Ethics of Social Media Advertising

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The Social Dilemma, the latest documentary gracing the top 10 most-watched list on Netflix this past week is the latest entry in a growing body of work warning us of the encroaching ills of advanced technology and how social media companies may be abusing their access to personal data in search of profits.

While the film may serve as a clarion call to the general public to be more way of the machinations of tech behemoths such as Facebook and Google, it also raises some serious concerns about the content we consume. More specifically, how much control do we exert over the content we view on a regular basis? And what are the ethical implications for tech platforms that mine our intimate personal data to generate massive advertising revenues.

How We Got Here

To understand how we got here, it may help to go back to 2009 when Facebook started advanced ad targeting, which allowed businesses to select language and geographical options for their ads. Naturally, it made perfect sense not to serve ads to people who couldn’t understand them or in an area where their products weren’t available.

Fast forward a decade later to a digital advertising landscape in which advertisers show ads according to a laundry list of metrics. In addition to language and geography, tech platforms now target users’ age, gender, interests, and behavioral patterns among others. Indeed, this kind of ad targeting has generated enormous revenues for social media sites such as Facebook.

Evolution of Social Media Ads

While plenty of advertisers use Facebook ads to sell products directly to customers, others use the platform to grow an audience that will interact with their content. A well-placed, promoted post on Facebook can translate into a few thousand readers checking out a recent blog post. If that blog publisher also sells ad space, it can turn into a strong revenue stream with a nice return on investment.

For instance, many online colleges show ads in the hopes of gaining followers. Essentially, they are playing the long game to grow their audience. By becoming more recognizable over the course of months or even years, they hope to be the first name that comes to mind when someone decides to pursue higher education.

Over time, however, this type of content marketing creates an environment for users in which they only see personalized content that plays into many of their existing preconceptions. Subsequently, they become vulnerable to companies that want to exploit those preconceived notions to sell us a certain product or even to think a certain way.

Advertising Model Based on Manipulation

One of the central tenets of The Social Dilemma is that tech companies make money off us through manipulation. Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s early investors, points out in the documentary that social media platforms are now using artificial intelligence which extends far beyond delivering cat videos and birthday notifications. Armed with a treasure trove of your personal information, these platforms can basically anticipate your next move.

Mr. McNamee adds that when we go up against artificial intelligence, it’s not a fair fight. By filling our news feeds with friends’ posts that reinforce our beliefs, it puts us in a frame of mind that makes us far easier to manipulate. Essentially, tech companies’ provide enough content to keep us tethered to our devices long enough to sell us products: they manipulate us with personalized content which drives engagement which drives sales. The film drives home the point that social media has evolved in such a way that it’s in danger of doing more harm than good.

Is It Ethical to Profit from Intimate Personal Data?

One of the reasons for the inherent success of social media marketing is that companies now have access to specific, relevant data about their target market.  As a result, they know all about someone’s hobbies, likes, relationship status and shopping history. Just because they can access this information, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay to use it.

Moreover, using it to maximize profits opens them up to the charge that they will not always use it responsibly. For this reason, people such as the former Facebook employees interviewed in The Social Dilemma have begun to sound the alarm that social media sites encourage addictive behavior to generate profits. While consumers still bear responsibility for their actions, we have arrived at a point where social media marketers and the platforms themselves need to examine more thoroughly whether their actions and their motives take into account the well-being of the consumer.

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