Social Media = Public Square
Presenting ourselves to the world comes with inherent risk. With every piece of ourselves we share online, we risk compromising our personal privacy and security. We show our faces, share our feelings, and sometimes engage in difficult discussions. The beauty of social media is that the global community can, for the first time in history, engage in the same discussion all at once. The new connections we make and old ones we maintain through social media more often than not outweigh the risk.
Yet, scrutiny and periodic reevaluation of the platforms we use to share our lives is vital to maintaining an open and trusted medium of communication. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that social media platforms of yore are no longer providing a beneficial service that outweighs the immense damage they’ve caused to our privacy.
The primary cause of the harm associated with social media is related to the centralized nature of current platforms. When a platform is centralized, it means all the content on said platform is controlled by a single party. Users of a centralized platform are subject to the actions taken by the single party controlling the platform. These centralized social media platforms generate revenue through the exploitative collection and sale of user data.
With a revenue model dependent on the sale of ads, centralized platforms are incentivized to maximize the value of the data sold by manipulating and censoring user content.
To illustrate the downsides of centralized social media platforms, I will focus on three of the biggest: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Data collection is the engine that drives the revenue train for centralized platforms. Every user interaction is recorded and sold to target ads at very distinct groups of people.
Facebook’s privacy record leaves much to be desired. In my opinion, Facebook is no longer a social media platform and instead has become an efficient data mining operation. Facebook’s collection activities occur both inside and outside the application itself. As recently as July 10th of this year, apps with Facebook integration through Facebook’s software development kit, or SDK, were shut down due to bugs within the development kit.
Facebook’s SDK is a part of their data mining operations. Every time an app integrates Facebook’s SDK, it pings Facebook’s servers any time a user logs into that application through their Facebook account. Through this SDK, Facebook collects user data from apps with said SDK integration.
With their major acquisitions of Instagram, WhatsApp, and more recently Giphy, Facebook’s native data collection net is wider than ever. The intrusive collection of user data has reached a point of negative return versus the social interactions made through their services. Facebook data collection policy is by no means unique. However, it presents the most poignant example of the lengths to which centralized social media platforms will go to harvest as much data as possible.
The principal purpose centralized platforms like Facebook and Twitter collect user information is to sell that information to advertisers. Revenue generated by these sites is directly proportional to the correlation between data harvested and user engagement. The detrimental effects of a social media platform with an engagement driven revenue model can be seen clearly on Twitter and Facebook through the ads and content promoted by the platform, often through the use of algorithms. Twitter’s engagement algorithm has been accused of spurring extreme political rhetoric as recently as 2019.
The most concerning aspect of Twitter’s algorithm is how easily it can be manipulated by bots. Bots are computer-run accounts that automatically generate content through links and standard phrases on Twitter. With a deluge of content generated by these bots, Twitter’s algorithm is often manipulated to promote content often categorized as propaganda and fake news.
Yet, for all of Twitter’s shortcomings, Facebook retains the title of most reckless, through its egregious, and often times dangerous, algorithmic content manipulation. Facebook’s algorithm has promoted fake treatments to cancer patients, has been accused of discriminatory ad delivery practices, and stoking political partisanship. I’m sure almost everyone has a story about a creepily specific ad showing up on their timeline. Creepy is precisely what Facebook’s proprietary, and therefore secret, algorithm is.
Censorship across centralized social media platforms is rampant and affects all ideologies across every platform. To discuss censorship I will focus primarily on YouTube and how its approach exemplifies the problematic nature of centralized platform content moderation. Since its acquisition by Google in 2006, YouTube has become one of the most visited sites on the internet. This centralized platform houses mainstream and niche content, with one set of rules governing it.
All centralized social media platforms have a fundamental problem with content moderation. Effective content moderation requires a “scalpel”, not a “hammer”. With large centralized platforms like YouTube, there is no way to perform nuanced moderation. As a result, YouTube uses the hammer approach through automated content moderation tools. What results from the hammer approach to content moderation is the censorship of certain groups on the platform who follow the rules set forth by YouTube themselves. For example, LGBTQ YouTube creators’ videos were flagged and demonetized by YouTube’s algorithm because of the algorithm’s inability to distinguish non-sexual queer content from sexually explicit “mature” content. Where large centralized social media platforms are fighting against misinformation on their platforms, a “hammer” approach to censorship is both ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Decentralized Social Media
The issues of data collection, revenue models, and censorship in social media are related to the centralized nature of these platforms. Fortunately, decentralized and open source alternatives are available. Three examples of decentralized social media platforms are Mastodon, Pixelfed, and Peertube.
Decentralized social media platforms operate differently from centralized platforms. For example, if you wanted to communicate with anyone on Facebook, you must have an account on the Facebook server (i.e. have a Facebook account). However, with a decentralized platform like Mastodon, there is no central “Mastodon server” like Facebook. There are multiple servers (called instances) all running Mastodon separately. Now, if you wanted to communicate with someone on Mastodon, you just need an account on any instance running Mastodon. Anyone can run an instance and each instance is then administrated and moderated by whoever hosts the instance. This instanced approach allows for the “scalpel” approach to content moderation that centralized platforms are incapable of implementing. With volunteer moderators managing the content on specific instances, and migration from one instance to another made easy, users can find or even create an instance that caters to the specific moderation practices they desire.
Instances “speak” to each other through protocols like ActivityPub. Through ActivityPub, users on one instance can talk to users on another instance, creating a social media network that is both open and closed. Posts from users on other instances are visible on ones feed, but those posts can be separated from posts from users on their local instance.
Mastodon, Pixelfed, and Peertube are open source, meaning anyone can examine the code and run an instance themselves. With no centralization, there is no dragnet collection and sale of user data. Instances may have a Patreon or other monetary support system in place to help finance the upkeep of an instance.
Decentralized social media is supported by the community, for the community, and as such there are no ads or algorithms. Social Media feeds are in chronological order, and “likes” and “favorites” are not recorded and used to push intensely personal ads. Building communities and sharing our lives on these decentralized social media platforms brings the value of connection through online platforms back to reasonable and appropriate levels.
As you may have noticed, the biggest player in the centralized social media space is also the most exploitative. I strongly believe deleting ones Facebook account is the biggest and most effective step one can take in reclaiming their privacy. Untangling oneself from Facebook’s many arms is difficult, but starting with the base app is the best place to start. Mastodon and Pixelfed provide great platforms to begin building an online community anew, one friend at a time.
Mastodon: Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter. The link provided has a great step-by-step guide to assist with joining Mastodon as well as selecting an instance that’s right for you. There are also many mobile apps available for both iPhone and Android.
Pixelfed: Pixelfed is an alternative to Instagram. Pixelfed is in active development. A mobile app and stories feature are in the pipeline.
Peertube: Peertube is an alternative to YouTube. Peertube is in active development with future iterations bringing streaming to the platform. The link provided will guide you through selecting an instance for browsing and account creation.
Hi! My name is Karan. I’m a lawyer by trade with a passion for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and protecting our right to privacy.