During the 2008 sub-prime crisis, I had seen an interview of an independent stock trader who famously said, “governments don’t rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world”. 12 years later, I think the time has come to say that “governments don’t rule the world, Social Media rules the world”.
Yes, watching the recent events in the social media world, it seems that the genie has left the bottle. The social media has become stronger and dangerous than ever. Two events which happened during the start of this year signify an alarm for the world. They are the recent change in WhatsApp Terms and Conditions policy, and the banning of Trump on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. Even though the latter event might have made most people happy or even they have applauded for this action by social media giants, but many of us have become alarmed over this action.
First of all, the change in Whatsapp policies was something many industry experts saw it coming. After all, Mark Zuckerburg paid $19B for the acquisition of WhatsApp. This wasn’t a philanthropy thing for Facebook. They thought well enough before making that deal. WhatsApp over the years have grown to be the world’s most popular and most downloaded/used app in the world. In India, WhatsApp has partnered with Reliance, which is India’s richest company, to provide payment and retail services. So, when WhatsApp made the changes in its policy, which says that all the data from WhatsApp will be shared to Facebook, which will help their business. How?
When asked by the senator, Mark answered….So, running ads makes Facebook earns the dollars required to sustain its so big social media platform ( and ofcourse to earn profit, which makes Mark the 5th richest person in the world). But our personal data on Facebook ( which we have selflessly rendered over to Facebook under the silly disguise to make friends and connect with the world) and catering to which relevant ads shown is the main business model of this company. This platform needs data just like cars need fuel to run. Because only with that data, can Facebook show us the relevant ads. That’s why it is said, “Data is the new oil”
Now, with this new policy, our WhatsApp data will also shared to Facebook. And what kind of data will be shared? ( or has already been shared for quite sometime) As per Wired story, The company says it collects user information “to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services.”In practice, this means that WhatsApp shares a lot of intel with Facebook, including account information like your phone number, logs of how long and how often you use WhatsApp, information about how you interact with other users, device identifiers, and other device details like IP address, operating system, browser details, battery health information, app version, mobile network, language and time zone. Transaction and payment data, cookies, and location information are also all fair game to share with Facebook depending on the permissions you grant WhatsApp in the first place.
But its not about the amount of data that these companies are getting access to, but the security of that data is a real concern. The world already knows about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and one of the famous documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix sheds light on why companies like Facebook and WhatsApp do not charge the users. This is because if the product is free, then we are the product being sold! And by this they mean the data of users which they desperately need to run ads and make money. The more the data, the more is the revenue. Simple it is!
But even more worrying than data sharing or data privacy is the concern of how dangerously powerful that these companies have become. Just few days before, they banned the President of United States of America from their platform, indefinitely! This is not some random guy who posted some thing against their rules, but it is the most powerful person in USA, and even in the world to a certain extent. When such an action happens, it shows how powerful these companies have become. Ofcourse, I am not saying that these companies are above law or US president’s power. They took that action only after the President was accused of causing an insurrection and posting messages and videos supporting violent coup against the law. Also, its worth noting that they took this stringent step after Joe Biden was officially confirmed to be the incoming US President.
But what many of us are worrying is the active levers of communication in the hands of these companies. As we see, unlike few years before, when the world got news from newspapers, radio and television, which was edited to make it politically correct. But in today’s world, people get the news and information mostly from social media, which is not edited neither filtered, atleast to some extent. This is the reason why Trump could convince many Americans to elect him. Whatever he tweeted or communicated was never politically correct. But still due to the freedom of speech, his message used to reach his followers.
But now these handful companies have completely cut him off from his fan base. This is interesting because even though its good for the world that Trump has been banned for sometime, which would filter out the noise and chaos created by him, and restore peace in the world for sometime. But this isn’t just about Trump. What if these companies ban some other leader or a person belonging to a certain ideology like communism, socialism or pacifism? The real question is who has given this moral authority to these companies to ban certain people or ideology? Ofcourse, this does not mean that hate speech or violence should be allowed. Definitely not. But the real threat these companies possess is whom do they allow or whom they do not! What if they decide to support a particular ideology which fits their business model? What if they remove content from their platform which favors their competitors or which challenges their business? As mentioned about the perils of social media monopoly in this beautiful article, https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/at-the-mercy-of-big-tech-billionaires-101610547387559.html which questions the readers, “Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg decided that he did not like Narendra Modi’s farm laws or Shashi Tharoor’s tirades against the East India Company — and shut them off.” Or even going ahead, what if these companies try to influence the voters in countries by favoring a particular candidate who falls into ‘friendly category’ to these social media giants?
This is something these companies have to make clear. When it comes to hate speech , racism or violence, its their moral obligation to curtail it from spreading. But it is also equal responsibility to allow all form of ideologies, ideas, thoughts to flow. These companies are expected to be impartial. But unfortunately, they are not. So, after seeing this, I installed Signal which is almost an replica of WhatsApp ( infact its co-founder is the same Brian Acton for both these companies). But Signal is designed with a non-profit, open source model, and hence just like Wiki, it will not be sold to some private company( hopefully) and will not run Ads as well. I am slowly moving towards uninstalling WhatsApp, but due to over-dependence and majority user base ( all of my family and friends use WhatsApp), its going to take some time for everyone to switch over to Signal. Till then, I could not allow my WhatsApp to share my data to my Facebook a/c. So, I took the step (which I wish should have taken before) to delete Facebook and Instagram accounts. This would disable my WhatsApp data to be shared due to non-existence of Facebook account. I hope many of us become aware of this to keep their data safe and secure. Goodbye Facebook! Goodbye Instagram! And Goodbye to WhatsApp soon!
As Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group ‘Fight for the Future’ said “Their business model is surveillance. Never forget that.”
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