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Social Media Manipulation

are you being manipulated?

There are many things that we, as private individuals, believe to be totally sacred when it comes to our everyday lives. On top of this list is our privacy. We all have our unique ideals, beliefs, desires, preferences, secret thoughts as well as our family ties and relationships. And most of us believe these are things only we control, things that exist only in our own minds and thoughts.

 

This is a thing of the past. There are now forces which not only know more about you than you could possibly conceive yourself, they can predict and even influence how you might change these preferences in the future. All this could happen without you even realizing it.

 

So what are these forces and how do they control your thoughts and actions? Well, it all started with the introduction of the Internet. This opened up a method of instant global communication that did not exist before. With its development, people and institutions are able to communicate ideas, ideologies, decisions, products, or philosophies in real-time and we are able to interact and respond immediately.

 

Most importantly, the Internet allows instant communication between people, starting with email and progressing to instant messaging. This has created a number of new services we now put under one label called “social media”. The better known of these services are companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, etc.

 

In order to define more accurately the term “social media” and to understand how you are being manipulated, we will be focusing on the giants in this field, namely Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Facebook includes Instagram and WhatsApp, both part of Facebook. Google includes YouTube and Android which they acquired. Let’s begin with Facebook.

 

Facebook started as a platform to allow university students to communicate directly with each other. Mark Zuckerberg recognized early on the potential of such a concept and developed it into a major solution where everyone could network with each other anywhere and share their private experiences for free. The concept grew rapidly to become a major public square solution adding more than two billion users worldwide.

 

The major problem with this solution is Facebook has inserted itself between the communication between the two parties. They are registering the profiles, habits, and characters of both parties. They are gathering this information and analyzing it with supercomputers to the point where they can produce a complete character profile of each party and even predict trends that might occur in their thoughts and actions. They then have the ability to even influence this process.

 

This information about you they then sell to potential advertisers. If a company decides to sell a product to male dog owners aged between 30 and 40 in a particular city, Facebook is able to distribute the ads aimed at only this group. This is a very desirable advertising vehicle for marketers for which they are willing to pay premium pricing. This is why Facebook is expected to achieve a net annual profit of more than $25 billion for 2020!

 

This then raises the serious question of how secure is this private information which is a valuable commodity for many potential candidates. It produced a major scandal in the 2016 USA presidential election. A company (Cambridge Analytics) obtained 87 million profiles from Facebook which was then used by the Trump campaign to distribute fake news about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, and which is attributed to Donald Trump winning the election.

 

The same method was apparently used to influence the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom in 2015. Both of these examples illustrate the huge dangers which lurk when such profile information gets into the hands of the wrong people and poses the question of the long-term future of the Facebook method of conducting business, despite their current success. It is likely to lead to the US government declaring Facebook as a monopoly and demanding a break up of the company into independent business units (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp).

 

If we now move on to Google and their business model, we will also find similar problems, albeit starting from a different concept. Google is by far the dominant Internet search engine and as such knows more than anyone what our interests are and what we might be likely to buy. By purchasing and further developing Android as the biggest operating system for mobile products they also know where we are located which they use to optimize Google Maps.

 

Then they have an impressive line of business products, cloud-based services, and consumer services (Google Photos) which we can only access if we register with a Google email address. Even to be able to use our Android mobile phones they force us to register a Google email address and a method of payment. As such they have a deep insight into what we are thinking, where we are, with whom we communicate and what we are buying.

 

They also analyze all this information in their supercomputers to produce profiles of us which are probably more comprehensive and more accurate than our own. This information is then utilized to offer and sell us products and services which produces annual profits for Google greater than $90 billion! This also puts them in a monopoly position which again is causing concern for the US government.

 

Changing now to Amazon a similar picture of access to our private profiles emerges, again from a different starting point. One misunderstanding about Amazon is most people believe they are a company which sells products. This is incorrect. They are a massive logistics provider, helping other companies to sell and distribute their products. Amazon invests its energy and money in perfecting the warehousing and distribution functions.

This business model has led to the development of another division within the Amazon called “Amazon AWS”, or Amazon Web Services. They have taken their own distributed intelligence network and are now offering the same services to outside entities. Here is how Amazon describes this operation:

 

“Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform, offering over 175 fully-featured services from data centers globally. Millions of customers—including the fastest-growing startups, largest enterprises, and leading government agencies—are using AWS to lower costs, become more agile, and innovate faster.”

 

Amazon AWS on its own created revenue for 2019 of more than $86 billion with growth year-on-year north of 30%. This puts Amazon as one of the global leaders in this space.

 

Amazon has introduced a number of products for consumers, the Echo home speaker being one of the most significant. This competes with a similar product introduced by Google. The Echo product/service puts Amazon in the Internet search space, again providing them with access to what we as consumers are interested in and/or buying.

 

So here we have three huge, highly profitable corporations that have access to a broad portfolio of information about us and the question is, what are they doing with this information, or more importantly, what do they plan to do with this information?

 

One of the major issues is one of security and the first problems occurred with the above-mentioned Cambridge Analytics case where highly detailed personal profile information came into the hands of an outside entity and was used to manipulate the consumers to achieve the desired result. We have all experienced the problem of our email addresses being sold to undesirable junk mail operators but now our complete private profiles are in danger of being misused.

 

These profiles include everything about us. Our preferences, our beliefs, our financial status, our marital status, our contacts, our age, our gender, where we live, where we are and much more. Their supercomputers process all this information into a profile which then can be used to sell us products, influence decisions we take, and even start to change the way we think.

 

A dangerous trend that has appeared on social media is the emergence of fake news. This is false information often presented in such a way we might start to believe it, potentially influencing the way we think or even vote in an election. This, of course, is the ultimate way to influence society and many refer to the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA as an example of how this manipulation can change the course of society. In the case of Trump, there is plenty of evidence that foreign nations were involved in this manipulation. Such developments begin to erode the very basis of our western democracies.

 

So what can we do to prevent such developments? There is no simple answer but as individuals, we must be more aware of the information we provide to outside corporations or individuals. Don’t fill out your profiles online with too much information. Go back to some of these systems and remove any excess information. If you are extremely concerned, remove your profile from such platforms as Facebook or Instagram and look for other ways to communicate with your contacts. In the case of Facebook, WhatsApp is a convenient alternative, It focuses on communication and not self-promotion. It is also well encrypted.

 

Maybe a piece of good news is the US government has begun to recognize this as a potential problem and has recently come out with a report from the US House of Representatives accusing Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple of "abuses of monopoly power". The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee drew its conclusions after a 16-month investigation that culminated in an hours-long hearing with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Apple's Tim Cook, and Google's Sundar Pichai in July that featured tense exchanges portending a more critical view of Big Tech.

 

The report calls for restructuring and several other changes to rein in the companies. One recommendation tries to make it tougher for tech giants to buy up smaller companies that consolidate the industry. A "nondiscrimination requirements" suggestion aims to stop platforms from prioritizing their own products over those of rivals. The subcommittee also calls for the strengthening of antitrust laws and enforcement.

 

We will be following this closely and will report as this discussion proceeds.

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