Social media’s business model is just plain unethical. In his 2013 book, “Who Owns the Future,” computer scientist Jaron Lanier suggested that their business practices should be illegal and described social media companies as “private spy agencies crossed with ad agencies, which are licensed by us to spy on all of us all the time in order to accumulate billions of dollars by manipulating what’s put in front of us over supposedly open and public networks.”
Espionage and propaganda are rife on social media sites, which generate billions of dollars off advertising that targets the vulnerable and the gullible, often without regard to the tenets that govern conventional advertising practices. The result is not only uninformed public discourse based on false and misleading information, but these platforms also provide predators the ability to defraud, pilfer and mislead the public. The fact is that spies and propagandists thrive on social media platforms.
By contrast, traditional media is bounded by time-worn principles and laws that keep commerce honest, such as truth in advertising laws and product endorsement disclosure rules. These and other rules have been around since the early 1900s to keep consumers protected from snake oil salesmen, immoral politicians, fraudsters and hucksters.
Naturally, social media is the preferred platform to pull off large-scale crimes and scams. Criminals and charlatans have had a field day during the COVID-19 crisis and some American politicians slammed social media companies for not taking responsibility for the disinformation and shenanigans that run rampant on their platforms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Google and Facebook “amplify the most inflammatory content, no matter how dangerous or false.”
The proliferation of false or dangerous information about COVID-19 treatments and cures litter sites like Facebook and Twitter and can cause harm to people who are looking for advice on how to protect their health.
A flood of sites selling unproven treatments or bogus cures, as well as ads selling faulty face masks and useless supplements, litter the online landscape. Some politicians have asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into allegations made by the Tech Transparency Project that Google helps scammers target Americans who are seeking stimulus checks.
The project alleges that those who turn to Google to search out how to access government funds are being shown ads that link to scams, phony sites and spread malware. In its letter to the FTC, the Tech Transparency Project stated: “We found that at least 45 of the 126 ads identified clearly violated Google’s advertising policies, and only 17 linked to government or other official sources.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal concluded that, “To truly protect consumers, the FTC must also look at the root of this recurring problem: Google’s advertising practices.”
This is nothing new. In 2019, a deluge of bitcoin scams came to light. A trade magazine, called Which magazine, warned that criminals were on sites such as Facebook, Yahoo, MSN and AOL posting fake celebrity endorsements to entice people to pour money into fake trading platforms.
The FTC estimates that one in 10 adults in the U.S. will fall victim to fraud every year, and the vast majority of those scams take place online.
There are other forms of consumer abuses perpetrated by social media companies, as well. Since 2010, the European Union has fined Google eight billion euros for violating its competition laws because its search algorithm favours its own advertisers over their European rivals, thereby illegally suppressing competition and innovation (Google controls 90 per cent of all global searches).
This year, the U.S. Justice Department finally said that it is planning to file antitrust charges against Google involving its monopolistic business practices in the online advertising industry. This will be one of the biggest antitrust cases since the late 1990s, when Microsoft was taken to court.
Social media sites should be forced to abide by the same advertising standards as everyone else, but they aren’t. Until regulations force them to clean up their acts, the only protection is “buyer beware.”