The recent release of Netflix's film “The Social Dilemma” has boosted existing questions and fears looming among consumers regarding their privacy on social media platforms. Putting aside the behavioral effects of social media, one must wonder why the modern consumer has become so critical and scared of the data-gathering and targeted ads behind social media when they have made our lives so much better.
Ads existed before social media. In fact, the history of advertising can be traced to ancient civilizations. But in the past, these ads were far more irrelevant. Our parents and grandparents used to sit in front of the TV and see hours of ads that mostly had nothing to do with them. Whether or not they ended up buying the products being marketed to them was and is up to the consumer, but at least now we are seeing content that is statistically more likely to benefit us or match our needs.
63% of customers today actually expect companies to offer customer services through their social media – and 90% of social media users have already connected with a brand or business through their chosen platform, according to 'Smart Insights'.
Social media has allowed business-owners to reach target audiences across the globe, nonprofits to raise funds and awareness in demographics they previously wouldn’t have had access to, and individuals to share opinions in forums that didn’t exist in the past. In fact, according to 'nonprofit source', 18% of donors worldwide have given through Facebook fundraising tools and 57% of traffic to fundraising campaign pages comes from social media. Moreover, currently, 42% of marketers report that Facebook is critical or important to their business.
From freedom of speech to corporate responsibility and volunteerism, social media ads, when used right, allow us to bring forth good.
Social media has enhanced our lives in ways people never could have imagined. It has provided people with opportunities they never would have had. One of the main reasons this is possible is due to the fact that most platforms are free because of the ad-based business model. So while people may not be in love with the idea of their data being used for advertising, most would prefer it over having to pay for access to these platforms. If it weren’t for ads, these platforms would probably work on a subscription-model which would end up harming weaker socioeconomic classes by excluding them from having a voice in the virtual town square. One can only imagine the damage that would be caused if only those who could pay, were able to have a voice online.
Fake news existed before social media and will likely exist forever, now we just have more exposure to it. But lies have always been perpetrated by individuals, corporations, and political entities. Fake news was used by Nazi propaganda machines to build anti-Semitic fervor. Fake news even played a role in catalyzing the Enlightenment when the Catholic Church’s false explanation of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake prompted Voltaire to speak out against religious dominance.
While social media may give fake news a platform, it also allows more voices to rise up and dispel these lies, and the internet that social media has become a central part of is probably the greatest tool in existence for individual research, fact-finding, and truth searching.
For critics to be intellectually honest on this matter, they also must take into account the critical role social media plays in spreading real news, thus educating and enlightening people by keeping them up to date about current events, world news, and more. Ironically, the global debate surrounding “the social dilemma” and data-privacy issues is largely happening on social media platforms that have given a podium for people to share their views and opinions on this issue.
Let’s be honest. No one forced us to give our data to any of these corporations. We choose to do it in exchange for access to information, ideas, content, and services. That's why social media's user base has continuously grown even over the past few years during which this new data-phobia has developed. According to 'Smart Insights' 346 million new users have joined social media platforms just in the last twelve months.
To my mind, an issue only arises when our data is being used in a way we didn’t agree to or when platforms are taking personal data they didn’t disclose to us, such as when the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica secretly used user data for political targeting without user permission. In these situations, there is indeed no excuse and companies should be held responsible for their actions, especially if illegal. And rightfully so, Facebook was held responsible and paid a fine of over five billion dollars for their involvement in the scandal. But putting aside illegal activity which is something to be dealt with by courts and policy-makers, the extent of the outcry occurring these days is a far stretch from reality.
If consumers don’t like social media, no one is stopping them from deleting their accounts and rewinding thirty years to a time when individuals' voices were far quieter and access to them was far harder to gain. But something tells me that won’t happen. Of course, social media still has a lot of room to improve and there is space for activism and policy in order to speed that up, such as GDPR and other regulations. But in the meantime, digital consumers need to take responsibility for the services they are benefiting from. They shouldn’t let a Netflix film manipulate them by means of fear-mongering and fact-twisting — which is the exact crime social media has been accused of committing.
The real issue here is a failure of consumers to realize they are exactly that - consumers. Because social media doesn't work on a monetary subscription model, many users have misunderstood this to mean that there isn't an exchange taking place. But there is. Consumers give some data, in exchange for free access to these platforms.
In other words, while social media may seem 'free', we still have to 'pay to play', just not in dollars. Part of growing up is understanding that we are responsible for the outcomes of our decisions. Similarly, with the growth of social media, digital consumers must mature and take charge of how and where they want to share their data, instead of vilifying tech companies for providing them with products and services in exchange for it.
Today’s consumers have more resources than ever at their disposal. They should use them to actively research these issues, and understand the underlying technology of social media, along with its benefits and downsides. What they shouldn't do is fall into traps pushing them to buy into simplistic concepts that are mostly geared at creating high ratings and false expectations.
Social media has been around for the best part of 40 years – Usenet appeared in 1979 and was the first recorded social network that enabled users to post news to newsgroups. After four decades, it’s time for digital consumers to grow up.