Dina Indelicato
February 1, 2018

Is Social Media an Existential Threat?

Is Social Media an Existential Threat

In a recent interview, Tristan Harris a former Google employee had some very serious things to say about the prevalence of social media and smartphones. He specifically mentions the influence of social media on children and how it impacts the way they define concepts such as friendship, and how corporations leverage social media to influence thought. According to Harris, “these companies’ goals are fundamentally misaligned with our goals, and the goals of democracy. And that is why it’s an existential threat.”

So Is Social Media Really an Existential Threat?

He does make some valid points. In today’s climate, claims that corporations have too much power and leverage definitely carry water, and the influence of social media on teenagers is concerning. So is our constant fear of missing out. On the other hand, companies’ use of social media as a thoroughly negative thing isn’t universal. Many are engaging in ethical practices, and doing good work.

Still, we cannot deny that a problem exists. It clearly does, and likely all business owners could stand to be more aware of the role they play in all of this, if not make some improvements.

Don’t Play to Damaging Fears or Biases

A large part of social media marketing is community building. You want to create and participate in a community where your audience feels they belong and can share common interests. Obviously one of those common interests is going to be your brand and your products and services.

Still, it doesn’t end there. Like minded people tend to have similar interests, concerns, and values. If you use that positively you can create beneficial communities and connections. However, there’s also a dark side to this. Like minded people also have similar prejudices and fears.

Remember that there is a difference between creating a positive community and fostering an us VS. them mindset. Avoid pandering to cultural, religious, and racial stereotypes. Even doing so in ways that seem humorous or minor can contribute to something negative.

Know Your Audience and Their Vulnerabilities

Businesses do market research and create customer personas in order to target the people most likely to buy their products. If they’re going to make money based on this knowledge, shouldn’t they be responsible for using this information to ensure that they aren’t doing any harm?

Every demographic has vulnerabilities. It may be teenage girls and their feelings about their bodies. It may be older people and their inherent loneliness. Be aware that the efforts you make on social media to reach your target audience could be targeting and exploiting these vulnerabilities. If you’re targeting people with the goal of making them feel as if they won’t be likeable, pretty, worthwhile, or important without buying your product you may be part of the problem.

Use Your 80% Wisely

The standard advice is that 20% of your online marketing presence should focus on promotion and direct marketing while the other 80% is about providing your audience with relevant and useful content. By doing this, your audience is more likely to see your as a thought leader and trustworthy source of content they need.

So, what is the most responsible way to use that 80%. Is it by simply passing along what is shared most and trending? What about using your voice on social media to promote the greater good. In the United States, radio stations use publicly subsidized airways. Because of this, they are expected to provide at least some programming to help the general public. Why not follow suit.

Know who is within your social media ‘broadcasting’ range. Then, make an effort to reach out with content that empowers and aids people. Most importantly do it without concern for capitalizing, bragging, or selling. For example, if you operate an online travel business, you can use social media to send out information on travel advisories or warnings, or provide insights on how to have a travel document translated into a foreign language.

Vet Your Endorsements Advertisers and Partnerships

When you’re active on social media, you aren’t just furthering your message. You’re furthering the messaging that your advertisers put out. You’re helping the thought leaders that you associate with spread their messages as well. The same can be said for your brand ambassadors, those who endorse your business in any way, as well as those you partner with.

It’s tempting to see opportunity and take it without investigating further. Yet, you are still responsible for what you support. Take the time to learn about the businesses and individuals that you build relationships with. This includes business partnerships, advertisements, guest bloggers, spokespersons, and more. Everyone has an agenda. Just be sure that your associates’ agendas are ethically compatible with yours.

Respect Privacy

This is a cornerstone of ethical social media behavior. If you respect your audience members’ privacy, if you only reach out to them in ways that you can help them, then you don’t have much else to struggle with.

Create and maintain robust privacy policies that go beyond the bare minimum requirements. Instead, these policies should be specifically designed to meet the privacy concerns of your audience. Most importantly, care should be taken not to focus on the technicalities of privacy alone. Instead privacy should be a policy that is based on a desire to respect customers and use their information ethically. This includes being transparent about the information you collect and how you use it.

Be Respectful of the Attention You Receive From Your Audience

When your audience takes the time to read your posts, subscribe to your email list, or play your videos, they do so for a specific reason. You’ve told them that they will receive something that they want or need by doing so. Don’t make them regret trusting you.

First and foremost, don’t bait and switch. Don’t promise high quality, useful content that your audience can apply to their lives and then deliver thinly veiled advertising. Focus on high production values, and well written posts. Deliver more than what they are expecting.

Incorporate Ethical Use of Social Media into Your Corporate Social Responsibility Policy

Today, consumers are interested in doing business with companies that prioritize doing good and behaving ethically as well as making money. Because of this, many business owners are creating corporate social responsibility policies. Internally it can define the standards your company holds for itself and employees. It can define values and causes your business supports. Many companies also choose to publish a version of their corporate social responsibility for their customers to read. This allows you to broadcast your values and intentions.

If your business doesn’t have a corporate social responsibility policy you should create one. It’s a great way to cement your values and put those values into action. Any decent CSR policy should also contain a statement regarding ethical use of social media. This should outline appropriate social media behavior. What posts are and are not appropriate as well as the values you want to promote on social media platforms.


Tristan Harris isn’t a lone voice in the dark. He’s simply expressing the same alarm that many others are feeling about the role of business in social media. His experience and position simply allow his words to reach a broader audience. The truth is that the public is wary about social media, and the way that brands use it to exert influence. Distrust of businesses and skepticism about their online behavior is on the rise.

By making a dedicated effort to use social media in ethical ways, you accomplish two things. First and most important, you treat your audience with respect and act in their best interest. You’ll also set yourself apart from businesses that aren’t focused on social media ethics.


Dina I headshotDina Indelicato is a blogging enthusiast and freelance writer. She is always open to research about new topics and gaining new experiences to share with her readers. You can find her on Twitter @DinaIndelicato and Facebook.


Featured image: Copyright: ‘https://www.123rf.com/profile_nikauforest‘ / 123RF Stock Photo


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