Pupils dilate, peripheries blur, heart skips a beat at the image of a small red “1”. A red “1” perched precariously over a luminescent white symbol.

Tentatively, with the careful and nervous movements of a freckled virgin unhooking a bra, the mouse inches closer to the little red light.

Click.

I have a friend request. I have validation. Who of the humans recently encountered was so enraptured to hunt me down and request my life?

“Britney Angel”

It is a truth acknowledged by any millennial: the key to someone’s identity is their profile picture. Britney’s speaks volumes.

She is a 120-pound female. Brown hair with streaks of blonde. Tan.

Perched on her toes, she is adorned only in a lacy hoist-em-up bra and white panties with a little pink bow. She has scripture inked onto her side. It frames a toned stomach. Her face is contorted into a duck like expression, partly concealed by an iPhone 7.

Much like two pigs in a barn marveling at the free accommodation and food, many of us too willingly take advantage of the unlimited access we have to a powerful modern technology.

“A little about me: I am a hardworking, goal orientated, graduate student. I have an education, a career and passion. All I’m missing is someone to enjoy life with. I’m generally attracted to older men who have their lives together.”

Across the globe, “older men with their lives together” start to sweat uncontrollably from every orifice. The hair that circles the freckled, toasty bald spot on the crown of their heads stands on edge. Their lefthand utters towards the link strategically placed below Britney’s profile, ‘www.havefunnow.com’, while their right hand reaches for the credit card to pay an ‘innocent’ signup fee.

Alas, I am not an older man who has the resources or needs to become prey to a thinly veiled scheme.

Facebook has missed its mark. This is rare.

Everything that graces the Facebook page is deliberately engineered to entice and addict.

When it comes to social media, the ol’ adage ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ remains true to form. Much like two pigs in a barn marveling at the free accommodation and food, many of us too willingly take advantage of the unlimited access we have to a powerful modern technology. But, much like those pigs, we are the product; not the consumer.

"The Facebook newsfeed is not accountable to us,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google in a TED Talk in April. “It’s accountable to maximizing attention.”

Facebook has spared no cost, resource or time in gaining a monopoly of our attention. Consider the Facebook ping, a sensory invitation as enticing as the small red "1" of a friend request. In an interview with WIRED, the creators of this sound, Jim McKee and Everett Katigbak, explained the complexities involved in the small, seemingly innocent PING. In an attempt to find a pleasant, inviting and familiar sound, the designers used a major third chord, reminiscent of an old-school telephone. A minor descending chord was thrown into the mix, a chord that echoes a doorbell or when you call out for your mother with ‘MO-OM’.

Everything that graces the Facebook page is deliberately engineered to entice and addict.

Facebook isn’t the only dealer seducing us with the social opiate. Consider the YouTube Rabbit Hole. Much like Alice, our curiosity is often drawn by the white rabbit of a cute puppy video. Yet before the rst video ends, instant play drags us down into a Carroll-esque bender to which we only emerge hours later.

In total, the U.S. digital advertising market is expected to reach $83 billion in 2017, an increase of 16 per cent.

In other words, social platforms are akin to a pimp. They gain our trust with ‘opportunity’. They steal our attention with addictive machinery, carefully designed to leave us dependent and craving more. And then, in the final act, they sell our identity to the highest bidder.

Enter advertising in the digital age.

As of May 2017, Facebook’s revenue was up 49 per cent. Facebook was raking in $8.08 billion from the $5.38 billion made in the same period a year earlier. These gains are credited to mobile ad sales, including those on Instagram. According to eMarketer, Facebook’s ad revenue is expected to total $36.29 billion this year.

Snapchat isn’t innocent. As of 2017, Snapchat’s ad revenue met $770 million, a 157 per cent increase from 2016.

In total, the U.S. digital advertising market is expected to reach $83 billion in 2017, an increase of 16 per cent.

So, why are executives across the world salivating at the opportunity to advertise on digital platforms?

Because digital platforms are the kingpin pimps of advertising. They have stolen into your bedroom and looked through photo albums, bedside tables and read your diary. Due to massive data collection and the abundance of information put online, they know exactly who you are and what you want. And they’re selling this image to the right customer.

Working in digital advertising, this was used to my advantage. With a simple-to-use Facebook software, I, as a junior content strategist, could create an advertisement that targeted an exact demographic, from age to zip code to hobbies.

This begs the question: If I could create a targeted advertisement, what can the Facebook genius’ achieve? Especially when equipped with advanced algorithms and the monetary backing of corporate giants.

On August 22, ZDNet reported on the findings of Security Researcher Will Strafach. Strafach found that the popular weather app AccuWeather was sending geolocation data to a third-party data monetization firm, regardless of whether users had switched off location sharing.

emotions can be changed in users depending on how many positive and negative expressions are found on a personal newsfeed

Talk about a violation of privacy in the name of targeted advertising.

Yet, is this simply the price we all pay for advertisements that are relevant to our lives and identity? Perhaps it is desirable to trade my privacy so I’m never solicited by another Britney Angel in her lacy underwear and side tattoo.

However, while Britney wasn’t exactly my thing, I’d still pick her over emotional manipulation and a threat to democracy. And, despite what the networks claim, that is what’s on the bargaining table.

That time spent in the digital world can emotionally influence us should come as no surprise. In a PNS study funded by Facebook, it was found that emotions can be changed in users depending on how many positive and negative expressions are found on a personal newsfeed. This study has two obvious insights: emotions are contagious over digital platforms; data analysts can tell if users are in a positive or negative mood.

So, if Facebook can tell that I’m in a blue mood they can also know that I’m more likely to make impulse purchases. Therefore, isn’t it more likely that I’ll see an increase in advertisements for weekend getaways to Vegas? Or a new motorbike?

While a digital platform’s ability to manufacture consumer consent is alarming, perhaps what is more startling is the potential to influence democratic processes. 

On November 3, 2016, Buzzfeed News identified more than 100 pro-Trump websites being run from a small town in Macedonia. These websites sent out stories with headlines like “This is the news of the millennium!” and “Your prayers have been answered”. The stories claimed that Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to the email scandal. These stories generated over 140,00 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook while the puppeteers behind the scheme watched gleefully as money oozed into their Google AdSense account.

While Zuckerberg questions his influential empire, an algorithm silently reads our desires, habits and preferences, feeding us a steady stream of advertisements.

The articles were advertisements and the stories were fake. Nevertheless, it garnered unjustifiable attention from the target audience and misinformed them in just enough time for the US Election.

Mark Zuckerberg has stated that it is a “pretty crazy idea” that “fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of content, influenced the election in anyway.”

Yet, isn’t this a naïve statement? After all, according to Pew Research Centre 44 per cent of American voters use Facebook to get news. This isn’t admirable but it’s true. It would be downright foolish to presume that this wasn’t a factor in the result of the US election. Especially considering the Trump campaigns paid for advertisements.

While Zuckerberg questions his influential empire, an algorithm silently reads our desires, habits and preferences, feeding us a steady stream of advertisements. Simultaneously, the corporations that fund this algorithm have more penetration and control over their market than ever before. Enterprising minds in Macedonia sit on wads of fat cash, and Zuckerberg and his competitors purchase yet another yacht with their fat bonuses. And of course, Trump sprawls in his throne at the oval office, overlooking a vast kingdom.

Perhaps the control and influence of the digital age is overestimated. Perhaps Facebook ads are no more targeted than the seduction of Britney Angel. However, with the degree of power backing it, this is unlikely. Call me a cynic but the state of the digital world isn’t going to shift unless we free ourselves from the slimy grasp of the digitalized pimp and demand change.