Social media companies are ethically bankrupt, and our mental health is paying the price

Increasingly, social media is promoting and sharing inappropriate and harmful material which has a negative impact upon its audiences. This means that vulnerable people are targeted by harmful sponsored adverts.

Social media companies are ethically bankrupt, and our mental health is paying the price

It is a Tuesday evening, it has been a busy day, you’re relaxing on the sofa at home and you absentmindedly take a quick scroll through social media. Maybe you are sieving through your Facebook feed or perhaps rolling through your Instagram account. You’re looking at your friends and acquaintances posts along with any companies or brands you might have liked or followed along the way. You’re mostly met by memes, adverts and finding out exactly what that person-you-maybe-spoke-to-once-at-school had for dinner that night. It’s a medley of cute animal photos, political activism and funny videos. Mostly harmless enough.

But somewhere in the middle of this mindless scrolling you’ll suddenly come across something that jumps out at you. Something so out of place that it seems odd that it is even there at all. This is unlike the usual social media droll and clearly aimed at you. Yep, you have stumbled upon the dreaded sponsored advert.

If we pretend for a moment that it isn’t creepy enough that these are often based on your google searches, a television show you are watching, your website clicks or what you were talking about with your mum five seconds ago, sometimes the opposite happens and the posts seem to be based on absolutely nothing relevant to you whatsoever. Dangerously so.

I’ll often be talking to a friend, let’s say we are discussing something obscure or a specific place or person, then lo and behold I’ll open social media and be recommended a product or service based on the thing I was just talking about, a whole 30 seconds later. It might be that we are discussing characters in a TV show, or a place we really want to visit, or perhaps about my friends kids going back to school. The next thing I know, my feed is inundated with back-to-school products, adverts and deal for cheap holidays to the place I want to go and I’ve even had recommended to me the exact purse I just took out my handbag to pay for a bill. It is easy to see how elections can be rigged, governments can be affected and politics smothered when algorithms are so creepily able to anticipate trends and interests.

As if all this wasn’t already screaming warning signs about how companies, brands and specifically social media giants like Facebook have invasive over-access to our daily lives and private data, there’s another huge problem with these sponsored ads. This is tech, responding to personal and human interaction, and often it gets it completely and utterly wrong.

Not only does this mean that I am sent sponsored ads that are never going to appeal to me (Facebook, please stop recommending to me to read The Sun, this is never going to happen) but it also means some of the sponsored ads are inappropriate, dangerous and manipulative when falling into the wrong hands.

I’ve had sponsored ads covering inappropriate content, which could affect vulnerable people as there is no warning of triggers or difficult subjects. Popping up all over my Facebook feed has been various negative content, from graphic violent videos of assault to articles about suicide and self-harming. From stories of tragic loss and deaths of children, parents and loved ones to articles targeting women for their weight or their eating habits.

I am constantly inundated with sponsored adverts for hair extensions, which I can only assume is due to the fact I have very long hair in photographs but boy are they targeting the wrong person as my hair is all my own and natural. Similarly I’m constantly getting sent adverts to straighten and sort out my teeth or with tips on how to lose weight. Effectively, Facebook sponsored ads are low-key bullying me.

Now these adverts have no effect on how I feel or how I conduct my day-to-day business. I have no desire to obtain picture-perfect Hollywood-white teeth nor to fight my weight-gaining medication and starve myself to thinness. I’m happy with who I am so these ads bear little fruition on my daily life. But the more I was targeted with such adverts the more I began to think about the effect they might have on others.

You could be suffering from anorexia or body dysmorphia and be receiving sponsored ads about losing weight or dangerous practices to get thin. You could be suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts whilst receiving articles about self-harming, death and violence. In my view this is not ok.

We are becoming more and more aware that something needs to change in terms of what content is allowable on social media and that more needs to be done in introducing laws and policing about specific types of content. Not only is it monitoring our everyday lives discreetly but it is also invading our privacy, subliminally influencing our actions, views and opinions as well as promoting negative and harmful content. However, that need is only exacerbated when the content is sponsored to target individuals, using opaque algorithms that make it harder to avoid. When a user is posting content detrimental to our well-being we can mute or block them, but when it’s the platform itself serving the content up to us, what is the method of recourse? Platforms like Facebook have long insisted that only they can fix the problem and a self-motivated to do so, but when the issue remains persistent, and they can only trot out the same half-apologies and a commitment to double down, perhaps it's time there be some real external motivation for them to fix the problem.

Header Image Credit: Mikoto from Pexels


Mary Strickson

Mary Strickson Contributor

I love writing, blogging and reviewing on Voice and other online publications, covering a range of topics but I especially love the arts, activism, film and theatre. When I am not writing I work as an events photographer and artist/illustrator, as well as running workshops in schools and the community, mostly with young people. I'm also a huge history nerd, have a History BA, Art History MA and work in heritage. I love comics, superheroes and anything sci-fi.

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