platform around the world every second? It’s not just that it’s a good way to keep in touch with family and friends, share photos of our children and pets or communicate quickly and efficiently across the globe. We could do that with good old email. What draws people to social media is, essentially, that it’s fun. Behind every feature a social media network has is the intention of making the user’s experience as much fun as possible. And that’s a good thing. But in the midst of all the sharing, posting, commenting and watching dogs, cats and birds do all kinds of amazing and funny things, users began to realize there was a darker, not too pleasant side to social media and criticisms and controversies began to arise. Here’s a quick look at some of the big ones.
This is the big one. The granddaddy of all social media controversies. When you sign up for most social media platforms, registration is completely free and gives you access to a lot of cool, fun, interesting features, most often with no extra cost. Former Chilean president Salvador Piñera once said that “Education is free. But someone has to pay for it”. If you walked by a restaurant that offered people free all-you-can-eat meals, you’d probably check it out. So would I, for that matter. But at some point you have to wonder how they can be profitable. Even if it’s not-for-profit, a company will always need funds to remain functioning. Social media companies are no different. So where does their income come from? What product are they selling? In many cases, the answer is that the product they’re selling is you.
Social media networks like Facebook collect a lot of data from their users. Some of that data you provide willingly: your name, address, email, phone number, birth date. But they also collect a lot of information you don’t realize they’re getting, even without you ever consenting to them doing that. Every time you “like” a page, for example, Facebook knows what type of page it is and can build a digital profile about you that can help other companies target their ads to be shown only to people who are more likely to be interested in their products. This information is very valuable to companies. Although Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly denied that Facebook sells personal information to other companies, Facebook has admittedly shared data with others, especially those who are partners or have invested significant amounts of money.
Facebook has also had its good share of privacy-related controversies. They were accused of using personal information to target ads during Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. The information was collected not only from users who had done so willingly by signing up for a service, but also from their friends who had no idea what was happening. In 2018 they admitted that an app related to Cambridge Analytica had managed to collect personal information from over 87 million accounts during 2014. That same year they were fined for 5 billion dollars by the FTC for using security phone numbers in advertising. Facebook also admitted to allowing over 150 companies to access to user’s personal data including private messages and private posts between 2010 and 2018, in spite of claiming they had ceased to do so years before 2018.
And privacy issues are common in Facebook, they aren’t exclusive to it. Twitter admitted to “unintentionally” allowing usage of user’s personal data for ad targeting. Remember Google+? I won’t blame you if you don’t but it was a social network created by Google. Although very few people actually used it, they still managed to expose personal information for over 52 million users in 2018. PayPal constantly shares users’ personal information with hundreds of companies, including marketers, publicists, commercial partners and government agencies. Although not a social media platform, Amazon also shares users’ personal information with retailers and business partners.
Media-centric social media platforms rely on content creators to keep the service alive and fun. What would YouTube be without people creating and sharing new content every day. There are people who signed up just so they could follow their favourite YouTubers. Instagram and Pinterest also owe much of their popularity to the people who upload photos and videos there every day. You would think that these platforms would give handsome rewards to the people that keep the service alive, but that’s not the case. Most social media platforms offer little chance for users to monetize their content. Let’s talk about YouTube as an example of this.
YouTube does allow monetization. But to earn any money, first you have to get at least 1,000 subscribers into your channel and thousands of hours of viewing time in your content to become a partner. After you achieve that, you still won’t get paid for creating great content. The way you actually get paid is that once you’re popular enough, companies will pay YouTube to run ads on top of your videos and YouTube will pay you a percentage of what they’re getting. So even if you’re creating the best content, getting millions of views, likes and comments, if you have only 999 subscribers, you’ll be getting nothing. Instagram is even harder, limiting monetization options to sponsored content. And you need to be a pretty big name before companies will want to pay you to mention their products in your videos.
Even the platforms that allow monetization will take a nice chunk out of what the advertisers are paying. For example, for every 100$ that a company pays Google to run ads on top of your content, Google gives you 55$ and keeps 45$ for themselves. That might not sound that bad at first, because Google is giving you more than it’s taking for themselves. But remember that it’s taking 45% of the ad revenue from millions and millions of users each month. That quickly adds up to a lot of money. Google made almost 147 billion dollars from ad revenue in 2020 alone; Facebook, over 84 billion and Twitter pulled in about 3.7 billion from ad revenue. Of the big three, Twitter is the only one struggling to remain profitable, but Google and Facebook could surely be a little more generous with their content creators and still turn a good profit. And this doesn’t even take into account the profit they make from selling user data. We’ll probably never know for sure just how much that is.
Once upon a time, posts in your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds would appear in strict chronological order and YouTube recommendations were based on popularity alone. That’s not how things work anymore. Now almost every big social media platform sorts and recommends content based on computational algorithms. Do you have friends or family members on Facebook or Instagram that you hardly ever see in your feeds? You might want to head over to their profiles and check. For some reason, the algorithms don’t treat all of your friends equally. You’ll almost always have a handful of them that are always in your feed and others hardly ever, even though the latter might be posting regularly.
On YouTube the algorithm issue is even more unfair. YouTube’s homepage is always full of recommendations for you. A lot of those recommendations come from channels you follow or YouTubers you watch frequently. But some of them come from YouTube’s algorithm. And for some reason, the algorithm tends to favor conspiracy theories, flat earthers and content farms. Lots and lots of content farms. For those of you that don’t know, content farms are groups of people that work to produce tons of videos very quickly. A lot of them are about “life hacks”, “cooking hacks” or DIY and crafts. If you’ve ever heard of “5-Minute Crafts”, “Tasty”, “Blossom”, “So Yummy” and other channels that publish a lot of videos with titles like “20 hacks that will change your life!” The content in these videos is often faked (the “hacks” don’t actually work) and some are even dangerous. A lot of people have been injured trying to replicate those tips or recipes. And the even bigger problem is that the algorithm promotes them over some great content created by very talented YouTubers, some of which make videos debunking what the content farms are putting out. In a way, YouTube’s algorithm is rewarding those content farms, as being featured more often will likely convert to more views, more ads displayed and higher revenue. The best content can, unfortunately, remain hidden by the algorithm under a thick layer of what is, essentially, trash.
