I Have Seen The Enemy And It Is Us: The Perils Of Social Media Target Marketing

Theo E.J. Wilson’s resume is commendable. He is an African-American slam-poet, activist, singer, and a speaker. However, his YouTube channel never really garnered too much attention until April 5, 2015, when he published a video titled, “Are Black people REALLY owed REPARATIONS???” The said video has over 30, 000 views, till date, and 884 comments, both positive and negative. Wilson never really expected the video to go viral, much less attract a slew of hate comments from white supremacist trolls. In a video for BuzzFeed, he says, “I also began to notice that a few of my trolls actually have brains, which made me even more curious and want to understand them even further. Although these supposed morons engaged in what appeared to be original thought, I said to myself the these guys are highly misinformed, at least according to my knowledge. And as it turns out, that same target-marketing algorithm that feeds you more of the products that you like to buy, also feeds you more of the news that you like to hear…”

While, in recent times, the term “fake news” is heavily associated with the current President of the United States (POTUS), its repercussions can be felt all the way across the Atlantic, and in India. The period between May 2018 and July 2018, was marked by a series of mob lynching and hate-spurred murders across the country. The root of these occurrences was traced to WhatsApp forwards and mass-sharing of baseless rumours regarding the smuggling of cows across the border, consumption of beef, child-trafficking, and organ-harvesting circuits. Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology took immediate action, as did several state governments independently, in an attempt to remain at par with their foreign counterparts on cracking down on the cyber-spread of fake news. India, however, has nearly 300 million smartphone users, most of whom continue to remain in the dark regarding the means to differentiate between credible news sources and otherwise, which makes the situation that much trickier to resolve. It doesn’t help that the ruling party has, itself, been accused of appropriating facts, figures and even pictures to suit its political agenda, on multiple occasions.

Coming to the role of social media in impacting an individual’s viewpoint, let’s begin with Facebook. The typical Facebook user has an average of 1, 500 pieces of content available to them, and yet, they are only able to view roughly 20% of it. This is because, over time, Facebook picks up on your areas of interests and actively starts pushing related posts on your feed. The algorithm feed that you view is curated in accordance with your already-existing belief sets and comfort zones. In short, your social media feed becomes an echo-chamber, wherein only you and other like-minded people are allowed. “When all of your friends, who already agree with you, are posting things that you already agree with, you never get counterpoints. Eventually, you have to seek it out actively,” adds Wilson.

This seemingly harmless marketing strategy can assume dangerous proportions in an already diverse socio-political era, where caste, class, and religion have compelled the population to establish a clique system against one another. For a nation that’s constantly on the move, a quick scroll through social media is their only source of daily news. As always, mass awareness and education need to be conducted as also accountability on the part of the social media platforms, and consequently, immediate reforms.

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