Ethics: Social Media
Ethics of Social Media
Social media is pervasive, and has given billions of people a new, global voice. It has connected us like never before, changing the very fabric of human interaction. Social media is the perfect place to shoot yourself in the foot to get fired, lose a relationship, accidentally expose your own insurance fraud scheme, generate evidence against yourself in criminal investigations, and anything else creative people get up to these days. Additionally, people can be influenced by actors with dubious objectives. With the scope of social media, a much smaller group of people can easily influence an increasingly larger crowd. Social media lives on the edge of irreverent and deeply private. People consuming social media can hang their secrets out to the world, while others consider the whole affair a large joke, the mores of which to be prodded and ridiculed. The sheer size of social media has an economic impact as well. Not only are we referring to the strategists, marketers, influencers, celebrities, and politicians - this also includes the software developers and the general business community who participate. How are people consuming and producing social content? What are we to do with such things?
Social Media is Ubiquitous
Social media is pervasive, and has given billions of people a new, global voice. It has connected us like never before, changing the very fabric of human interaction.
Q2 2018 Facebook reported 2 billion monthly active users (anyone who has logged in over the past 30 days.) Twitter has 335 million. These are simply two of a rather large number of social media platforms. These platforms are international, and are widely accepted to the point where it is considered strange to not have a profile (did you find this blog post directly from our website, or did you view it by way of - social media?!) The world has become increasingly connected...you really get that sense of shared human experience when you watch an online video clip of people from a different culture doing dumb stuff and likely hurting themselves. These shared experiences are what bridge our gulfs of understanding and bring us closer together as a global village (in an actually good way.)
Social Media is Society
Social media is the perfect place to shoot yourself in the foot to get fired, lose a relationship, accidentally expose your own insurance fraud scheme, generate evidence against yourself in criminal investigations, and anything else creative people get up to these days.
My personal take on,
Is it right to get fired for something you say online is that it depends on everything. Social media is the street outside, if shouting something at a bus stop that your boss also happened to be at would likely result in the same conclusion. I have said some really dumb things online, and I might have to own it one day. The level of discretion and awareness of the future required to not put yourself in a bad position online is much higher than it was before. Not to excuse tasteless things being said (by everyone, including me) however - yesterday's conversations are often being viewed under today's lenses - and if you're lucky context might be considered. There are now very public records of conversations between children (or their emotional equivalents) and that is a large burden to place on otherwise underprepared people.
Consuming social media at all is a risk, and there is a dearth (word of the day, folks) of digestible, understandable information for consumers to make informed choices. Sure, we can talk about the Ethics of Metadata but you, reading the CL Simplex blog, in addition to having excellent taste in online postings - are obviously in the informed minority. I feel I can skip most of the examples of terrible things happening to people over social media because we've all seen it. Think of how many stories that involve
and they deleted their twitter account
Is it right to allow people to expose themselves to social media? Can they be saved from themselves? Is there an age of consent that would be appropriate? Does age even matter?
Duality of Social Media
Social media lives on the edge of irreverent and deeply private. People consuming social media can hang their secrets out to the world, while others consider the whole affair a large joke, the mores of which to be prodded and ridiculed.
One of the biggest challenges of weighing social media is the vast spectrum of uses and perspectives. Some people need to be protected from social media, while others can enjoy it for what it is. Calling
social media by a single title almost does our discussion a disservice, it is a force of nature within the human experience. Perhaps another facet of the problem is that for a lot of people social media is their entire understanding of the internet. If it doesn't live on Facebook, or Twitter for some people it does not exist. How would they know what is to be taken seriously, what is to be joked at, and where that line might live? The conventions of the internet at large often clash with the personal nature of social media. When personal views are challenged even offended by the scale of the online cacophony, (second word of the day) people tend to look inward to be closer to groups that reflect their existing beliefs.
Social Media and Special Interests
The sheer size of social media has an economic impact as well. Not only are we referring to the strategists, marketers, influencers, celebrities, and politicians - this also includes the software developers and the general business community who participate.
Now circling back a bit - we have combined people (whom arguably should not be allowed to even have social media) with special interests. These special interests are using social media to accomplish their goals - while not inherently bad, that's the key difference, having goals when consuming/producing social media. Sometimes these goals emerge from grassroot efforts: The Arab spring, the Obama presidential campaign, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez primary (I wish I had more Canadian examples!) These are great examples of special interests that were bolstered by social media and the internet at large. Conversely, and where I start to really steer this is that the Internet has also been really great at spreading misinformation and dishonest discourse.
