Are Social Media Algorithms Infringing on our Human Rights? Yes, and Here’s Why…

What information is made available to you on your social media platforms? Presumably, I am safe in saying that it is all personalised and conveniently relevant to your lifestyle. ‘Recommended for you…’ ‘We think you’ll like…’ and ‘Why not try…’ are all sentences you’ll be far too familiar with when scrolling through your social media – If you’re a fan of music you’ll have most likely been subjected to the newest offer from a music streaming service, or if you’ve recently booked a holiday you’ll have no doubt caught sight of an unbelievably decent offer from a well-known travel agency; this is all because your online behaviour is exploited to form personalised algorithms.

Algorithms. What a terrifying word. However; its concept is quite simple: If we want a computer to understand how to do something, we need to give it an algorithm, and this is done by feeding the said computers information to solve a problem or achieve a goal.

Social media’s goal is to encourage the user to spend more time on its platform. The more time spent on a platform = the more money it makes from the advertisements. Well-known social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat are all free, so how do they make their money? Advertisements. Advertisements which are fed into your personalised algorithms that function through collecting, storing, and repurposing your information by analysing your behaviour i.e. what posts you have liked, websites you have visited, videos you have watched. The result? The algorithm filters posts and advertisements based on your online behaviour, and what it ‘thinks’ you may like. This way you spend more time aimlessly scrolling through your feed, allowing for social media platforms to increase their revenue.

So what’s the problem in regards to human rights? This way your newsfeed is prioritised by what you want to see and you don’t have to waste time scrolling through drab you’re not interested in. Google attested to this argument to the Joint Committee on Human Rights by stating that personalised advertising to users “provides an experience where ads are more relevant, more likely to be useful and, for advertisers, more likely to be effective.”

On it’s surface, this all seems fine; but the problem and worry occurs when users data is shared without users consent, or their lack of understanding for giving consent due to complicated agreement forms (we’ve all brainlessly scrolled through the ‘terms and conditions’ page!). 

Without Consent? Surely Not…
Dr Reuben Binns, a data scientist from the University of Oxford, emphasised on how data may be shared without consent in his research study, which focused on nearly 1 million Android apps. Dr. Binns concluded that 9/10 apps sent data back to Google; 4/10 apps sent data back to Facebook, and in this case “many of them sent data automatically without the individual having the opportunity to say no to it.”

So, those adverts you see for a brand new Mercedes or simply just some new leggings from a popular fashion website could be there due to personal data that you have not consented to share. In other words; your information, the data that your algorithm collects, stores, and repurposes is routinely shared without your permission, which undoubtedly infringes on your rights guaranteed under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: The Right to Privacy.

But I Agreed to the T’s & C’s to share my personal data…
But what about your rights when you have consented to sharing your data? Have you done this unwittingly by skimming through the T&C’s, or have you reluctantly agreed to the non-negotiable T&C’s of sharing your information with other parties because you feel like you have no other choice and you do not want to lose access to social media platforms, which may be a large part of your life? Or, you quickly glanced at the T’s & C’s before concluding that they were too difficult to understand, and it’s simply much easier to press that ‘agree’ button, as opposed to filtering through all that ‘mumbo jumbo’.

If so, I’m with you. It is undoubtedly difficult to make informed decisions about your life with such complex terminology within T’s &C’s. To emphasise this, in June 2018, the BBC revealed that companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Spotify, Tinder, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube had privacy policies that were written at a university reading level and “would take an average person almost nine hours to read.”

With this in mind, surely it would be downright impossible for the average social media user to understand what they’re consenting to? If we consider that the T’s & C’s for sharing data are written at university level, where does that leave the 13 year olds (and younger) who regularly sign up for these popular platforms daily? It would be unreasonable to assume that teenagers, and also some adults, would be in a decent position to understand the university-level terminology, therefore raising the concern as to whether meaningful consent has been given.

Further, if we take the requirement of ‘capacity’ from contract law (where all parties must be 18 or over and of sound mind to enter into the contract), and apply it to our social media T’s & C’s (given that I believe T’C & C’s could well be considered a binding contract), can we with absolute certainty say that substantial consent for sharing personal data has been given? 

For example, would it be fair to say that 13-year old Katie has consented to sharing all of her online data with a mass amount of private companies for their right to manipulate her news feed content? Obviously not. Behave. We could even take it a little further and argue that these advertisements are completely infringing on Katie’s rights under Article 8 of the ECHR in which the courts have interpreted the concept of ‘private life’ very broadly; covering things like the right to determine sexual orientation, lifestyle, and the way you look and dress. With this in mind, could those plugged advertisements from popular fashion websites be influencing an impressionable 13 year old, that has adhered to the T’s & C’s set out by Facebook to not feel left out; or could Facebook merely defend itself by saying she had given ‘meaningful consent’? The latter is clearly used as a blanket to hide underneath to avoid any liability.

But wait, there’s more…
Up until now, this article has focused on advertisements within social media and how they infringe on our right to privacy under human rights laws. Nonetheless, I believe it’s extremely important for me to briefly note that algorithms can infringe on our human rights in a variety of other ways, most notably through being incredibly discriminatory.

Let’s take employment advertisement as an example. In September 2019, Muhammad Ali, Piotr Sapiezynski and their team undertook a research project entitled, ‘Discrimination through optimisation: How Facebook’s ad delivery can lead to skewed outcomes.’ The aim was to create fake job advertisements to monitor how Facebook’s algorithm delivered the adverts…and the results were nothing less than shocking.

The team discovered that by subtly tweaking some of the job advertisements, there would be drastic changes in the ‘ad delivery’, most notably along gender and racial lines. Jobs advertised for teachers and secretaries were shown to a higher proportion of women (around 76%), and their false job advertisements within the lumber industry were shown to 90% men, 70% of which were of white ethnicity. Can this be seen as discrimination?

I strongly believe so. However; some would argue that social media algorithms are personally designed for the individual, based on the individuals likes and interests, and therefore they can not be biased; nonetheless, it is my opinion that this is just another way of deflecting responsibility. It would be reasonable to say that such companies who participate in ‘ad delivery’ should have the capacity to decide to advertise equally to all, monitor how these adverts are delivered, and assess how this is done instead of relying on algorithms to do so, resulting in potential infringement on human rights.

To Conclude…
Algorithms are great on a superficial level – you get to see what you want, when you want. However, when we scratch the surface just a tiny bit and begin to question the impact of these algorithms, and how they originate, we can see that the software is completely out of whack and does not coincide well with the guarantee of our Human Rights.

Protection from discrimination and our right to privacy are just two core principles of Human Rights that I have briefly touched upon in this article. I have no doubt that there are other human rights which are being violated, or are at the risk of being violated, due to social media algorithms.

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to post your comments in the section below. I would be happy to receive a variety of opinions on this matter!

2 thoughts on “Are Social Media Algorithms Infringing on our Human Rights? Yes, and Here’s Why…

  1. For someone like myself who has taught the good and bad with computers in the past, I have never really thought so hard about terms and conditions as you have explained, especially looking at it from a 13yr old perspective. Your blog has certainly got me thinking about how easy we just tick a required box without thinking about what we have given permission to in the future. A very well written blog and certainly something I will be looking into in a lot more depth.


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