If you have any social media presence at all, it’s likely you heard about Cambridge Analytica recently, even if you simply scrolled by the mentions in your newsfeed. The story itself isn’t new. As far back as June 2014, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica and Aleksandr Kogan’s Global Science Research firm were teaming up to harvest Facebook users’ data; by early 2016 the campaigns of multiple presidential hopefuls were signing up. It’s almost expected that politicians will need to use demographic data to sway fence sitters and turn out the vote (or to compel the other side to stay home).
What’s shocking to some, though, is how far Cambridge Analytica extended its tentacles into our personal information, and how the big data firm was so easily able to hack our hearts and minds. To peer into our psyches, all they had to do was ask. A great many people have taken those innocuous-looking “personality quizzes” to share their results with Facebook friends, but doing so means sharing your data, and often that of your friends, with the (potentially shady) companies that create the quizzes as a lure. And to use that data, relentlessly analyzed and mapped to electoral rolls, all they had to do was figure out what makes us tick, and spoonfeed us content designed to trigger our fears, preconceived notions, and confirmation bias.
The number of people whose data was allegedly scraped, analyzed, and used to trigger them into behaving as the paying customer would prefer, could be as many as 87 million. If we were talking merely about the proliferation of cute animal pictures, or even the kind of targeted ads that follow you across the internet trying to lure you into buying an item you already purchased, that would be no big deal. However, it’s worse than that. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook teamed up to manipulate our personal versions of reality and hack our political process, for money. In the process, they divided our country (and others), turning us further from each other. And yet we keep going back for more.
Social media, which started out as a fun toy and useful tool, is becoming a weapon. According to thinker Umair Haque, Facebook “makes us lonelier, dumber, meaner, more jealous, and unhappier.” Think about it. What causes us to ‘like’ or ‘share’ the fastest, bypassing our critical thought process? Anything that provokes outrage. Can we live in a state of fear and outrage more or less permanently without suffering real consequences, both personally and as a society? Unlikely. Facilitating our addiction and misery, though, is how Mark Zuckerberg became one of the richest men in the world.
It gets worse. One of Facebook’s more recently floated ideas was to connect social media profiles with sensitive health data obtained from hospital records. Ideally, it would help medical research (like the Cambridge Analytica data would only aid academic research?) and improve health outcomes. Even if this weren’t a giant HIPAA violation, would you trust this data not to fall into malicious hands? There are even allegations that the Facebook app can listen to people through their smartphones, even when they’re not engaging with the app at the time. (Facebook denies doing this.) How badly do you want strangers to figure you out who you are, for whatever purpose they like, and how much should they profit from hacking you?
There are remedies, but they may be too little, too late. If the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation finds that Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree requiring users to opt-in to sharing their personal data with outside parties, they could be fined up to $40,000 per violation. But let’s be honest here: sharing our data with paying customers is Facebook’s business plan, and it’s in their interest to make opting out as tricky and inscrutable as possible. After all, it’s only next month that Facebook will allow its American users to have the same kind of data protection options as they are obliged to supply for European users. Also, Facebook will soon require buyers of political ads to verify their identities, and Zuckerberg says he supports a Senate bill that would require internet-based political ads to follow the same disclosure requirements as those on broadcast TV. However, the horse is very much out of the barn on this issue, and the damage to our body politic will take years, maybe generations, to repair, if it’s ever repaired at all.
So, what can the newly Facebook-averse user do to limit their contribution to the carnage? There are a few options. If you want to continue using Facebook, you can try to give it less of your data by keeping your likes, shares, and follows to a minimum while avoiding the temptation to fill in all the personal data it asks for. Firefox users can employ a browser extension that prevents Facebook from tracking their actions anywhere on the web. (However, keep in mind that providing our data is how we “pay” for Facebook’s “free” service.) If you use Facebook as a major source of news content, consider setting up an RSS feed (they still exist!) and stocking it with interesting and relevant sources beyond what the Facebook algorithm thinks you should see. You may even want to leave the platform behind completely, if it lets you (which may be harder to achieve than one expects).
As the Cambridge Analytica “data breach” shows, any social media outlet has a real incentive to suck up our data for profit while externalizing the costs in the form of personal misery and social distrust. However, we found ways to keep in touch, read news and opinion, and enjoy cute animals before social media existed. Perhaps it’s time to find ways to relate to each other in healthier ways again. Our political system, and our country, may depend upon it.