Reckoning with Social Technology
This article is part of our Tech for Inclusion Blog Series identifying goals and strategies for deploying tech for social and political inclusion in Europe and the United States. Register now for GMF’s Inclusive Leadership Summit: Tech for Inclusion convening virtually on December 1-4, 2020 to explore these topics further.
Technology plays a central role in bringing people together to effect change. Today, social media platforms stand at the forefront of tech tools that activists, in particular, employ for advocacy and organizing. However, social media is fraught with risks, from the challenges of the proliferation of misinformation to tracking and surveillance, that stem from the incentives that drive profits for tech companies and threaten the vibrancy and viability of democracies. In order to maximize the potential of tech for social activism and the advancement of democracy, we must understand how social media functions, its funding imperatives, and how to improve security and privacy for citizens.
Naturally, most assume that social media exists primarily to connect users with friends, peers, and family. The reality, however, is that the true purpose of these platforms is advertising delivery. Allowing users to engage with their social connections on these platforms keeps them using the app longer and provides more opportunities to serve ads. If we think of ideas as ads, those who are aware of the primacy of advertising delivery are able to skillfully employ these platforms to spread their ideologies. While activists are also using these tools for championing democratic ideals, the reality is that activists are behind the curve in understanding how these tools function to message at a mass scale. Even worse, their efforts are being actively drowned out by those with money and expertise in digital messaging who have less noble goals for democracy. As a tool for delivering advertisement, any actor, good or bad, can spread messages to strengthen or weaken democratic institutions. Furthermore, those who know how to think like an advertiser can even push their ideas on social media platforms without paying. Understanding that social media platforms are mechanisms to deliver advertising, whether ideas or products, is the first step to reckoning with these technologies.
Beyond the dangers of spreading misinformation, we must also be careful about the various types of tracking and surveillance to which we are subject on social media platforms. Most are unaware of just how nuanced, advanced, and widespread tracking and algorithms have become to collect a vast array of data across hundreds of dimensions of engagement. This data not only serves to attract advertisers but can also be sold and used to track citizens and activists alike by state actors. Social media platforms can tell a great deal about people and how they interact, which could allow governments to predictively create digital profiles to track certain groups without ever needing a direct connection. As predictive algorithms, fed by data from social media platforms, are increasingly used by authorities, these fallible instruments pose increasing risks of unjustly targeting vulnerable groups and individuals. The sharing of metadata from telecommunications companies with states has already become a standard practice, and it is only a matter of time before state agencies also have the competency to use social media platforms to track the activity of activists, journalists, and other citizens.
While activists can gain competency on the digital front to fight back to promote their ideals and to protect themselves from surveillance, a larger and more fundamental question remains for social media platforms: Can these platforms exist without the incentive to monetize user behavior? If so, how will this technology get funded? In our current state, if a tech company cannot fund in a socially responsible way without monetizing user data, it will eventually cease to exist because of the strong expectation for more and more personalized content. This leaves tech creators in a quandary as to how to fund their technology and at the same time provide a service people value. So, while activists become savvier about thinking like advertisers to promote their ideals, noble tech creators must consider long-term funding solutions from day one to resist the temptation of necessary infusions of capital that may compromise their ideals.
At this moment, for better or worse, we must decide how we engage in this world and how our technology enables democratic participation. The tech industry is overdue for a reckoning. Social media is both frightening and powerful in its effects, but we cannot deny that these platforms are some of the best tools to advance democracy. Accordingly, activists have to continue to use them, technology creators have to discover new ways to fund their platforms, and legislative bodies have to reign the power of the platforms through comprehensive legislation. This requires activists, creators, and politicians who understand how social media platforms function as well as their impact, both good and bad, to society. If we manage to do this, we can all reap the benefits of a connected society with a strong moral compass that does not continue to put at risk our personal freedoms and democracies.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.