I am an absolute amateur at this topic. As I mentioned, I have no intention to convey useful ideas. I write to capture my raw thoughts. Although this post is public, the intended audience is still my future self.
Motivated by certain recent events, I became interested in how the exchange of information could affect political power. For the past few weeks, I have been reading “The Revolt of the Public”, a book on the effect of social media on democratic politics. I also watched a few documentaries covering the same topic, including “The Great Hack” and “Brexit: The Uncivil War”.
This post is about sharing my up-to-now learnings from my research. Again, I am not an expert. What you are about to read is the thoughts of an amateur.
On a side note, I found it overwhelming to write every day. I decided to lower the frequency to three times a week: on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
A weapon for the mass
Information flows in one direction during the era of mass media. Public conversations either on Television or on Newspapers were exclusive to social elites. The mass could only spectate. They could not join these conversations, or even talking to like-minded peers who happened to be interested in the same topic. To a TV channel or a newspaper, every customer is the same. They are the mass.
The invention of the Internet and the subsequent rise of Web 2.0 enabled participatory culture. Information no longer flows in one direction but in every direction. Public conversations are no longer exclusive to the elites. Anyone with an internet connection could voice their opinions publicly.
Individuals, especially those who live in a democratic society, are now equipped with this powerful weapon. We are now arguably freer. With these social media platforms, it is so easy to voice our opinions and our discontent with the status quo.
Take the recent protests against police brutality as an example. Without digital cameras and Twitter, the murder of George Floyd would probably be buried in the shadows. It is only through Twitter, a Web 2.0 platform that allows anyone to broadcast any information to anyone, that the graphic video of this brutal murder was able to get in front of the eyes of the public. The agitated public then used the same platform to organize protests and demand social justice from the State.
It seems that social media helps move our society forward by uncovering issues such as social injustice that would typically be neglected by the government. It is a weapon for the people.
(Twitter’s company mission is to “serve the public conversation”)
A weapon for the State
Online advertisement is primarily if not exclusive revenue source of social media platforms. To give you an idea, 98.5% of Facebook’s revenue in 2019 came from ads.
In the Web 2.0 era, consumers are no longer the passive and identical mass. It is the era of personalized content. Every customer is different. Companies like Spotify and Netflix collect user data to better personalize their user experience, by curating or recommending tailored content for each user.
It is also the case for social media companies. Similar to how Netflix collects user data, social platforms collect user data so they could recommend personalized ads to their users. Each click on these ads brings them revenue. Driven by this revenue model, the incentive is to collect as much information about their users as possible, to predict the most relevant ad, which leads to more clicks and more revenue. Not to mention that nearly all social platforms are free of charge for consumers.
However, when they know enough of us that they could predict which ad we would most likely to click, they probably could also predict our values and what we care about. Political parties used this as a weapon to persuade swing voters by running targeted political ads as seen in “The Great Hack”.
Targetted political ads could be the new mass manipulation propaganda. It could be even more dangerous. This collusion between social media companies and political parties might pose a threat to our liberal democracy.