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Should social media continue to self-regulate, or should Uncle Sam step in?

(MEDIA) Should social media platforms be allowed to continue to regulate themselves or should governments continue to step in? Is it an urgency, or a slippery slope?

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Last week, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook suffered a massive outage around the world that lasted for most of the day. In typical Internet fashion, frustrated users took to Twitter to vent their feelings. A common thread throughout all of the dumpster fire gifs was the implication that these social media platforms were a necessary outlet for connecting people with information—as well as being an emotional outlet for whatever they felt like they needed to share.

It’s this dual nature of social media, both as a vessel for content that people consume, as well as a product that they share personal data with (for followers, but also knowing that the data is collected and analyzed by the companies) that confuses people as to what these things actually are. Is social media a form of innovative technology, or is it more about the content, is it media? Is it both?

Well, the answer depends on how you want to approach it.

Although users may say that content is what keeps them using the apps, the companies themselves purport that the apps are technology. We’ve discussed this distinction before, and how it means that the social media giants get to skirt around having more stringent regulation. 

But, as many point out, if the technology is dependent on content for its purpose (and the companies’ profit): where does the line between personal information and corporate data mining lie?

Should social media outlets known for their platform being used to perpetuate “fake news” and disinformation be held to higher standards in ensuring that the information they spread is accurate and non-threatening?

As it currently stands, social media companies don’t have any legislative oversight—they operate almost exclusively in a state of self-regulation.  This is because they are classified as technology companies rather than media outlets.

This past summer, Senator Mark Warner from Virginia suggested that social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, needed regulation in a widely circulated white paper. Highlighting the scandal by Cambridge Analytica which rocked the polls and has underscored the potential of social media to sway real-life policy by way of propaganda,

Warner suggested that lawmakers target three areas for regulation: fighting politically oriented misinformation, protecting user privacy, and promoting competition among Internet markets that will make long-term use of the data collected from users.

Warner isn’t the only person who thinks that social media’s current state of self-regulation unmoored existence is a bit of a problem, but the problem only comes from what would be considered a user-error: The people using social media have forgotten that they are the product, not the apps.

Technically, many users of social media have signed their privacy away by clicking “accept” on terms and conditions they haven’t fully read.* The issues of being able to determine whether or not a meme is Russian propaganda isn’t a glitch in code, it’s a way to exploit media illiteracy and confirmation bias.

So, how can you regulate human behavior? Is it on the tech companies to try and be better than the tendencies of the people who use them? Ideally they wouldn’t have to be told not to take advantage of people, but when people are willingly signing up to be taken advantage of, who do you target?

It’s a murky question, and it’s only going to get trickier to solve the more social media embeds itself into our culture.

*Yes, I’m on social media and I blindly clicked it too! He who is without sin, etc.

AprilJo Murphy is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. She is a writer, editor, and sometimes teacher based in Austin, TX who enjoys getting outdoors with her handsome dog, Roan.

Social Media

Tiktok: Did they really just censor disabled users?

(SOCIAL MEDIA) TikTok was concerned about disabled users being bullied so in a stunning reversal, they limited those users visibility on the app. Yikes.

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TikTok, the popular social media platform where users upload short, often silly or light-hearted, videos is coming under fire this week. Internal moderation documents acquired by the German digital rights blog, Netzpolitik.org, show that TikTok has been discriminating against users who are disabled, queer, and fat.

According to these documents, TikTok instructed moderators to tag any content created by so-called, “special users.” The “special users” tag refers to users who are “susceptible to harassment or cyberbullying based on their physical or mental condition.”

The idea behind the tag was to provide these “special users” with protection from cyber bullying and online harassment. This was achieved by limiting the visibility of these user’s content. Videos with this tag had their viewership limited to the user’s country of origin and were prevented from being featured on the “for you” section of the app.

To make matters even worse, moderators only had about 30 seconds to make the decision to flag a video or not. Imagine looking at a complete stranger for less than a minute and having to decide if they fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Now, imagine doing that with only a 15 second video for reference.

Sources inside TikTok say that moderators complained about this policy multiple times, but their concerns were ignored. According to a TikTok spokesperson, the tag system was meant to be a temporary solution.

“This was never designed to be a long-term solution, but rather a way to help manage a troubling trend until our teams and user-facing controls could keep up.”

