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The UGLY side of social media, and the ethical conundrum for brands

When Facebook launched in 2004, most wouldn’t have imagined the influence and impact of social media two decades on. The reach of social media is undeniable. 4.74 billion people are active on social media worldwide, meaning  59.3% of people on the planet now utilise social media platforms. What’s more, consumers now spend on average more than one third of all time on the internet on social. But it isn’t of course just consumers extensively leveraging platforms. According to Statista in 2022, social media ad spend stood at approximately 230 billion U.S. dollars globally, with spending expected to surpass the 300-billion-dollar mark by 2024.

Despite its popularity amongst brands and consumers alike, in recent years regulators have become increasingly concerned about the control and influence of platforms in Western societies. So concerned have governments become, in some cases, extreme action is now being undertaken to ban the use of certain platforms. In other instances, stronger regulation is being implemented to reduce their stranglehold on the market. For example, in the US, the state of Utah has just passed a new law (due to take effect from March 1, 2024), which will instate a curfew for minors in the state, barring them from using their social media accounts from 10:30pm to 6:30am. It also requires companies to give a parent or guardian access to their child’s accounts. This new regulation has occurred to improve the wellbeing of those under the age of 18, as numerous studies have shown that mental health outcomes, particularly for girls, has plummeted as a direct result of social media.

Data harvesting, monitoring, the spread of misinformation and social health impacts are also giving rise to consumers' increasing levels of distrust in these platforms. In 2022, trust in social platforms declined across the board as consumers become increasingly concerned about these issues.

As political interference and regulation increasingly comes to the fore and consumer trust in platforms decline, brands are increasingly finding themselves in a difficult place. On one hand, these platforms provide the necessary reach and a captive audience to engage, but on the other, the ethical challenges and shifting consumer sentiment can’t be ignored.

TikTok TikTok – is their time up in Western markets?

TikTok’s rise to fame is faster than any other platform in social media history. It took TikTok just 5 years to reach 1bn users, whilst it took Facebook close to 9. But it wasn’t without its challenges. In 2020, India was the first country to ban TikTok, citing national security concerns after a military clash with China, opening the door for Instagram to dominate that market. Fast forward to 2023, and it seems that TikTok’s rise to success in Western markets might be its own undoing. Both the US and UK governments have introduced a ban on TikTok on government devices, due to security concerns. The US is also edging closer to introducing legislation that bans the app from use by the American public and its 150m users in the US.

In Australia, TikTok was the most downloaded mobile entertainment app last year and now has 7.38 million Australian users, making it a key platform for brands to leverage. Given the global attention and the scale and reach locally, the Australian government has banned the platform in early April from government devices, with findings from a 7 month inquiry handed down to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil. The inquiry considered TikTok and other Chinese social media platforms and how to prevent political censorship and disinformation on the platforms. When the inquiry was launched back in late 2022, O’Neil confirmed that it would look into the data harvesting by social media companies such as TikTok and WeChat based in authoritarian states. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the review was also examining the manipulation of content on these platforms such as the censorship of posts about Tibet and Xinjiang, and the promotion of pro-Beijing positions. If data harvesting is occurring, brands need to consider the role they may be playing indirectly in generating user data with sensitive information that could find its way into the wrong hands.

Has the sheen of Facebook and Instagram worn off?

But it isn’t just TikTok that governments have had their eyes on. Last year, the Irish government fined Meta an eye watering $275 million dollars for breaching data protection rules which resulted in personal data from Facebook being made available in online hacking forums. According to Business Insider, this included the full names, phone numbers, birth dates and locations of Facebook users who were using the site in 2018 and 2019. Meta admitted the data had been scraped using legitimate tools designed to help people find their friends through their phone numbers — a violation of its terms.

Data, however, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Meta. Poorly implemented content moderation strategies have left those most at risk of real world violence unprotected. According to CNN, in 2021, Facebook’s own employees repeatedly sounded the alarm on the company’s failure to curb the spread of posts inciting violence in “at risk” countries such as Ethiopia, where a civil war had raged for the past year. A brave whistle-blower stated that “I genuinely fear that a huge number of people are going to die in the next five to ten years, or twenty years, because of choices and underfunding by Facebook”.

Given these ethical issues and others like the health impact of social media on teenagers, brands like LUSH have taken a stand. In November 2021, the lights went out on their social presence. The independent British beauty brand deactivated its social media accounts across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat (remaining on Twitter and Pinterest) as part of its Anti-Social Media Policy. They also hosted a panel at SXSW alongside of the Facebook whistle-blower to discuss the issue of creating a more beneficial online landscape. It was a decision that wasn’t taken lightly for Lush, as the brand faced a 10-million-pound decision to turn its back on social. But for Lush it was the right decision to live and breathe their values.

Censorship rises to a new level with Twitter

Whilst censorship on some platforms like Facebook is lacking, on platforms like Twitter censorship is raising eyebrows for all the wrong reasons. In January of this year, Twitter complied with a request from Indian government officials to block The Modi Question (at a local level), which investigates claims of Modi’s involvement in India’s deadly 2002 Gujarat riots. This essentially meant they were censoring a journalistic investigation. Since its acquisition by Elon Musk, Twitter has also re-instated several controversial influencers and celebrities’ accounts including those who were previously banned for inciting hate and fuelling gender-based violence.

In November, major advertisers including General Motors, Pfizer, United Airlines and others fled Twitter post Elon Musk’s take over, amidst concerns about a rise in misinformation, hate speech, and other distasteful content under his watch. But it begs the question: why flee Twitter and not other platforms, given the mounting evidence of misinformation and societal impact from Meta and others?

The balancing act of doing what’s right for your brand

The stark reality in the light of day is that social is and has become an essential tool for brands the world over. Brands both small and large have spent decades building their presence and engaging their audiences. The challenge is how to do we;

  • Do what’s right by our customers?

  • Do what's right to protect the brand?

  • Ensure our brand isn’t impacted adversely by choosing to take a stand?

For brands, the ethical questions will keep coming. Regulation may in part make it easier to do what’s right by consumers and the brand simultaneously, but it probably won't solve the conundrum brands face. For brands to walk past the many issues that exist in social today, however, is a vote for continuation of bad practice. As brands fuel the bottom line of social platforms, they do have a responsibility to consider the implications in more depth, and to also consider their position if and when the landscape changes. Some of the key questions we believe brands should be thinking about to order to take a more ethical approach to decision making include;

  • Which social platforms are we prepared to share our data with and how can we allow consumers greater choice over if their data is shared via those respective platforms?

  • What is the implication or fallout for our brand if one of the major platforms faces a political fallout or there is a major reputational issue that is at odds with our brands values?

  • Is our strategy diversified enough to allow us to withstand a shift away from a platform if we needed to?

  • Do we have an over-reliance on social today to engage with the market and what impact could regulation have on our social strategy?


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