The revelation that 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested without consent to influence politics has raised troubling questions about Facebook’s approach to data protection and disclosure. With 2 billion users, Amanda Cassidy looks, with growing unease, at the wider influence and impact of the social network on our society…and on our minds.
Facebook is designed to consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible – that’s according to its former president, Sean Parker who admitted in an interview with Axios recently that the social network’s original plan was to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” to get its users addicted. So far, so pretty frightening.
We all love a good nose on Facebook – I use it mainly as a news feed, following various current affairs sites to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world. Others use it to keep in touch with friends, show off their babies or simply to have the odd stalk (guilty). But recent reports over the extent of its reach across the political field, and its closely guarded algorithm secrets have put Mark Zuckerberg’s dynasty under the intense scrutiny.
Gathering data is Facebook’s core function, and it knows an awful lot about each of us; our names, our interests, our education, our location and even who our friends are. That makes it very easy for advertisers (aka Facebook’s real customers) to target us. But with such large banks of information comes a side-effect called responsibility – responsibility to protect that information from getting into the wrong hands. That’s why there was such a fuss this week when it was revealed that a political data firm called Cambridge Analytica (which was hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign) gained access to the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users. Many of those had consented to their data being harvested because they were told that it was for academic use. But in fact, the company used their information AND their friend’s information to map personality traits of potential voters and then targeted those audiences with digital ads to influence their political behaviour.
Facebook’s track record on privacy has always been slightly murky. It was also in hot water over hosting, along with Google, disinformation campaigns carried out by a Russian propaganda factory called The Internet Research Agency. It posted 80,000 times between 2015 and 2017. resulting in 29 million direct appearances on Facebook newsfeeds. Boss of the social network giant, Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that there is work to do in the area of filtering such false content, but many believe its simply a fake war on fake news.
Mark Zuckerberg is no stranger to the spotlight. He hit the headlines this January when he announced a change to the News Feed algorithm on Facebook. He told users to expect fewer posts from companies or brands and more from friends. It is unclear how this might halt the spread of fake news from propaganda or ‘troll’ farms but the Facebook owner proclaimed that his ultimate goal is to bring people closer together. So far, the zen Zuck has managed to circumnavigate some of the negativity pointed towards his platform but more is beginning to emerge about the contempt for users displayed during some pretty important political issues. In 2016, right after Donald Trump was elected US president, Mr Zuckerberg denied that any misinformation from Facebook could have played a part in the results; “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” he said. But the cyber horse had bolted, and the extent to which global democracy is being distorted is now beginning to eke out, one news report at a time. Researchers at Oxford University also voiced their concern after a study found that ‘computational propaganda is now one of the most powerful tools against democracy’ and that Facebook plays a pretty big role in all of that.
And it isn’t just personal data being used for political influence that has brought the social media giant under fire this week. Other ethical questions are beginning to crop up when it comes to certain advertising practices that Facebook is exploring. Facial recognition technologies, for example, could enable digital screens to tailor advertisements to an individual as they walk past – just like the eerie, personalised messages from the Tom Cruise movie, The Minority Report. This so-called ‘faceprinting’ is already targetting celebrities’ pictures online with tailored ads and some retailers are already talking about how they can spot their loyal shoppers as they walk through the door. Facebook plans to use the technology to determine mood in tandem with the profile of the user and what they like or dislike. New and tougher opt-in rules are on the horizon from May 2018 as the EU general data protection regulation becomes law. This will hopefully offer consumers very clear choices to enable them to opt in or out.
And then there is the truly mind-blowing. Facebook is working on a silent speech system in its secretive Building 8 division in California that plans to bring technology to a whole new level. Scientists there are exploring a system that would let you simply think in order to type – up to 100 words per minute with their brain. No longer the stuff from science fiction, neuro-marketing is becoming our new reality.
It’s easy to imagine where all this might go – mind-reading would be the icing on the cake for most marketers. Imagine being able to get inside a consumers state of mind? If they are hungry, serve them up an ad for food. Tired? Point them towards their nearest hotel. Knowing all there is to know about someone’s emotional state is a powerful advertising tool. And although this type of cyber brain-draining would have to be permission-based, what happens when this information gets hacked or manipulated? Some people share every aspect of their lives online – they give up their privacy and data to companies like Facebook and Google to stay connected. Perhaps another small step into the cyber abyss wouldn’t be totally unprecedented?
Facebook has shown us the impact a single social media network can have on society. Of course, there is the wonderful part that brings us connectivity, education, communication, entertainment and (mostly correct) information. But be under no illusion that you are being manipulated on a scale that you may not be fully aware. It is a giant money-making machine that is being fed by your engagement. There is no doubt that Mark Zuckerberg is an inspiration to millions, but Facebook has become a behemoth and the true power and scope of this platform should never be underestimated.