Social media companies portray themselves as benevolent public services bringing the world together. Yet under that veneer of public good lie Orwellian surveillance machines that silently watch our every waking moment, harvesting and mining our every action down to our most intimate moments and relentlessly monetizing them. Most importantly, their ad-supported ecosystems do not distinguish between profiting from legitimate and legal activity and from horrific and illegal content. Social media platforms earn a profit from terrorism propaganda and recruiting, human trafficking, genocide, hate speech, sexism, racism, suicide, bullying and all other forms of unimaginably horrific activity. Should they be forced to hand back that money rather than continuing to profit from the worst of human society?
In the print and broadcast era, advertisers paid to have their messages shown alongside professionally vetted content. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television shows and most other outlets had professional editorial staff that manually and carefully reviewed every piece of content they published, ensuring that advertisements appeared alongside content consistent with national laws and the sensibilities of those advertisers. Moreover, advertisers could choose to run their ads only in mainstream publications or select whether they wanted to target more controversial outlets.
In stark contrast, the social media era sees advertisers placing their messages alongside content created by ordinary people from across the world without any human review or direct editorial controls of any kind. An advertiser could see their ad appear alongside a post featuring cute kittens just as easily as alongside an ISIS recruitment poster.
The problem is that the social platform running those ads makes just as much money from the ad running beside the kittens as it does the ad running beside terrorism imagery. As long as the advertiser doesn’t threaten to reduce their spending or government regulators threaten to step in with new laws, the social media company has no real incentive to better control what content ads show up alongside.
In cases where advertisers have stepped in with boycotts and spending reductions, platforms have moved swiftly to take at least basic steps, but these have often been more cosmetic than structural.