What ‘The Social Dilemma’ gets right, and what it misses by a mile

22 Sep,2020


By Bhuvi Gupta


Bhuvi GuptaUnless you have been living under a rock the past month, you have probably watched, heard and discussed the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’, which denounces the power that advertising-powered digital media today holds over connected audiences. That you may have read about the documentary’s impact on Facebook or/ and have watched it on Netflix is of course the irony that escapes none of the documentary’s proponents.


The documentary covers how the objective of social media networks is to maximise the time spent by users on them so that they can better profile their users and serve their customers, i.e. advertisers with better audience targeting solutions, which are for sale to the highest bidder, irrespective of whether it is fake news or diet pills that is being advertised.


The Internet and social media have dramatically changed our lives in the last decade. There is no denying how much positive change the internet has brought with it – reuniting families, facilitating blood transfusions and donations, and currently enabling a robust WFH culture which is allowing the global economy to function during a pandemic. However, the same connectivity that has been used to bring about positive impact has been exploited to bully individuals, spread propaganda, and win elections.


The documentary does not make any big revelations. Since the 2016 US Elections, we have consistently heard how political parties have misused social media, specifically Facebook across the world to sway public opinion.  All ‘The Social Dilemma’ does is piece together much of what we already knew, in way that it created impact and will hopefully institute change.


The Disruptive Power of digital advertising – pro for a marketer, con for humanity

As a marketer, who has run too many Facebook and Google ad campaigns, my favourite tool to ensure a low CPM and high CTR are the LookAlike Audiences.  For the uninitiated, Facebook and Google allow you to target people similar to an audience that you share with them. All you have to do is list some demographic and interest based qualifiers or share a database of people who have visited your website to create a ‘Custom Audience’ and the platforms generate a Look Alike audience, which behaves just like your ‘Custom Audience’. The first time you use it and see your CPMs go down, it seems like magic. It is not.  It is the power of tracking audience behavior over long periods of time, which has helped classify audiences and behaviour patterns.


As a marketer, the ability to find such audiences, and to be able remarket to them is a dream. Digital advertising has been a gamechanger for many businesses because of its measurability. Unlike traditional advertising, where you target the masses on Print or TV media and hence have massive spillage, digital ads are shown only to potential consumers, bettering the ROI.


The flipside is that the ease in targeting audiences, which depict a certain behavior, is the same whether the intent is noble or malicious.  As the documentary explains, incendiary elements actually exploited Facebook’s algorithm to create a hoax scare called ‘PizzaGate’ amongst gullible audiences to successfully link the 2016 Democratic party Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton with child trafficking, and hence, sway crucial vote banks.


It has never been easier or cheaper to sway impressionable minds. Even those not so impressionable can get swayed when served fake news dressed-up to sound authentic.


What The Social Dilemma missed – it’s not only Social Media

The documentary solely focused on the power of social media networks driven by algorithms which work on a trifecta of engagement of users, growth of the network & increase in advertising revenues, it missed how other platforms which are not reliant on algorithms & ads such as WhatsApp, Reddit, 4Chan have also been leveraged to spread harm via fake news and doctored content.


This problem is gargantuan, because it has transcended the level of doctored news whose veracity can be easily verified by a simple Google search to include Deepfakes. Deepfakes are synthetic videos in which the face of a pre-existing person is replaced by someone with a high likeness to them. The quality of Deepfakes is so advanced; today that it is very difficult to make out authentic videos from doctored ones.


Reddit and WhatsApp have both facilitated the spread of fake news and deep fakes, which have been incendiary enough to incite rioting and lynch mobs in India.


The Monopolistic Power of the FAANG

FAANG or Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google together are synonymous with the Internet for most of the 4.5 billion people online today.  These companies own complementary parts of the ecosystem and often take advantage of this monopolistic ownership to prohibit competition. While countries in the EU and Australia are instituting regulations to protect their citizens, most countries, including India do not yet have strict regulations or competition laws to prohibit monopolies for digital companies like they do for other industries. As a result, FAANG continues to control what users see on the Internet to benefit their profit objectives. Last weekend, Google banned PayTM from the Google PlayStore claiming Paytm’s IPL promotion, which was offering scratch cards and cash backs was a form of ‘sports gambling’. 95% of India’s smartphones run on the Google owned Android operating system, and hence were shut out from Paytm.  It is ironic that such a ban was instituted when similar promotions have been used by Google Pay (a direct competitor of Paytm). While Paytm was reinstated after it removed the cash back feature, given that the ban was instituted without any warning sets a dangerous precedent for the monopolistic power wielded by Google.


Hence, adequate regulations and competition laws are crucial to protect the online marketplace.


Content Regulation

Unlike rigorous procedures, which govern the licensing of traditional media companies i.e. Print TV and Radio, and industry bodies such as ASCI which monitor the veracity of ads shown in Indian media, digital media has no such eligibility criteria or monitoring to check the credentials of media owners or ‘content creators’.


While many petitions are currently running against hate speech and defamation on TV news channels, the incendiary content on digital media is going ignored. Content posted online requires stringent checks including both govt. regulations and human monitoring to manage it. Currently, YouTube employs both Artificial Intelligence and human resources to protect copyrighted content. Similar checks and balances are required before any content is posted, as systems driven without human intervention cannot differentiate between fake news, sarcasm, exaggeration etc.


Last week, former Facebook employee, Sophie Zhang who was employed as a Data scientist released a explosive memo (link – https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/facebook-ignore-political-manipulation-whistleblower-memo) on how Facebook did not attempt to stop coordinated campaigns by political parties to sway public opinions and incite civil unrest in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Myanmar, because their attention was focused on markets which yielded higher revenues for them. The memo brought to the fore many of the problems highlighted by ‘The Social Dilemma’.


While I do agree with ‘The Social Dilemma’ about individuals taking ownership and governments making regulations to monitor these platforms, I believe that the platforms themselves need to step up to regulate the content allowed on their platforms to both stem their misuse and ensure their long term survival.


Bhuvi Gupta is a marketer with over 10 years across industries, of which the last six have been in Media & Entertainment. She has been a part of many launch marketing campaigns – specifically at the Times of India group, Republic TV and the latest in marketing a Bollywood film. She will write on A&M (mostly marketing, but often on advertising too) every other Tuesday. Her views here are personal. She tweets at @bhuvigupta3


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