With more and more users signing on each day, social media platforms are playing an important role in the new battle concerning the control of data. They are able to hold data on their users that not only affects privacy laws, but could fundamentally affect democracy and the way it operates. This has given them an increasing amount of political power on the world stage – much to the dismay of our governments. But how does this affect us?
How do social media platforms control our data?
Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are able to track users’ phone usage, location, and build up a profile of its customer, helping them target advertisements towards users at the time they are most likely to engage with them. This is obviously great for businesses who use the data to increase their reach, followers, website traffic and revenue. It’s also brilliant for users, with 91% of consumers saying they’re more likely to shop with brands who provide relevant offers and recommendations through targeted ads. But despite the benefits, this data can be also be used to build up a view of user’s information by social media companies, both personal and political.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was an example of such a data breach, where 87 million Facebook users’ personal data was harvested through a third-party app. This data was used to target political advertisements, potentially contributing to voter decisions made in the US Presidential election and the Brexit vote. This shows exactly why governments across the globe have been concerned about the power of social media companies, as these kind of data breaches can be used to affect the democratic decisions of voters.
TikTok and China
As the potential political power of social media companies grow, the concern of governments also does hand in hand. This applies not just to data breaches, but some countries are worried about these companies working too closely with their governments.
As a Chinese app, there has been scepticism globally about the nature of TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government. The app has been growing its user base, so some other governments are showing concerns about how they handle their data and whether this could be passed onto China. Along with security concerns about Huawei, who have recently been removed from the UK’s 5G network, Chinese technology companies are having to fight to prove their independence from their government. Despite this, governments are still concerned about TikTok, with India banning them and 38 other Chinese apps, and other countries like Australia and the US also considering a similar ban.
TikTok does seems like it is fighting back against the government however, with its recent exit from Hong Kong looking like an attempt at removing association with them. This happened after China introduced a new security law in Hong Kong, restricting the freedom of speech and potentially having a knock-on effect on the governance of social media. The law can even give police the power to seize the servers of any platform that refuses to take down a social media post, so it’s no surprise that TikTok is leaving the area.
Other social media platforms can also be seen to fight back against governments including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, who have said that they will ‘pause’ any requests for data information from governments whilst they review their legal position on the matter.
Despite this, it would be wrong to paint a picture of social media companies continuously fighting against their governments and legitimate data laws. Facebook typically works with law enforcement, although their current ‘pause’ does affect all of the network’s platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
The economic importance of social media advertising
One thing to remember however, is how important social media advertising is to both the global economy and the revenue of social media companies. With COVID-19 driving most businesses online, far more business is being conducted through social media than ever before. So, although governments are concerned about the power that this data gives social media companies, it seems unlikely that these companies would use this data irresponsibly, provoking data laws that may affect the high revenue they collect from advertising.
Similarly, with the growing importance on e-commerce and social media advertising, world governments are now relying on the economic prosperity that social media marketing will bring in the wake of COVID-19. This means that even if they don’t like the power that social media companies have from gathering data, they are now beginning to rely on them to use that data to fund their economies.
Given the stalemate between the two, social media companies should continue to act with integrity by protecting user data, and governments should implement effective regulations protecting this data whilst allowing these platforms to prosper. As a result, at Neoseven we believe that the positive economic effect social media has for businesses during these difficult times means that we should all continue to make the most of their services by advertising and purchasing online.