The monopoly of social media!

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?

Mark Zuckerberg meme generator
Ref

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.”

© Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Copyright © 2021 AbhikNotes – Powered by WordPress.com

Digital Frankensteins!

Today, I watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”. Its a terrific and also quite alarming documentary. It reminds us as Tristan Harris said, “The social media are becoming ‘Digital Frankensteins!’, steering billions of people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors”.

It is quite true. We see the young generation not only prone to the venomous effects of social media, but also becoming more and more separated from reality. They are becoming slowly a part of virtual reality, in which whatever is seen, heard or read on social media is believed to be for real by the young generation, especially the Gen Z. We see that the Gen Z were born after 1996, and when the kids born in this generation started going to school, that’s when the social media erupted and expanded enormously, and started galloping our social world.

In the last 10 years, the world has changed a lot. Most of the apps and technologies we have become addicted to during the previous decade had been started only a few years back. Like Facebook in 2004, Youtube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Tumblr in 2007, Whatsapp and Pinterest in 2009, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. We see every year there has been some new entry of social media app, except the 2008 year, ( due to the Great Recession effect, maybe). And soon these apps started dominating our social and personal space as well. The most latest entry is of TikTok in 2016, and which has gained considerable notoriety under the Trump Presidency, due to its sophisticated and super-addictive AI. The last decade was the breeding ground of new fan base for these apps, and now they all have become somewhat “Digital Frankensteins!”. This is because we are so much used to them, and our life is entwined with them on such a massive scale, that if the government decides to shut them down( which would never happen in near future at least), they cannot do it. Just like the big Wall Street banks which had failed in the 2007 recession due to sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the government had to bail them out under the label of “Too Big To Fail”( and the banks made sure that the bail out money went to pay their exiting CEO’s and board members some really hefty severance packages!). Similarly, we can see that these social media giants have become “Too Big To Fail” and their continued dominance will stay undisputed in the near future.

But unlike economy and banks, where our money and thereby livelihood is dependent on the savings we put in bank, or loans we take for our businesses, hence we are dependent on the banking institutions just like they rely on the customers. But in case of social media, atleast we have a remote chance that our lives can still be managed and survived without the social media. This is because there are still some old and credible sources of information and connectivity tools existing. For ex: Radio and Ham had been one of the most reliable info sources before TV and internet ushered in. People used to stay connected to each other besides use of telephone for connectivity.For news, we have the all weather print media, journals, magazines and books which often convey the most authentic and reliable information. We don’t need Facebook to stay in touch with friends. We can do that over the phone, or messaging service. After all, we all have hundreds of Facebook friends, but how many of us really connect with all of them? Do we even care of who is in our list, and do we make some serious effort to stay connected with all of them. The fact is we simply do not have time to spend to stay connected to all of them. We are used to a small group of like minded friends, and we tend to stay socially connected with them.

Same goes with instagram. Do we really care for the likes of our photos and videos we upload on the wall? After initial curiosity, it simply vanishes. Infact, human nature does not care for the repeated likes from our friends, but we slowly start looking at the comments and those friends who have not liked the pic!. Though there have been many positives brought by social media such as YouTube where one can share any video and become famous overnight. Justin Bieber is known to have gained his reputation via YT. Its a great medium for sharing knowledge and talks as well. Even Twitter was a new revolution for those who have amassed millions of followers, and any tweet would create sensation in the world. Trump has been using Twitter as a official tool for his Presidency, and many of his orders and declarations have been communicated to the world via Twitter. All this is terrific, and has changed the mainstream media world.

But slowly, we see that it has made us addictive, and lose sight of the relevant information. As I mentioned, earlier, there used to be only few ( and reliable) sources of info such as Radio, Television and Print media. Later, the new channels replaced the print media, and now we see the social media is replacing all of them. The most important concern on the social media is the complete lack of accountability of the content posted by anyone. Unlike radio or print, which is verified and edited, social media is rarely verified, and so the new world of fake news has emerged. Though the content can be reported, and the owners do take appropriate actions against them, but often it is too late and the content by then has reached millions of people all over the world. There is no way a tool can verify if the information is accurate and up to date. We do not have intelligent machines yet, and hence anything posted on the social media cannot be entirely trusted. Then comes the question, if the content is not verified, not trusted then why do we spend our precious time in scrolling through them?

Infact, there has been so much information ( tons and tons of bytes) created and uploaded everyday that it becomes nearly impossible for humans to decipher and absorb this information, let alone analyze and understand it. When there is too much information, its nothing but chaos!. But this continues because of the very basic fundamental of social media, which is everyone has the liberty to express their opinion or add content on grounds of personal freedom of expression. Yes, and this cannot be denied. I am writing this post due to this freedom and I agree that this is needed for the fresh influx of new ideas and opinions to be injested into the world. Hence, the real challenge is to know the difference between whats right and whats wrong. If we do not allow the social media to share all the content freely, then it will be a world of communsitic media, where everything is censored and restricted, just like it happens in China and erstwhile USSR. We do not want to live in that iron-curtain world again.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with the social media, and its usage in our daily lives as long they remain tools just like radio and TV, to share information, to connect with friends, to get the most recent information, or even to express our opinion about some injustice, or grievance. It is one of the most wonderful mediums we have today. But if that tool becomes complicated enough to intrude in our personal life by making us addicted with incessant notifications , updates, fake news and viral videos, then that’s a problem. If the social media like Facebook, as mentioned in the documentary is creating a digital footprint of our activity, and without our consent selling the data ( or selling us indirectly) to third party companies for advertisements or trying to change our opinion about political endorsements, then that’s a big problem. As its seen that all the social media tools have become powerful enough to predict our life, our decisions, our interests and our future as well. This is where the real problem lies. As long as we have the levers of control, we are okay. But if the levers lie in the hands of few social media giants, then we are in a big mess. This awareness is the true message this documentary has courageously conveyed. We all should appreciate the valor and genuine concern of all the people who left their secure and well-paying jobs in Google, Facebook, Twitter etc to come out and speak about this to the world. It is because of these few brave men and women, that the world is still a humane place to live.