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  • Writer's pictureSricharan Sanakkayala

Social Media Companies, Users, and Ethics

Sricharan Sanakkayala gives an overview of the unethical closed loop between social media companies and users and exemplifies potential solutions to break the loop.

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In this era of digital connectivity, thinking that most people are constantly active on social media is actually justified. According to Smart Insights, as of February 2019, there are 3.484 billion social media users. The number of users is estimated to increase by around 9% annually. Globally, people spend around 2 hours and 24 minutes on social networking or messaging, with some teenagers spending up to 9 hours. Overall, nearly half of the human population is at least somewhat active on social media. The rise of social media, however, is the result of not only the social media companies’ goal to increase connectedness but also their unethical approaches.

The social media industry’s strive to maximise its users’ attention is borderline unethical. For instance, mobile notifications pull the user’s attention to the application and create satisfaction. Repeated many times, the user would eventually no longer need notifications to feel the urge to check the application. Social media companies are aware of this, but they especially focus on user engagement as a design element: Snapchat implements a daily-usage streak so that users return the next day. Facebook notifies users when it has friend suggestions and can grow a user’s connections. Instagram recently built the Instagram marketplace to give users another reason to remain online. Aware of the mental health impacts of their applications on the users, companies still fight for attention. The reason for this ignorance is the secondary aspect of these companies' business model, which is selling user analytics to advertisers. When a user consistently views posts by social media influencers on Instagram, they are most likely to see advertisements on makeup or skincare products a few hours later. Such a precise understanding of the user is done by accumulating large quantities of data, which is only possible with the grasp of the user's attention. Now, to keep the business model running at peak efficiency, the industry turns to a previously untapped area — data collection.

In the past few years, there has been major innovation in how companies collect user data. Apple has patented a system that tracks the status of debit and credit cards on phones so that users are only advertised the items they can afford. A company called Emotive Analytics uses facial expression recognition software to see how viewers feel about the advertisements that are presented. When users go on a website that has embedded Facebook snippets like the 'Like' button or the 'Share on Facebook' button, their actions on that page are tracked. Since the number of data collection methods has grown, a higher number of users and their attention spans are necessary to collect more data. This closed-loop of more users, more attention span, more data collection, and more money could even motivate companies to use other technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality for the ‘next’ social network. Fortunately, resistance to such developments has enabled discussion for both companies and users. Re-evaluating their business models, companies examine metrics such as a user’s attention span, number of users and how different groups use social media.

Despite the financial success of their business model, companies are exploring ethical and moral considerations. Youtube has implemented a ‘Time watched’ feature that allows users to measure their watch time and set limits. Instagram lets users check exactly what data was collected. Even ideas such as reporting users in depression to healthcare services are being discussed. However, Cansu Canca, a researcher in the philosophy of technology and AI ethics, suggests more can be done. She believes companies should present an ethical justification for their actions. Software engineers should raise and solve ethical issues before these problems become systemic flaws. Technology Executives should foster a culture that allows increased discussion about ethics in projects in collaboration with ethics experts. Also, public and private investors should require companies to address and solve ethical issues. The goal is to change the success metric of social media from attention to something else. However, if new social media companies with better success metrics join the market, it may be difficult for users to migrate due to their previous time investments in the existing applications. Therefore, existing companies must also attempt to change their success metric. Although the change in this direction may be slow, it has to happen for the improvement of society.

Fortunately, there is a faster change in user behaviour. Education about the negative impacts of social media can bring about change. The Social Dilemma has depicted the progression of the industry for the general public as a way to spread further information. The top suggestions for helping users cope with social media addiction include turning off notifications, deleting apps they do not use, tracking time online, avoiding clickbait, removing smart electronics from the bedroom, or simply deleting social media. As with smoking and drinking, wide-spread education about the implications of social media and the societal push to refrain from it will inevitably decrease the addictive impacts on users.

Ultimately, the social media industry uses a closed-loop that involves an unethical push towards addiction for profit. Authorities like the EU have implemented policies like data privacy laws, but more must be done. Apart from implementing data collection policies, they must also pressure companies to change their success metric since that is the underlying issue. The advertisement industry may stay the way it is as advertisements will become less targeted when social media companies change their success metric. With adequate effort from consumers, companies, and regulators, the attention-seeking social media industry will evolve to connect the global community as was intended initially.

The UCL Finance and Technology Review (UCL FTR) is the official publication of the UCL FinTech Society. We aim to publish opinions from the student body and industry experts with accuracy and journalistic integrity. While every care is taken to ensure that the information posted on this publication is correct, UCL FTR can accept no liability for any consequential loss or damage arising as a result of using the information printed. Opinions expressed in individual articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editorial team, society, Students’ Union UCL or University College London. This applies to all content posted on the UCL FTR website and related social media pages.

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