“If You Are Not Paying, You Are The Product”: What Social Media Firms Do With Your Data


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Netflix’s recent docudrama The Social Dilemma made waves online around the world for its grim portrayal of social media issues.
We have all heard about the downsides of social media — from addiction to privacy issues — but social media companies are notoriously silent about how they control what users do and say online, and what they do with user data.
However, the documentary sheds light on the issue about some big names from social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Around 4.6 million people in Singapore are on social media and Singaporeans spend an average of six hours 48 minutes each day on the Internet, making the problems even more salient in our nation.
Social media has also been abuzz with news on how sites like Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok have been using the data of its users. So what exactly goes on behind the scenes of social media sites?
According to Forbes, social media sites collect so much data that “they can’t remember all the ways they surveil us.”
The types of data that these social networking companies are able to gather from you fall into three broad categories:
A 2014 report from Business Insider Intelligence shares examples of unique pieces of data collected by popular social networking sites.
For instance, Facebook and Instagram can provide a window into what people care about via the “like” button and the information they reshare.
Meanwhile, the millions of product images that are pinned to personal boards on Pinterest provide insights into shoppers’ aspirations.
Tweets on Twitter also provide a real-time insight into the news that users around the world are consuming, and what is important to them at any given point in time.
There’s a saying that goes: if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product.
Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are known for being completely free to use for the average consumer.
Advertisers are the ones who pay for the services, and it is the consumers’ attention that the sites are selling. Hence, it is in the interest of social media sites to keep consumers on the pages for as long as possible.
Armed with the knowledge on which posts users like and have engaged with, social media sites are well-equipped to constantly recommend content tailored to the individual’s liking.
This is usually how users end up unknowingly spending long hours on Facebook or YouTube.
Have you ever searched for a pair of shoes from your favourite brand online? Before you know it, you will be swamped with Google and Facebook ads for more items from the brand.
Surveillance capitalism is the reason why this happens.
The term was coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff in 2014 and describes a situation whereby the commodity for sale is one’s personal data.
The capturing and production of this data relies on mass surveillance of the Internet, often carried out by companies that provide free online services such as Facebook and Google.
These companies collect and scrutinise our online behaviours via monitoring our searches, likes, purchases, to produce data that can be used for commercial purposes.
Big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple collect and control unparalleled amounts of data, which has led to the phenomenal growth of these companies.
Google, for example, processes 40,000 search queries every second on average, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches a day.
From your emotions to political inclination, social networking sites are able to directly or indirectly manipulate your behaviour.
In 2018, a firm called Cambridge Analytica had purchased Facebook data on tens of millions of Americans without their knowledge to “help elect Donald Trump as president.”
After which, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress, and a year of debates about the privacy rights of online consumers began.
More recently, a post-GE2020 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that the Internet was the most important communication platform for Singaporeans’ voting decisions.
Many argue that we live in online “filter bubbles” that only expose us to the ideas we already agree with. This could be due to the algorithms on social media that push us content similar to what we have liked previously.
Since people do not see any opposing views, this leads them to believe their opinion must be right all the time.
Whether in politics or as a whole, people need to be well-informed on issues and be able to have critical discussions — this is the foundation of a progressive society.
The Social Dilemma is almost dystopian, and paints a gloomy picture about a world ravaged by social media.
Besides privacy and data, social media is also known to bring about problems like stress, self-esteem issues, and even depression.
However, it is not all bad. Millions of people have made meaningful connections, built businesses, and got educated via social media.
In the time of social distancing and Covid-19, social media has become even more important in connecting individuals and driving the growth of businesses.
For most, it is highly unlikely to disconnect completely despite the knowledge of how social media firms utilise their data.
However, with this knowledge, one can become more critical of the broader issues surrounding social media, and more aware of how to prevent themselves from succumbing to the problems that come with it.
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