Are social media users exploited?


This is an edited and updated version of an essay I wrote during the first semester of my MA Sociology degree.

If you're a regular social media user and haven't heard about the Cambridge Analytica controversy, educate yourself. Basically, the London-based data analytics firm has been accused of using information harvested from the profiles of 50 million Facebook users to create a software programme which could predict and influence people's political choices during elections, and to encourage these users to back Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election.
    In 2014, around 270,000 Facebook users were asked to take a personality test developed by Aleksandre Kogan, an academic at the University of Cambridge. However, as with all apps and games integrated into Facebook at the time, the test not only mined data from its participants, but it also harvested information from their friend's profiles, hence the estimated figure of 50 million profiles. 
    This is obviously alarming, not only because of the specific and somewhat corrupt usage of social media users' private information in the Cambridge Analytica case, but because it calls into question the privacy of social media more broadly (again). Facebook has denied the possibility of a data breach and claimed that Kogan was given permission to access the data by Facebook but not to share that information for commercial purposes with a third party, i.e. Cambridge Analytica.
    Commodifying and commercialising data in this way is especially problematic with regards to user agency and awareness. The 270,000 users who participated in the personality test did so willingly - they maybe wouldn't have if they knew that the information generated by said test would be used to possibly aid the Trump campaign (not yet officially confirmed). They probably had no idea where the data would be going at all, and therein lies one of the key ethical issues with social media.
    Many academics assume that social media users are simply ignorant about their privacy because, let's face it, no sane person really has the time or energy to read the privacy policies. Social media is an esoteric world and the discourse of these policies are purposely designed to deter people from completely understanding or even reading them at all; they're also intentionally deceptive and provide very limited information about who handles user data, where it goes, for what purpose and why. This is not ignorance, but a deliberate cap on knowledge.
    Consequently, many people are likely coerced into an exploitative relationship with social networks where they either unknowingly or reluctantly surrender personal details which would have previously been regarded as 'private', all for the promise of connectivity, virtual friendship and convenience, blissfully unaware that they are simultaneously the product and the labourer of such a service.
    The loss of conventional notions of privacy has been concomitant with the quotidian evolution of Facebook and other platforms; remember when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that "privacy is no longer a social norm" at a San Francisco awards ceremony in 2010? He basically admitted that platforms such as his own have replaced the once cherished principle of personal privacy with a capacity to comfortably 'share' different kinds of information with people we would likely not otherwise interact with, and demonstrated that he and his fellow digital innovators are in fact conscious of their corporation's cultural influence.
    Regular social media participation generates masses of profit for social media platforms. Content equals value, and value legitimises business dexterity. What Facebook and others aim for is not to facilitate the formation or maintenance of relationships, as they so frequently declare to be their intentions, but to monetise these relationships by selling the data they gather. The economy and technological architectures of social networks pose as communal democracies, but enable Facebook et al. to collect, quantify, interpret and trade user data - of course, all of this happens ceaselessly and silently so users aren't interrupted from consuming and producing precious content.
    The truth is that social media has been romanticised as a self-empowering and self-governing space where users can 'self-brand' and create content which represents who they really are as well as transcend limits of time and space to connect with several people at the same time. This kind of social validation rouse traps users into a position where even those who do demonstrate an awareness of potential privacy perils are too invested in their digital reputation and dependent on the attention garnered through likes, comments, shares and any other kind of responsive interaction to leave. Indeed, several ex-Facebook employees have spoken publicly about the site’s worrying cultural impact and capacity for exploitation, most famously the former president Sean Parker who described the “little dopamine hit” stimulated by 'likes', a feature designed to trap users into a “social-validation feedback loop”, which he says was an aim from the start in addition to “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.
    As long as data protection and user privacy concerns exist, and the accumulation of profit is an incentive for maintaining and trading the information harvested from social media profiles, users and their data will be vulnerable to exploitation by firms with the power and knowledge to manipulate how we use and think about social media, such as Cambridge Analytica.

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