Social Media – A Global Force In Need of Reform

It’s been less than 15 years since social media took off in the US and less than that globally. But given the huge influence of these platforms, it seems they’ve been around a lot longer.

In Sweden today, 76% of all residents have a Facebook account and 54% use Facebook at least once a day – every day of the year – according to Facebook’s own statistics from 2019.

If you add all the other platforms, the number of account holders is certainly over 90% of the Swedish population and almost as many globally use one of their accounts daily.

These statistics are essentially the same in all developed countries. This means that the status and use of social media is unparalleled by any other technology invented by mankind.

Fewer people in the world have a toilet, and use one every day.

There is only one other industry that comes close to this kind of blanket immersion into every day life. In the 1950s, and for a while into the 1960s, a new “technology” – namely the car industry – had a similar kind of impact. With its size and influence, the big car manufacturers were able to operate outside the regulatory and customer-oriented framework that other companies were subjected to.

The famous consumer activist, and later environmentalist, Ralph Nader exposed how the big car manufacturers acted and thought. Nader wrote the highly acclaimed book Unsafe at any Speed in 1965, in which he revealed that the car manufacturers were lobbying to prevent road safety. Worse, decisions to make cars safer were made entirely on the basis of a cold economic calculation of the profit on a car model and then how much they would have to pay out in damages to motorists who had been injured. As long as the profit exceeded the damages, no safety changes were made at all. Such practices also included calculations about the potential cost of new laws – and further, preventing as much regulation as possible.

The customers – both drivers and passengers, were just a collection of users who could be coldly exploited for car company profit. Thanks to Nader’s work, the authorities began to realise the problems and started to legislate road safety in a whole new way.

Another tradition that developed in the US in the 1950s and 1960s was that large companies, especially insurance companies, made all communication with them as complicated and bureaucratic as possible in order to either completely discourage customers from making claims or requests, or to tire the customer out so that he finally gave up on receiving compensation for claims.

Fast forward sixty years and it is easy to see the same mentality and strategy at most of the major social media companies. Trying to get in touch with someone on Facebook to get a correction, or make a complaint is virtually impossible. There is only one method, and that is to write an email with no certainty that one will hear back. This applies to anyone who wants to get in touch with Facebook, including public authorities such as the police or the tax authorities. There is no telephone or reception.

Looking at what has happened in the last 4-5 years, a company like Meta Platforms Inc – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has been fined more than 15 times for violations of various national and international rules such as antitrust laws. Meta has had to pay punitive taxes and just recently Meta was prosecuted in Italy and demanded to pay 925 million Euros in unpaid VAT.

There is no doubt that the strategy of many of these big tech companies is to do as little as possible, take as much time as possible – and then pay fines only when authorities fine them is not only deliberate but also almost a carbon copy of the strategy used by car manufacturers in the last century.

Add to this the fact that users are clearly not seen as customers, but as a mass of people who can be monetised and who should not be able to get in touch easily with the company, together with scandals like Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook sold millions of users’ data for use in various other contexts, and a rather sinister picture emerges. Namely that social media users are not customers and have placed a very large part of our private lives and social contacts in the hands of companies who have very little respect for users.

People used to collect their memories in a family photo album. Now most people use their Facebook account. Users can of course close down such accounts, but they still have almost no control over what personal data is used for, and how.

Add to that the fact that the various social media filter what users see and have access to, and this filtering becomes not only a “trade secret” but a place where issues such as democracy, freedom of information and people’s social assets are at risk.

In recent years, beyond the problems at such companies themselves, scammers have also realized that social media is essentially a risk free playing ground to recruit gullible people.

Indeed there have been an avalanche of sophisticated and organised scams rampaging through social media and hooking victims.

One way to do this is that scammers pay Facebook, for example, to advertise on the platform. Authorities, individuals whose names and images are hijacked and victims have all repeatedly reported the same to Facebook for at least the last five years. Yet for all the vague promises about improvement, nothing has really changed.

For this reason, it is overdue, just as in the 1960’s, that the social media companies, just like the car companies, face up to and deal with the damage done. Further, that large profit-maximising companies with a lot of influence are able to take on a moral and self-critical role is a naive idea.

It is overdue for both national and international authorities and bodies to make demands, develop legislation, exercise oversight and gain insight into how these social media tech companies should be allowed to operate.