Many people live out their lives, effortlessly scrolling through social media sites, gaming apps, and the internet without ever questioning the technology they are using and how it is affecting them. In the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” these algorithms and mass data collecting tools are brought into light by former employees of major companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Google.
How Do These Companies Profit?
Companies need lots and lots of data to market their products effectively. A common misconception about user information being leaked is that companies such as Google and Facebook sell your information to companies. This is untrue. What is actually happening is these sites are tracking, storing and analyzing your data to see what you read, how you react to pictures, posts, ads, and in doing so creating a more predictable outline of consumers to choose how to advertise better.
The documentary referred to this as Surveillance Capitalism.
Methods of Surveillance Capitalism
Since companies need mass amounts of data to get precise estimates of engagement and user routines, all sorts of methods of analyzing users take place. For instance, on Instagram and other social media sites, scrolling through your feed provides countless amounts of data. Jeff Seiber (former Twitter executive serial tech entrepreneur) says in the documentary, “Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded. Exactly what image you stop and look at, for how long you look at it.” This is a form of mass data collecting, and getting all this information gives these companies a better idea of who you are, how you think, and to what you react strongly.
By analyzing the posts or advertisements that omit the greatest responses, companies use this information to predict what ad or promotion will have the most engagement. After collecting said data, companies take what you react to strongly and use it to shape the way you think and change who you are. This is done by choosing ads for which the user has a history of engagement and providing similar posts displayed periodically. Every day, countless amounts of this data is collected making it easier for companies to predict user routines, interests, and engagement.
Positive Intermittent Reinforcement
Have you ever constantly checked your phone for no reason whatsoever? It’s no accident, companies want users to be addicted to their phone/computer to increase engagement and activity. While on social media sites such as Instagram or Facebook, they are programmed to throw different posts, ads, etc, to get users to change their behavior over time. This is Positive Intermittent Reinforcement, which is a condition algorithm that makes posts and ads appear that the user likes and dislikes. This is conditioning the user to constantly check their phone and search for a likeable post. These posts can include funny pictures, sports highlights, beauty care tips, etc. However the desired post is not always provided.
Another example of this is in IMessage. The dots that pop up letting the receiver know the sender is typing, draws their attention to it and trains users to constantly be looking at their phone waiting for something. In order to condition the user to be constantly checking their phone, companies combine desired posts with other less wanted ads to encourage the user to keep looking for their desired post. All while getting users addicted to their phone, these sites are continuously gathering data from these ads and posts people are shown, such as whether they were interested in it, if they sent it to any friends, or other online communications from the end user.
What Are Their Goals?
When you look at the major companies that are collecting and analyzing this data, it’s justified to wonder what they are doing with it. To answer this, we must look at the companies. As big as they are and how much of the population they appeal to, companies want a better idea of how to foresee and anticipate what users will react to. Since all of these platforms make their money from advertisers paying to promote their products, getting a better idea of how, where, and when to promote these products proves to be super important.
Another goal that is desired is to shape users into having a certain thought process and change who they are as individuals. Once data is collected, these companies can see engagement and even emotional responses from the users. After this is complete, companies like Facebook can promote ads that are targeted to that specific consumer and cause him/her to feel a certain way. Also when this information is collected, users are joined to large groupings of interests, which is another reason people will see similar posts to previous ones that they liked or even just look at for a brief period.
How to Prevent Surveillance Capitalism?
Unfortunately, our society, primarily younger generations, rely on technology for much of their communication. China brought This being the case, change (if not regulated) will have to come from the ethical values from these companies. Since they’re so reliable and mass-consumed, people will use these sites no matter what the cost. The only other way is by not being involved in social media, internet browsing and technology, which proves to be very difficult in a technologically advanced society we find ourselves in today. Senators such as Richard Blumenthal have taken action and asked Facebook to, “disclose information about internal research on the impact of it’s platform on kids and teens” however failed to prove affective. Other politicians such as Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar and Rob Portman proposed the need for a bill allows access to “necessary data subject to certain privacy protections” upon requested approval from the National Science Foundation.