Social Media Juggernauts Must Be Reined in Through Collective Action

Online platforms bring harms that go beyond excessive screen time.

May 27, 2024
We can either continue with business as usual as our social fabric erodes, the author argues, or we can act. (Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/Sipa USA via REUTERS)

We all know the algorithmic allure of social media. Whether we use it for connecting with friends and loved ones, keeping up to date with curated news and the latest trends or simply another amusing cat video, social media is a popular, powerful force in today’s society.

And most of us are also increasingly aware, too, that while billions of people around the world happily choose to remain plugged into social media on a daily basis, social media also brings harms that go beyond excessive screen time. Platforms have become tools for the dissemination of false information and hate. And they’ve functioned as algorithmic echo chambers that have contributed to harmful polarization across the globe.

Social media sites such as X, Instagram and TikTok collect vast amounts of data from users as they interact with the platform. This data includes not only the content users share in their personal profiles and through posts, photos and videos, but also metadata associated with their activities (such as likes, comments, shares and timestamps).

The platforms’ parent companies use tracking technologies to monitor users’ online behaviour, not only on their platforms but on other sites as well. These include cookies, web beacons, pixels and other mechanisms embedded in websites and mobile apps that allow platforms to track users’ browsing activities, interactions with advertisements and engagement with third-party content.

The platforms aggregate and analyze the data they collect from users to create detailed profiles or “digital dossiers” that capture users’ interests, preferences, behaviours and demographics. This process often involves sophisticated algorithms and machine-learning techniques to identify patterns, correlations and trends in the data, enabling platforms to segment users into different audience categories based on their characteristics and behaviours.

Social media companies then monetize this user data by selling targeted advertising space to third parties, who may be conventional advertisers or other actors. By leveraging the insights gleaned from user profiles and behavioural data, the platforms can deliver highly personalized and relevant advertisements to their users. This targeted model maximizes advertising effectiveness by reaching users who are more likely to be receptive.

Social media platforms may also share or sell data to third-party data brokers, ad networks and business partners, whether for targeted advertising, market research, consumer profiling or product development. These data-sharing arrangements enable platforms to generate additional revenue by monetizing user data beyond their own advertising ecosystem.

Simply put, as social media companies track your every click, and every second you linger over a certain photo, post, advertisement or story, they use this information for their own purposes and also sell it to other actors.

How is this so damaging to our society, and what can be done about it?

The key is that this information can be continuously passed along through reselling, to buyers around the world. The identity of those purchasers matters. Some may leverage your data for other than purely commercial purposes, for example, political parties that engage in disinformation campaigns to decrease voter turnout, or fossil fuel companies that target consumers with campaigns that undermine effective climate policies.

Depending on how one looks at it, the solution to this increasingly challenging problem can seem either simple or extremely complex.

The simple part is that we all know the damage social media can do to us personally and about the harm it’s doing in society. We all know these platforms are among the largest companies in the world, and that their owners are among the wealthiest people on the planet. As such, acting decisively to significantly limit the type of data they collect, and the ways in which they can collect it, should be both straightforward and politically palatable for broad majorities around the world.

The challenging part is that taking these actions must be accomplished in a world that is already significantly polarized and inundated daily by disinformation. This fractured media environment is making it increasingly difficult for governments to undertake major reforms without risking further polarization and endless contentious debates that often lead to inaction.

Nonetheless, we are currently presented with two options. We can either continue with business as usual, standing by as polarization grows and our social fabric tears, while we allow social media conglomerates to govern more of our thoughts and the broader political economy. Or, we can act.

We could choose to act swiftly, decisively, collaboratively, and in a well-thought-out manner, to better govern how our personal data is mined, exploited and weaponized. In doing so, we would help ensure that our societies can continue to be truly democratic. So why don’t we?

It is time we called on our democratically elected representatives, with one voice, to work together to stop a handful of billionaires from governing information tools that are now intrinsic to our lives. Indeed, this is essential, if we’re to return to, as Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address, government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Andrew Heffernan is a part-time professor of international relations and comparative politics at the University of Ottawa where he also holds a Ph.D. in political science. He is a post-doctoral fellow at the Digital Policy Hub where his research will examine climate governance and mis- and disinformation around climate change.