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6 December 2022

No one will be safe online until we break Big Tech’s toxic algorithms

Targeted advertising and content that feeds twisted worldviews are the greatest dangers we face online today.

By Susie Alegre

Our online experiences are largely free of charge but they carry a hidden cost that we should all be concerned about. As Elon Musk has recently discovered, that is because social media companies are, essentially, advertising companies dressed up as entertainment, news outlets or social clubs.

Advertising has had its place in our media for centuries, but in the last decade online advertising has changed radically and with it the global information environment has been transformed in ways that harm us not only as individuals but as communities.

A large proportion of the advertising that underpins our online experience is what is called “programmatic” advertising, otherwise known as “targeted” or “surveillance-based” advertising. It works by analysing the infinite data trails you leave online to understand what kind of person you are and how your attention might most effectively be harnessed to get you to loosen your purse strings.

The logic of this kind of online advertising not only dictates the adverts you may be served, it also influences the content you will see in your social media feed to ensure your eyeballs stay glued to your screen, ready for the next advertising opportunity. And it is the driver behind what the American psychologist and philosopher Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism” – a system that greedily gathers our data to predict, manipulate and sell our future behaviour. It’s not necessarily the content of adverts that is bad, it’s the incentives they create, polluting both our online and offline environments in ways we should all be worried about.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the threats social media may pose to our democracy. Political behavioural micro-targeting promised to profile individual voter psychology based on their online activity and to feed people targeted messaging based on those insights to influence voting behaviour. A 2018 report by the Information Commissioner, Democracy Disrupted, highlighted the rot in the system caused by the unfettered use of personal data for profiling and targeting voters in British politics. But despite feigned outrage in front of the cameras, in the UK, nothing changed. MPs passed an exemption from data protection laws for political parties, allowing this activity to continue unchecked. Cambridge Analytica may have folded, but the kind of techniques it used, harnessing social media to manipulate elections, remain lawful in the UK, no matter how harmful they may be to our society.

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A fundamental issue with “online harms” is that our online environment is increasingly shaping our lives in the real world. It’s not just a question of abuse or harmful content directed at an individual, however horrific that may be. It is the corrosive effect on our society as a whole that creates lasting, structural harm. And this is something that the Online Safety Bill, back before parliament today, fails to address at all.

The rise of misogyny, including violent misogyny of the kind expressed by Jake Davison, the killer of five people in Plymouth last year, is a dangerous trend. Removing people like Andrew Tate, an influencer known as “the king of toxic masculinity”, from social media platforms may make headlines, but it will not get to the heart of a problem that is infecting our society more broadly.

It is not a single piece of content that makes a man hate women. It is the cumulative effect of messages, curated and targeted, that belittle and sexualise women while blaming them for the ills of the world. This has built up a toxic worldview that is spreading through society. The logic of social media platforms’ business models helps to identify the people most susceptible to these messages so they can be fed more and more of the same. Divisive and extremist content drives more clicks. The real harm of the online world is a cumulative twisting of worldviews playing on our individual weaknesses and biases to divide and degrade our societies.

It is not only the virtual world that is polluted by the Big Tech business model. The systems that capture our attention online have a massive environmental impact in the real world, as I highlighted in a report last week for the environmental charity Global Action Plan. Surveillance-based advertising is incredibly energy intensive, with each targeted advert you see requiring a global series of data processing events in the background. Good Loop, an ethical advertising technology company, has estimated that the typical online advertising campaign emits 4.9 tonnes of carbon emissions – almost half of what a UK consumer generates every year. By some estimates, 1 per cent of global energy consumption is spent on online advertising, and with massive levels of advertising fraud a huge proportion of that is wasted

Surveillance-based advertising is not a necessary evil. Ethical advertisers are starting to question the logic of a model that has such dramatic social and environmental impact, and political debates about banning targeted advertising are gaining ground in countries such as Norway and the United States.

These are the real online harms. They are structural and they harm us all. If the government is serious about tackling online harms, it needs to be prepared to address the causes, and that means regulating the business models of Big Tech.

[See also: What are the latest updates to the Online Safety Bill?]