2018 is already being called the year of the Techlash, as online tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple face increasing criticism from users and governments. At the same time more than three quarters of adults in the UK spend at least three hours a day on social networks. But only one in four of us trusts social media. Hm… interesting. So we spend an inordinate amount of time engaging with a medium we don’t trust?
It’s actually good news, revealing that common sense is alive and well despite today’s post-truth world. Here’s why most of today’s social media websites deserve our mistrust.
Why you should never trust social media
According to the latest annual Edelman Trust Barometer survey a dramatic 64% of British grown-ups can’t tell fake news from the real deal, and 63% of us think Facebook is nowhere near transparent enough about its inner workings. People surveyed in the USA said much the same thing, so it isn’t just us being all British and cynical.
Facebook’s antics are well documented, and while they seem well-intentioned at first glance, some have proved intrusive and dishonest. Take the Macedonian content farm scandal, where fake news took the network by storm. This one wasn’t actually Facebook’s doing, and they plan to let users decide which news is fake and what’s real in future, via surveys designed to rank news’ trustworthiness and quality. But their fault or not, this kind of slip-up makes canny users lose trust in the algorithmic checks and balances that chug away in the background.
In fact, Facebook’s algorithm is a big part of the network’s problem. By all accounts it’s fairly easy to exploit, created by flawed humans riddled with unconscious and conscious biases, coded by developers whose marketer bosses have completely forgotten what it feels like to be consumers. And because artificial intelligence remains fairly stupid, you risk a classic rubbish-in/rubbish-out situation full of potentially ugly blind spots: racism, intolerance, prejudice.
Do you remember what happened in 2014? Facebook was slammed for carrying out social engineering without permission. They’d been caught trying to influence user emotions by manipulating the amount of positive and negative content in people’s timelines. In other words, manipulating people’s emotions without their knowledge. Their intention was to please readers. But to many, it was downright sinister. There’s more. Do you remember when Facebook tried to restrict friends’ updates, ‘deciding’ on users’ behalf what they saw and didn’t see in their timelines? That made millions see red.
Things got worse in 2015 when Facebook proved they could identify people as young as 14 with low self esteem issues, and worries arose about unscrupulous advertisers using the knowledge to sell their wares to the vulnerable. Then there’s the increasingly widely held view that despite its pleasures, despite the fun, social media are actually making us less happy, less satisfied with life. This sits uncomfortably against the knowledge that social media feeds are designed to be as addictive as possible.
LinkedIn doesn’t escape criticism. It’s meant to be a network for professionals. But the LinkedIn job suggestion algorithm is a shockingly blunt instrument. With 30 years’ marketing experience under my belt, do I really want to apply for junior marketing and copywriting posts? In fact I am perfectly happy being freelance, but I can’t find an ‘off’ switch for these silly in-timeline job suggestions. It’s only a small thing. But it’s offensive in a business context, business is what the network is meant to be about, and my levels of trust plummet lower every time it happens.
All social networks are powered by algorithms, which use behavioural and a plethora of other data – personal and otherwise – to suss out what users most want to see. Take Facebook… again. They can’t do what they do without data, so they take our data willy-nilly and use it to run targeted advertising, which in turn generates vast amounts of money from advertisers. Your personal behaviour and circumstances are being used to make Facebook rich. And you haven’t given them permission. It remains to be seen whether the new GDPR will put a stop to it and force social networks to ask permission, perhaps even paying us to use our data for profit.
No wonder so many people are getting thoroughly naffed off with social media. Some experts seem shocked by the lack of trust, but I’m celebrating it. All this cynicism and mistrust has to be a good thing. With luck it’ll drive better social media education for youngsters, and should also contribute to the groundswell of feeling that users deserve a digital life that works with our interests at its heart, not one that conspires against us, manipulates us and steals from us.
Hopefully this spiralling mistrust will bring social networks back in line with what users really want, not what they think we want. And then, finally, we might find it in our hearts to re-ignite the trust and affection we felt for them in the beginning.