The rise of the internet, with its concomitant social media platforms, has come with its blessings and curses. But as neoliberal capitalism championed by the West has enveloped the whole planet, we get to see more of the curses now. Social media has become a phenomenon of extracting as many profits as possible from people’s attention, as well as simply viewing them as markets and not necessarily human beings.
Because the profit motive spurred by capitalism has overtaken the social media enterprise, many social media users find themselves alienated and atomized as they continue to fall into the abyss of endlessly staring at their phones or computer screens. While many people will be fooled that joining and using social media is “free,” the main currency that social media companies bank on to get you hooked (for their super-profits) is one’s attention. It becomes apt to say the “user is the product.”
Social media companies sell a person’s attention to advertisers. The more time a person spends on social media, the more they see ads – this allows the advertisers to get more revenue, which will, in turn, increase the social media platform’s revenue as the advertisers pump more money to these platforms. This is the business model of all social media platforms; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Tiktok, etc.
It is a brutally effective strategy – in 2018, Facebook yielded $21 billion in total revenue, the majority which came from advertising alone. The more time you spend on social media, the more attention you give to ads, which means more money for the advertisers and the social media companies. Most social media apps, chiefly Facebook and Instagram, are now designed with a feature that allows for infinite scrolling, the content to get you hooked is infinite. And that is an abyss you do not want to find yourself in. Where even your social skills in the real physical world plummet because you are used to the world on your phone.
Social media apps are now equipped with algorithms (mathematical set of rules specifying data behaviors, in this case specifying ways of sorting posts in a users' feed based on relevancy instead of publishing time) that are extremely personalized for the user. This is employed to target users more efficiently. As a person interacts with a social media application – be it Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube – “behind-the-screen algorithms gather information on our tastes and preferences to suggest posts or videos that best fit our interests.” And that comes with ads too.
This personalized nature of social media usage, in which the application seems to know the user “personally,” is the reason why people are hopelessly glued to the screens of their mobile devices like zombies – wasting precious periods. All this leads into the bigger scheme of surveillance capitalism – where big tech such as Google and Facebook “persuaded us to give up our privacy for the sake of convenience; how personal information (“data”) gathered by these companies has been used by others not only to predict our behavior but also to influence and modify it; and how this has had disastrous consequences for democracy and freedom.” The citizens of these planets are now slaves to big tech – and big tech is doing whatever it wants with people’s data so that in collaboration with advertisers, they make obscene profits and modify people’s behaviors.
With many people relying on social media such as Facebook for news, social media companies abhor being labeled as “media companies” so that they can circumvent basic journalistic ethics; they evade the responsibility of moderating content posted on their applications. Or where they do, they do so to muzzle free speech (Leftist users and publications have often been sanctioned by social media either by taking their accounts down or suspending them, or not allowing them to post.)
Users who typically engage with conspiracy theories or fake news/misinformation are likely to come across lots of conspiracy theories and fake news/misinformation in their social media feeds. There is no more regard for the validity of content posted – what matters now is giving users what they want to see. This is a seriously problematic issue when it comes to ideological beliefs and politics – it leads to what is called “echo chambers” and these are immensely detrimental. People no longer tolerate each other’s opinions and viewpoints in creating robust democracies where people progressively listen to each other for oneness and progressive national consciousness.
Echo chambers draw people into the traps of stubbornly refusing to hear other perspectives. They are described as “an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics. They’re fueled in part by confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor info that reinforces existing beliefs.”
Perhaps, if one decides to go back in time, these are the exact factors that birthed despicable human vices such as fascism. Now, this is what social media algorithms are doing – pushing a user towards confirmation bias, where no other opinion or viewpoint should be tolerated, and where doing such can be accompanied by nauseating vitriol or insults. It is not a doubt that from the United States through to European countries and Africa, social media has done irreparable harm when it comes to political polarization.
Alex Krasodomski-Jones, whose think tank Demos once analyzed the extent of Twitter accounts being echo chambers, said, “This attention economy, vying for clicks, eyeballs, pushes people into very confirmatory outlets. The rising popularity of this sort of alternative news is something that caters specifically to a specific group. It’s more than just news – it’s ideologically driven.”
This is one “ancient human trait” being manipulated by social media companies to tweak the directions of revenue. Arguments from the other side of the political spectrum will not appear in a user’s feed who is deep in an echo chamber, “insulating individuals in a personal ideological bubble.” And political partisanship does not bode well for the genuine, transformative, people-driven process of building democratic structures that accommodate all views for positive, inclusive growth and development. Such partisanship divides people more than it unites them.
When it comes to African contexts, especially in urban areas where social media is more pronounced, people are increasingly becoming alienated and atomized due to social media usage. The nature of social media is ephemeral – creating ephemeral individuals in turn who no longer care about thinking in the public interests and for posterity. It has become a cutthroat race about who gets to trend, who gets to be the next influencer; all the while being consumed by assumptions of individually “owning” social media as Africans generally come to terms with “highly personalized access to information … information that you individually prefer.” Social media is a “profit-motivated game” in which social media users bank on “voluntarily given data” to create profits for its owners via “privately-owned algorithms.”
However, social media, where used for real solidarity, can be an effective tool. This can be seen by the recent shows of solidarity with the Palestinians who of late have been at the receiving end of the might of Israeli military power with ceaseless bombardments in the Gaza Strips. People have been using social media to rally in the streets in support of the Palestinian cause. Social media should be used to “influence our contexts” so that we can be able to tell our stories, raw and unfiltered as they are for positive change.
Where we remind ourselves that social media thrusts everyone else as a pawn in this grimly persistent pursuit of profits, we will do well to also remember that we should use it for purposes that nurture not only our national, regional, and continental solidarity but global solidarity. We should not be hapless victims to the machinations of big tech.