Mark Zuckerberg’s apologies are not enough.
Imagine a friend of a friend stalked your Facebook page. He saw that you had liked posts about cute puppies and that you’d joined a rescue group on the site. So, he started putting stories on your newsfeed about the puppy mill practices of the store where you normally buy dog food.
The images of abused dogs and heartbreaking stories convinced you to stop shopping there and switch to a different store.
But the store you left never did any of those terrible things. It was your stalker’s competitor, and he wanted to hurt their business. If I found out I had been targeted, lied to and manipulated like this, I would not settle for a contrite apology. And I wouldn’t expect the stalker to change his ways simply because he had been caught.
Now, what if that business had been a political candidate? And it was your vote that was influenced by lies?
That is the question Congress should be asking on behalf of 87 million Facebook users whose data was “scraped” by research firm Cambridge Analytica and used to help the Trump campaign. The burning question is no longer whether Facebook is turning us all into narcissists. As a country, we should be outraged that Facebook let “bad actors” feed us lies, weaken trust in our institutions and tear our civil discourse apart. To what extent has Facebook been complicit in subverting our democracy through fake news, Russian trolls and privacy breaches, and just as importantly, how do we prevent it from happening again?
More than questioning, we need Congress to propose legislation that protects us like the laws that European countries have enacted. American social media users should be able to decide to opt in if they want their data shared. The tech giant should be prohibited from tracking our online activity once we are logged out of the site. We should have disclosure about how our data is monetized and who buys access to it. It’s clearly not just advertisers who use this data to market to us. We should not have to wonder if our news feeds are filled with fake news or propaganda.
I received a Facebook notice that my information had been compromised -- by a friend logging into the “My Digital Life” quiz -- and shared with Cambridge Analytica. Now, I would like to believe that I am media-savvy enough to avoid falling for fake news planted in my feed. Likely, the vast majority of my “friends” are. But we are consumers being misled by a product. We all suffer the consequences in a democracy when people fall for misinformation.
You may be smart enough to spot propaganda -- this time. But what about when the tools of bad actors are sophisticated enough to exploit your values and interests? Broadcast television is regulated and has federal oversight. News organizations are liable for slander. A social networking behemoth with nearly 2 billion users, many of whom use it as a primary news source, holds outsize power to influence elections, public policies and consumer behavior. And yet it is subject to no similar oversight or regulation. Facebook is a publishing platform and should be treated as such.
My concerns about social media used to focus on the personal: the toll it takes on our mental health, productivity and social relationships. I also thought and wrote quite a bit about the political: the erosion of privacy and what it meant for our society and children. But that seemed like a battle lost in the court of public opinion. Millions of Americans willingly made the trade-off of giving up personal information for the habit-forming convenience of these platforms.
I was one of them.
Several years ago, I realized how we had lost control of our personal data and knew little of how it was being used to influence or impact our lives. So, I made a few changes in how I used social media. Mostly, I became a lot more cautious about sharing pictures or stories about my children, but I continued to log into Facebook and Twitter daily.
More recently, when a whistleblower revealed the enormity of the privacy scandal at Facebook, I decided to take a complete break. I also wanted to show my children, who use Instagram and Snapchat like most of their peers, that a social media detox is doable and can be beneficial.
I quickly realized how habit-forming these sites are, because I instinctively went to click on them anytime I was waiting -- in a line, in traffic, at a restaurant. I had to stop myself whenever I felt an inkling of boredom or when everyone around me was looking at their phones. The external validation through engagement on these platforms is brilliantly designed to make our brains crave it. It’s become a part of the culture of how we share our opinions and personal news.
A few days into my detox, Facebook started emailing me multiple times a day. The company tracks users’ time on its site carefully, and will aggressively try to lure you back once it notes a decline in use. Up to four times a day, Facebook sent emails about what I was missing. A friend just shared this, so-and-so just tagged you, you have so many unread messages. It felt like the manipulations of a desperate ex trying to win me back.
I stayed away from Facebook for eight days, and by the end was nervous about getting back on. Facebook tested my self-control and reinforced that it’s impossible to expect the company to act in the interest of its users. It’s a corporation that acts in the best interest of its investors. It’s too big, too invasive, too secretive, too profit-driven to care about what we lose in all this connection.
We’ve already sold our data to the devil.
We didn’t realize how steep the cost.