Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, it’s hard to feel sorry for either one of them and to be fair none of us really have to. They’re in the wrong, they’ve taken advantage of most people’s reliance on vanity, convenience and addiction to ‘likes’ and turned it into one of the most profitable businesses ever.
It’s not that I’m not mad at Facebook — I am — it’s just that none of the revelations that have come out over the past few months or years are that surprising. Facebook has all this information on us, useful ‘damaging in the wrong hands’ type of information, and they have it not because they stole it from us but because we gave it to them — willingly. We got obsessed with seeing our faces pop up everywhere, obsessed with being able to tell the world who our significant other was, what bands we liked, what books we read, what crew we hung with and what issues we cared about. We got so obsessed with seeing our lives being digitally tracked that we couldn’t even go to the cinema or take a bathroom break without ‘checking-in’ so somebody could ‘check us out’. We wanted to be seen, that was the point of Facebook — yes, yes, the connections, the community, the staying in touch over long distances, these were all part of it — but at the end of the day we just wanted to be seen, for someone on the other side, with a like or a comment, to say ‘I see you and I understand you’.
Well, now that we’ve been seen and thoroughly understood, and had a big old Trump thrown in our faces everybody’s suddenly feeling used and taken advantage of. And we were, there’s no question about it. We can debate how truly impactful Facebook was in swinging the election or how it might have actually been the 24-hour cable news cycle that gave Trump millions of dollars’ worth of earned PR and ultimately gave him the edge he needed — for the purposes of this article, these details do not matter. It happened, we’re here and America is a democracy so we’ve no one else to blame but the voters. What does matter is how quick we are to hand over every little bit of information about ourselves and then expect somebody else to pick up the mess when things go wrong.
Again, I’m not saying Facebook is innocent — it isn’t — but what were we thinking handing over all of our information to an organisation whose business model the average user still doesn’t understand and whose inner technological workings are a mystery to anyone who isn’t in the world of tech or digital media (even then it can still be a headache).
“The internet has been good, there’s no doubt about it, what’s worrying is that it’s the first product we’ve adopted that’s whole purpose is to know us intimately and whose knowledge of us has the potential to be viciously turned against us.”
All of us were quick to embrace the internet and fall in love with social media. And to be fair, both of these things have done a tremendous amount of good for society. From helping individuals form groups that help them fight totalitarian regimes to helping activists seek justice and give voice to those that previously were silenced, to a host of small businesses whose livelihood and presence is entirely wrapped up in their social handles (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest). The internet has been good, there’s no doubt about it, what’s worrying is that it’s the first product we’ve adopted that’s whole purpose is to know us intimately and whose knowledge of us has the potential to be viciously turned against us. Because it doesn’t have a name, a face and didn’t break our heart in college when we told them we liked Hanson we assumed we could just pour all our secrets into this black hole and expected that whatever we had let out that we didn’t like or were embarrassed by would be taken care of by the benevolent gods of the ‘once I’ve cleared my browser net.’
We are dealing with a product that is far more complicated and (with the rise of artificial intelligence) far more intelligent than the average user of it ever will be. And who even has the time to become as intelligent as their Facebook? Honestly, who has the time to understand profiling, psychographic segmentation, customer attribution modelling, native advertising and computational inferencing? This is complicated stuff, I just want to look at videos of cats and have a place where I can share my holiday photos with friends and family.
Where do we go from here?
We’ve got to break the trust. We have to wise up to the fact that most of these tech firms are run by highly intelligent people using highly intelligent programmes with highly intelligent algorithms to make us feel like we’re highly intelligent beings for using a platform that is seemingly 100 percent free. As my mother always told me, “nothing in this world is free.”
Now that we’re all blindingly aware that the internet is not run by benevolent overlords we need to make sure we do our due diligence whenever we hand over any information to a social networking platform. We’ve got to stop telling the biggest lie ever told: the ‘yes I have read the terms & conditions’ and actually make sure we truly read all terms & conditions. Just as we would read the manual and safety instructions prior to using a chainsaw, we have to make sure we understand in full what we’re giving over when we sign up to some crazy new life-changing app/platform. On their end, sites like Facebook and Instagram need to make sure they have all their terms & conditions in easy to find places and that users are actively consenting to any changes being made. In his testimony to Congress, Zuckerberg said the site was working on this.
Transparency is key to making almost anything work, from marriages to business deals, friendships and windows, if you can’t make an assessment based on all the relevant facts then you’re not really making an assessment at all. Apart from centralising all T&Cs, organisations need to make sure that the language used is appropriate for everyone, not just those whose day job is finding loopholes in contracts. We need to be informed, we need to be aware and organisation like Facebook cannot simply assume that its users at large will simply know what’s going on and go out of their way to get to the truth if they feel a little confused.
Another aspect of transparency is clear information and good education. Users need to know what the safest way to use a site should be. They need to understand the impact them validating a story that is patently false through a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ has on their network. Users need to understand the real-life consequences that posting inflammatory or aggressive content can have on a large number of people. Granted, there will be those that will take advantage of this knowledge and continue to spread misinformation and hate and abuse. But the way to defend against those that bring hate is to make sure those on the receiving end of such vitriol are just as informed about how to counteract such actions without getting stuck in a social war, made to feel like the platform isn’t for them or trapped in an echo chamber. To be fair to Facebook, it has said it will introduce these types of measures moving forward, such as disclosing who paid for a political add or flagging when content is deemed to be fake news, it will also supposedly be using AI and hiring more content monitors to flag posts that are sexist or racist or just plain full of hate.
But it can’t just fall on Facebook. I don’t want Mark Zuckerberg curating what is fake and what is real or what is mean and what is nice. Do you? I doubt it. We need to make sure we become more digitally literate, especially as the majority of internet and social media users are the young (16–24-year olds for social media in general and 18–49-year olds for Facebook specifically). Just as we make kids take driving lessons and tests before we unleash them on our highways we need to have a system in place whereby users of a social platforms are made to undergo a learning module where they understand how that particular platform works, not only in respect to how to use it but how their information is used by the platform in order to sell to advertisers and influence our decisions.
The internet isn’t going anywhere and I don’t see anybody giving up their Facebook or Twitter accounts anytime soon; we’ve invested far too much. While social media platforms spend time re-looking at how they operate and adapting to congressional hearings and European legislation, such as the GDPR, there is a great deal that can be done by the average Jane and Joe Blog. We need to be smarter about how we use the internet and social media, we need to be cautious of what we put out on the world wide web. It’s easy to get lazy with it because the product feels like second nature to us, it’s designed to feel like it’s exclusively ours; it isn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook platform, it’s my Facebook page, I built it. But alas, we didn’t, he did, and all of us have to take responsibility for what we put on his platform, on any of their platforms. The first duty of care when it comes to data privacy is to take care of our own.🔷
[The views expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the opinions of any of the companies for which I am employed to write.]
(This piece was first published on The Blog!)