By Jerry Brownstein
Facebook has become one of the world’s largest companies by offering people a place where they can share what they are thinking and doing. Despite the recent controversy swirling around the company and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, the social media giant keeps growing, and as of April 2020 it has more than 2.6 billion active users around the world. It has become the most important way that people connect with each other, and a major source of their news and information. Facebook’s revenue in 2019 was about 78 billion dollars, and 98% of that money came from advertising. Why is their advertising so lucrative? Because they have information that is extremely effective for manipulating the public. Where do they get this valuable information? From You.
Most of us think that we use Facebook for free, but that is an illusion.
The company’s entire profit model is based on selling personal information that is used for everything from targeted advertising to targeted fraud. We think that we are the customers of Facebook, but in truth we are merely the source of the product that they sell. Cows are not the customers of a dairy farm… they are just the source of the milk that is sold. We are the ‘cows’ of Facebook, and our personal information is the ‘milk’ that they sell. You and your network of friends are being closely watched to harvest this ‘milk’. Your hobbies, habits and preferences are meticulously recorded, and this personal data is then sold to whomever wants access to it. Facebook says that this is merely for the purpose of targeted marketing, but there are no real safeguards in place to prevent scammers, hate groups and political agents from using your data.
The process of harvesting your personal information goes far beyond what most people could imagine.
Facebook records, tracks and stores every single thing that you do on the site: every post, comment, “like,” private message and file that is sent or received… all contacts, friends lists, login locations, emojis, stickers and more. Facebook even has the ability to access your computer or smartphone’s microphone without your knowledge. If you suddenly find yourself receiving ads for products or services you just spoke about, chances are that one or more of your apps is linked to your microphone.
A reporter from the Guardian newspaper wanted to find out how much information Facebook gathers from each user, so he downloaded his own file. There is actually a page called ‘download your info’ where you can do this but be careful - the size of your file could take up most of your computer’s memory. The reporter had only been using Facebook for a few years, yet they already had enough information stored about him to fill 400,000 documents. The data harvest for people who start using Facebook at a young age would likely be very much larger. This would give those who buy or otherwise have access to that information a comprehensive picture of the individual in question. If you think you are escaping this by using Instagram and/or WhatsApp then think again.
Facebook owns both of those companies and uses the same data collection methods to get your information.
Facebook monetizes all of this data by encouraging their advertisers to target people based on a wide range of characteristics. In addition to basic information like age, gender and location, they reveal highly personal items such as your political views, education, interest in certain apps or websites, etc., etc.. The question that arises from all of this is a simple one: Do you trust this unregulated corporation to have the power to give your personal information to whomever it chooses? It’s founder Mark Zuckerberg insists that the company was created “to make the world more open and connected,” and “give people the power to build community.” That sounds very noble and altruistic, but does the company actually live up to this high standard? Their problems with posting fake news that influences elections has made these words seem rather hollow.
The company is facing a huge controversy because they shared data from over 87 million American Facebook users with organizations that used the information to influence voters in the 2016 US elections. Investigations by the New York Times and other news agencies have shown that this is also being done in elections throughout Europe. Perhaps most troubling is the way that Facebook’s management has responded to the growing pressure over their role in election interference. They say that they are sorry for what has happened, and that they will try to do a better job of filtering dangerous posts. But the sincerity of this effort is not in synch with the enduring motto of the company which is “Move Fast and Break Things!”
Zuckerberg set the tone for this in the company’s early years by saying, “It’s more useful to make things happen and apologize later, than it is to make sure you get all the legalities right, but then not get stuff done.”
As noted by Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, it was Zuckerberg’s “renegade philosophy and disrespect for authority that created Facebook’s way of doing business.” He goes on to say, “It wasn’t that they intended to do harm (by helping those who distorted elections), as much as they were unconcerned about the possibility that harm would result.” This lack of concern is strong evidence that the company is too irresponsible to be trusted with so much power. They are guided by an immature hacker’s mentality that’s first rule is to ‘break things’. This makes them institutionally unfit to be an effective guardian of your information because they do not really care about you.
So does this mean you should give up Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp… of course not. These are still very useful tools as long as we use them with some awareness. The first rule is to not put any information on these sites that you are not comfortable having the whole world know about. Don’t be the victim of a trend in our society that pushes us to surrender our identities to impersonal data banks.
The internet is still very much unregulated so it is not safe to trust Facebook (or the other tech giants) with your most personal information. Technology is a wonderful tool as long as we use it… rather than allowing it to use us. You may think that you have nothing to hide, but you still need a certain amount of personal privacy to maintain your autonomy and individuality. Privacy is the key to freedom of thought… and if you give that away you have given away your power… and your essence. •