When Social Media Becomes a Tool of Social Oppression, is Big Tech Accountable?
The internet is the greatest social technology we’ve ever seen. It’s created opportunities for free speech and expression in parts of the world where such rights are dismissed as radical foreign ideas. It’s allowed for the development of social networks, where we can connect with the people that we care about and stave off the loneliness and isolation of the human experience. But now that governments, corporations, and other centralized organizations have figured out how to pull the strings of the world wide web, the internet and social media are mutating from a technology that promised freedom for all to yet another tool of systematic oppression.
Internet companies with market power are wielding it to make sure they stay at the top of the fiercely competitive tech industry. This is tale as old as recorded economic history, and many would see it as the natural functioning of a competitive market. But when a company’s market power revolves around the use and management of personal information to manipulate public opinion, irresponsible or abusive competitive moves can have far-reaching social consequences — including violence, oppression, and abuse.
Once Bursting With Innovation, Big Tech Closes Ranks
Just a generation ago, the things that we do online every day were unfathomable. Social media — a technology that now fuels our economy — wasn’t a thing. If you wanted to communicate instantly with someone far away, you had to do it by telephone — and the telecommunication monopolies charged you out the nose for it. Now, such things are just a matter of sending a message through an app, email service, or social media platform. It’s easy and free, and as a result over 2 billion people around the world use social media as a tool for communication. But if social media is free, how are companies like Facebook and Google making so much money off of it?
The tech industry survives on innovation. However, big tech is becoming growingly monopolistic, and some of the biggest names in the tech space have even been accused of suppressing up-and-coming innovations that would shift the status quo. And to figure out why tech companies that got rich by offering people new freedoms would be incentivized to stifle them, all you need to do is follow the money.
Monetizing Your Private Data
Most popular social media sites have a business model that centers around collecting, managing, and monetizing user data. When we use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, we’re constantly inputting data about ourselves and our preferences into algorithms designed to track and manage this information. This allows the platform to feed directed content and advertisements pertinent to our interests.
Companies like Google and Facebook monetize user data by using it to create directed advertisements. Unfortunately, however, big tech doesn’t always collect and manage user data in a responsible manner. In fact, the algorithms behind social media sites have led to a suite of unintended consequences that have gone as far as the oppression of personal freedoms and basic human rights.
Big Tech’s Management of User Data Has Far-Reaching Social Impacts
The misuse of private social media user data is a growing concern in the tech industry. From the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal to accusations of illicit user data mining, social media sites have a less-than-sterling record when it comes to the protection of personal information we share online. But when it really comes down to it, why should we care?
For many of us, privacy issues created by this type of user data collection and sale fails to elicit anything more than a shrug and a sigh. But the fact of the matter is that big tech companies control personal data in a manner that has massive negative consequences in the real world. And if anyone needs any proof, just take a look at what’s behind the ongoing abuses and attempted genocide of the Rohingya minority population in Myanmar.
Social Media and the Abuse of Human Rights
The New York Times recently reported on the Myanmar military’s use of Facebook to spread fake news and propaganda designed to incite violence against the nation’s minority Muslim population, the Rohingya. The anti-Rohingya messages spread by the Myanmar government incited real violence against the minority group, including the largest forced migration in modern history. And while the Myanmar military is clearly to blame for the growing human rights crisis in the country, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Facebook — a social media platform most Westerners use to share cute memes and check in with friends and family — is actively being used as a tool of social oppression.
Facebook has clear standards regarding the censorship of violent or hate-fueled speech. However, the company’s censorship software failed to identify the growing impacts of Muslim hate speech being spouted to the people of Myanmar through its platform. This oversight has contributed to further violence in an ongoing refugee crisis that has been truly devastating to the estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar. And while Myanmar’s military failed to achieve the ethnic cleansing its social media campaign was designed to facilitate, it took actual real-world violence to break out before Facebook finally froze the accounts of the militants and extremists responsible for fanning Islamophobia in Myanmar.
Social Media and Corporate Social Responsibility
Social media platforms use our personal information for private gain. And while there are surely teams of tech attorneys that will argue otherwise, this makes tech companies responsible for ensuring that the data we share on their social media platforms isn’t used to incite violence or abuse.
Facebook and other social media sites may not be legally responsible for the human rights abuses that are facilitated through their platforms, but they have a social responsibility to prevent such harm from coming to their users. In an age where consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about exercising their economic power, the lack of social responsibility among tech companies may lead more and more of us to delete our online presence once and for all.