The social dilemma - the omnipresent data collectors

10/09/20 • Carsten Haubold

I've watched a bunch of documentaries about the data collection of the social media platforms:

  1. The social dilemma @ Netflix
  2. Cambridge Analytica's great hack @ Netflix
  3. "Inside the fake like factories" @ 36c3
  4. German: "Twitter und Facebook auf Irrwegen" @ Deutschlandfunk

It is really frightening to see how many people simply don't care. How we are all dragged into handing over our data in exchange for free services. Don't get me wrong, I'm susceptible as well. And yes Google Mail and Docs are amazingly useful services. Facebook can connect friends all over the world who would otherwise have to send updates to each other via email. Twitter is actually a really great platform for spreading the news about scientific developments and publications. Youtube hosts a wide variety of really useful tutorials.

But all these platforms have two things in common: on the one hand they also contain an infinite amount of stupid/boring/uninteresting content. That is not the problem though. The bigger problem is that they all show us users ads to make profit. So they don't care about the personal content we post. They just want us to stay as long as possible so they can show more ads. Or they could be paid to influence society, as in the case of Cambridge Analytica. And they make us crave for attention, to get the most likes. While at the same time, there are lots of services that allow you to buy likes and fake comments for pennys.

The market share of the data-gathering companies is ever increasing. The value of data has overtaken that of oil. And the reason is not just, that it can be used to tailor the advertisements to each user individually to increase the clicks. Much more importantly: this data can be used to shape society. To run political campaigns, as in the US elections and the Brexit. Or to control all citizens of a state, as in China.

You can use the data to estimate beforehand whether you would win a poll. You can use it to target influential news. See the changes. You can find the most effective ways of turning the public opinions to your favor, or against an opponent. Just by analyzing this data. Data that is collected through mass surveillance that we indulge ourselves in voluntarily. Even the Chinese people probably don't see their surveillance as a problem, because they are promised a better life.

Most political decisions nowadays are close calls. Thus if you can only find a way to influence a specific social group by some targeted actions, this can already be enough that the close call gets decided the way you intend. And the more persuasive campaigns you can design based on this data, the bigger the audience you convince, the more influence you can have on elections, society, everything.

Campaigns are an essential part of democracy. But they seem to be more and more shifting from objective information about the parties' standpoints and visions, to controlling the public's opinion. And especially the last and current election in the US demonstrate that even in the proud democracies it becomes acceptable to publicly denounce opponents, to spread fake news and blatant lies. This is extremely disheartening.

I have seen the Internet raise to its current state. I have seen Facebook grow. And I do not use social media to inform myself about politics, because I want objective journalism. But thinking about the future, I am afraid that the younger generation, being much more indulged in the world of social media, might be an easier target for this kind of targeted persuasion, or "information warfare". Making it even more attractive to use data-driven targeted campaigns. That might shape how future democracies work. If we do not find a way to control that. But as the internet is a global place, ruled more by global companies than per-country governments... My hopes are not that high unfortunately.

Oh and lastly, a word to all online newspapers: I would very much appreciate if there was a way to simply buy out of advertisements. I would like to pay for good journalism and in return not be tracked, not have my data sold, and not be shown targeted ads. I have actually written letters to multiple German news agencies asking for that feature. The simple answer was "no we are not planning to offer that". The only thing you can buy a subscription for are the longer and more in depth articles. Still, the ads remain. And the ad-blocker-blocker-blocker-blocker-blocker war is annoying enough. I'm earning money, I'd like to pay for the standard set of news articles, but I'd like to stop seeing ads. I'm really glad that Germany has public service broadcasters. Even though every household complains that we have to pay 17€ per month for this service. Their main offering are TV news broadcasts and radio stations, but in the internet age they also provide amazing podcasts. Deutschlandfunk FTW! :)