Misinformation and Dishonest Discourse
As always, vocal groups are overrepresented over the less vocal majority. Famously in the recent American presidential election, you see either foreign influence or a vast conspiracy by political opponents and the
deep state. Political factions seem as entrenched as ever. People seem to believe we live in some era of lies, but ask yourself if there ever was some golden age of pragmatism and factual debate. When I first read
The Republic by Plato, one of the first things he comments on is the low voter turnout - in ancient Athens! A lot of our 'problems' are not born from some unprecedented shift in the landscape, but unfortunately have always been present. Perhaps the availability and the sheer scale of dishonest discourse is new.
Social Media and Political Tribalism
I've been performing a personal experiment. I've been poisoning my facebook metadata in an effort to distort their profile of me. I'm actually not even sure if the effort is worth it in any tangible manner - it is fun though. However, as a result of following a number of political pages, I've been exposed to a growing effort to bring American style outrage politics north of the border.
Further disclaimer, I briefly worked on a project to do a similar thing (this project is/was not associated with CL Simplex). We were actually wildly successful - our page (which spewed ridiculous and bilious rhetoric was one of the most engaged with pages in social media at one point. Actually.) We were trying to monetize the product, but the political parties we targeted did not understand our product. We had an extended phone conversation with a bone fide senior digital strategist for a major federal Canadian party and they thought we were asking for social media internships...go figure. Not everyone can be Russian-style election influence peddlers, even if you try. For the record, we also were working on a non-profit in an effort to
save our souls. Both projects are on haitus right now.
Our efforts combined with exposure to the pages I follow has shown me the rise of a cottage industry targeted at getting engagement and outrage from disenfranchised, ignorant voters. While the approach lacks the sophistication the Russians and the BiglyPR project bring to the table, the playbook is clear and equally clear are the financial incentives to put this content into the discourse.
How to Whip People Into a Frenzy Online
The Playbook for dishonest discourse over social media is very simple. Demonize the strawmen they already fear, and watch as people eat it up like you've never seen. I'm also completely skipping over hypertargeted advertising, which is a piece of the puzzle.
First off, I should be clear that I believe the far left and far right are the exact same people. They are all misinformed, loud, and eager to share how the
other is ruining everything. To me, the political spectrum is a circle/sphere. Especially as certain topics have been increasingly normalized in political discourse (white supremacists,
torture enhanced interrogations, domestic surveillance, commerical use of metadata, etc.), it becomes easier to draw relationships between ridiculous things. If you combine it with a slightly funny image and/or don't directly say it, you essentially pass the message along - stoking the hardline beliefs held by frankly, the 'vulnerable' minds of certain demographics (and again - you can reach out to these people via targeted advertising! They can't even escape it.) It really is that easy.
On that note - it doesn't even need to make sense. Unless you go off-brand, even a contradictory message will not get called out. Above is a picture of a post on a facebook page I follow...since when did
Canadian Values support a tariff on Canadian exports?! Interestingly, this post has low engagement (maybe there is some hope for the Canadian voter...)
How to Make Money Doing It
There is a financial incentive to put this content out there. People want to buy influence, eyeballs, and engagement.
It is the exact same model as political talk show hosts, TV hosts, or any other influencer. Once you gain enough engagement, you can sell your audience to the highest bidder (or everyone who pays enough.) Thoughtless, populist bullshit seems to work best when building your engagement portfolio. Don't get too clever you'll lose them. From this angle, it seems pretty obvious why people would put this content out there. Bigly succeeded short of making money (again, our approach was a bit too abstract for our prospective clients) but between having donations, advertising clients, and/or a more sophisticated strategy - these groups can turn social media communities into profit centres. This is not even getting into the third-party donation landscape, or the election influence game the Canadian political landscape is turning toward.
Why am I rambling in an incoherent manner about this? The problems and ethical concerns of social media are the very same as the ones facing society as a whole, and I believe people see social media as an isolated thing; detached, and temporary.
Social media is dangerous, and like so many other things people need to know what they are getting themselves into. I think it's sad. I believe the internet is the greatest achievement of humanity, and I think it should be a tool for bringing everyone together. Rather than creating pools of polarized opinions, a more open, and more honest discourse should be taking place. As a company that lives and breathes technology, we are frequently exposed to a variety of organizations, people, and their culture/ideas. In the ether of the internet, we lose the perspective that people want to help/do good by each other/and live good lives. I don't have the solution to what really are millenia-old issues in society, but blogging about it makes me feel a bit better. So in true social media fashion - this was ultimately a selfish endeavour.
Tap or click on these posts to navigate to the next or previous posts.
This post is part of a larger series. Tap or click on a post to view more in this series.