Many people think that you can write or say anything on social media and, as long as you’re not overtly breaking the law, there won’t be any problems. But most major platforms have been accused of censoring content that doesn’t fall in line with certain messages, ideas or ideologies. This censorship led US company Prager University to sue YouTube in 2017 for violating their First-Amendment right to Free Speech. The lawsuit ultimately wasn’t successful because First Amendment rights apply only to state actors, and YouTube is a private platform.
YouTube has always had a hate speech policy. In 2019 this policy was expanded to ban hateful, violent, extremist and supremacist content. This policy also applies to Holocaust denial, Nazi ideology and flat earth theories, among a lot of other topics. Since early 2020 YouTube has also been allegedly censoring information related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. In February this year, several independent journalists documenting the 2021 storming of the US Capitol had their content removed or demonetized for “violating policies on misinformation”. In some cases, including journalist Ford Fischer, his content was later remonetized with Google admitting to “over-enforcing” their policies. Another report of censorship was made by Reuters in June 2021, less than a month before writing this article, saying that YouTube had removed videos from human rights groups that were documenting the human rights abuses that have been called the Uyghur genocide.
And censorship issues are not limited to YouTube. In late 2020, The New York Post published an article claiming to provide solid evidence that Hunter Biden (then vice president Biden’s son) used his father’s position to get special favors for a Ukrainian energy company, which then paid Hunter 50,000$ a month. Within minutes of publication, pro-Biden journalists took to Facebook and Twitter to attack and debunk the article, while vilifying other journalists for simply acknowledging the article’s existence.Within hours Facebook announced it was reducing the article’s distribution, i.e. using its algorithm to make the article harder to find and share. Twitter’s censorship was even harsher. They made it completely impossible to share the article; even through direct messaging. Twitter even went so far as locking The New York Post’s account, preventing them from posting any content for about a day. More recently, Facebook has been accused of censoring Palestinians, by removing content documenting peaceful protests against the 11-day bombardment in Gaza. Users all over the globe have reported that hundreds of posts condemning the eviction of Palestinians from Jerusalem were deleted. It’s a well established fact that Facebook has worked with the Israeli government before, but the full nature of their relationship is unknown.
And remember that Facebook also owns Instagram and Whatsapp, so they pretty much have the power to censor and control communication for billions of people.
When you upload a photo to Facebook or Instagram, or get tagged in a picture shared by a friend or loved one, it can be something great. Unlike old-school photo albums, these posts won’t get lost, faded or water damaged. And as long as you don’t untag yourself or someone deletes the post, it’ll stay there for as long as the service runs. But this very longevity has a big downside. Up to 70% of employers are using social media platforms to research job candidates and a lot of them are making decisions based on what they find. 57% percent of them have admitted to not hiring someone because of what they found on social media. Old photos showing that a promising candidate was a frequent partygoer when they were in college 10 years earlier might make the employer feel the candidate can’t be trusted. Old posts can come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Rich Staffer, president of a recruiting agency, tells the story of one time when his agency was hiring workers for a new daycare. There was one really strong candidate that almost got the job. Until the agency noticed that her twitter account featured posts from the r/ChildrenFallingOver subreddit. Even though the posts were several years old, they believed that a person who made fun of children wouldn’t be a good fit for a daycare and the candidate didn’t receive the offer. Jill Pante, of the University of Delaware Lerner Career Services Center, recalls that they were once deciding between two very skilled and passionate candidates. But when she and her team noticed one candidate’s Facebook profile was full of angry posts and excessive F-word usage, that quickly tipped the balance in favor of the other candidate, who was always polite on social media. And it’s not just old posts. Employees have to be very careful about making posts that could violate company policy or be otherwise considered insensitive or offensive. In 2008, Caitlin Davis, a cheerleader for the New England Patriots, appeared in a picture taken during a college Halloween party. The picture featured 18-year-old Caitlin sitting with a Sharpie in her hand, nexto to an unconscious partygoer that was covered in graffiti that included swastikas and crudely-drawn phallic symbols. She claimed to not making the drawings but admitted she should have been more aware of what was drawn on the person’s body before jumping in for the picture. That didn’t do her much good, as she was quickly booted off the squad.
These and countless other examples illustrate that your past behavior on the traditional social media platforms will always stay with you. Even if the incidents were from years ago, even if you were much younger or not even an adult at the time, and even if they were not in a professional context. If you are less than professional at all times, it might eventually cost you a job at some point. This defeats the entire premise of social media being a place where you can relax and have fun with your family and friends. Now, it’s where employers can and do snoop on your private life and judge you in a professional context at all times.
Wrapping it up
Even though social media is fun and can be a great tool for connecting with old friends or making new ones, these platforms are not without controversies. Being the largest, Facebook is involved in almost all points that concern users. But they are not the only parties guilty of privacy violations, data selling, censorship or other problems. If you stop to consider it for a moment, we have given these companies a lot of power over our communication and information. Luckily, there’s a new generation of social media platforms rising. Platforms that don’t sell your user information (some of them don’t even collect information they can sell), who sort content either chronologically or by popularity but not with some mysterious algorithm, where content isn’t censored and where users can easily monetize their content. We’ll start talking a bit more about these new platforms in a future article.