Point blank, TikTok discriminated against users based on their physical appearance and perceived disabilities. They denied these users a fair opportunity on their app by limiting the visibility of their content therefor preventing them from growing their audiences.

In their statement about the moderation policy, TikTok’s spokesperson asserts that the policy is no longer in effect.

“While the intention was good, the approach was wrong and we have long since changed the earlier policy in favor of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”

Owning up to their mistake is a good start, but a simple ‘our bad y’all’ is not good enough. When a company currently estimated to be worth 75 billion dollars admits to blatant discrimination against its users, there need to be some reparations.

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Facebook is finally allowing you to use your data freely, kinda

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook is taking baby steps to improve data portability with new photo transfer tool. They are working with google, twitter, and microsoft to make it work

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Facebook is rolling out a new feature which will allow users to transfer their photos directly to Google Photos. The product is rolling out in Ireland first for some beta testing, but set to launch globally in the first half of 2020. At first glance this may seem like a mundane new tool, but it is just one thread in a complex web of legal and social change related to users’ right to their own data.

The true heart of this story is the ongoing issue of data portability. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft are all part of the Data Transfer Project which aims to create data portability. Data portability refers to an individual users’ right to control their own data on the web, which includes the right to download and transfer their data to different services. The hope is that a seamless flow of data will create a more authentic sense of competition.

In their statement about the new product, Facebook reiterates this belief by stating, “we believe that if you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another. That’s the principle of data portability, which gives people control and choice while also encouraging innovation.”

Being able to seamlessly transfer your photos from Facebook to any outside platform is a big step for a company that has spent most of the year in anti-trust investigations.

The photo transfer tool will be helpful to some users, but is it a genuine step towards breaking up the Facebook data monopoly? After all, Google has also gone through anti-trust investigations this year, so perhaps more open competition between two of the largest software companies on the globe is not exactly what legislators had in mind.

It’s nearly impossible to read whether Facebook’s attempts to improve global data portability are sincere or just an elaborate effort to keep governments off their bottom line. There is an argument to made about whether or not corporations can ever be sincere, but that is a story for a different day.

The best thing everyday users can do to protect their data right now is to stay informed and keep asking questions.

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‘Secret sister’ gift exchanges are not just lame, they’re ILLEGAL – tell your friends

(SOCIAL MEDIA) There’s a new gift giving program spread on Facebook but you may be giving more than gifts. Secret Sister is actually an illegal MLM that gives away your identity.

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‘Tis the season for Christmas themed pyramid schemes! No, we’re not talking about your favorite MLM adding some holiday flair (though that’s probably happening too), this is something more sinister: Secret Sister gift exchanges.

Not to be confused with Secret Santa (the anonymous gift exchange among friends), Secret Sister exchanges promises the impossible: buy one gift for a stranger, get upwards of 36 gifts in return. It might sound like a Christmas miracle, but it’s actually classified as a pyramid scheme… and gambling, to boot.

Not to mention, it’s definitely illegal, hun.

Circulated primarily on Facebook and targeted mostly at women, Secret Sister exchanges have been running since 2015, according to Snopes. Users are invited to join and invite up to six friends to participate too. Like all pyramid schemes, the further down the ladder you are, the less likely you are to receive many (if any!) gifts in return.

That’s the best case scenario.

Not only are you bothering your friends and potentially gaining nothing (or little) in return, you’re also at risk of identity theft when you participate in a secret sister exchange. Why? Well, most of these schemes involve users submitting important personal information such as phone number and home address, which aren’t the sorts of things you want falling into the hands of total strangers.

These “Secret Sister” gift exchanges might also go by other fun, festive names. For instance, one scam focused on “wine drinkers” and encouraged participants to purchase bottles of wine. But a pyramid scheme by any other name is still a massive waste of time and money.

A good rule of thumb? If something is offering amazing results for a fraction of the cost (like 36 gifts for the price of one), be wary. That’s the same promise you’ll get at a slot machine – and that’s less likely to steal your identity after you’ve lost money.

Not to sound like a PSA, but if you or anyone you know seems to be caught up in a secret sister gift exchange, get out! It shouldn’t be the season of law-breaking and identity theft. And if that $10 is burning a hole in your pocket, there’s plenty of ways to find some holiday cheer. Donate to a local charity, buy a gift for a coworker, maybe even treat yourself!

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