I am reminded of a conversation I had with a younger colleague at work, when I told them I only had 143 friends on Facebook.
“That’s so weird, I have like 2000” was the response, with a puzzled look.
“I like my privacy” I said, explaining I found it odd to have loads of people with access to my profile who I didn’t really know. Privacy and access, remember those two things.
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has blown that all out of the water. This is not the first time Facebook’s use and storage of personal data has come under scrutiny and criticism. It’s about the millionth. There were always warning signs, but for one reason or another we all glossed over it.
This is the part where I may sound obnoxious. The concurrent theme throughout the CA situation is something that I have always said to friends, colleagues and complete strangers on a night out: you, the Facebook user, are the product.
Your data, made up of your likes, dislikes, the photos you upload, the pictures you are tagged in and the posts you share, this all builds your digital identity which Facebook uses as its product. It shares this with advertisers, ironically to sell you more stuff you probably don’t need. At times, it can even go beyond that, with this twitter user below having seen how Facebook accessed his call history outside of Messenger.
That’s the business model. And now, it seems, that data can also be used to swing the democratic process.
The use of our data to advertise more stuff didn’t bother people so much. That’s fair enough, it’s just another advert that you won’t pay attention to. But in light of the fact that foreign state and non-state actors may have swayed the US election and even the Brexit referendum, this has crossed a line for Governments and wider society. Governments in particular are soiling themselves with the realisation that they may have even less power in a world where anyone can buy adverts and target swing voters for about $100k a pop. That’s almost cheap given what it buys you.
What the CA story has done then, is open a pandora’s box surrounding the potential abuse and power that Facebook grants the highest bidder. I don’t think many people were aware of this before, and if they were, they just didn’t care enough to do or say anything about it. I was definitely one of those people.
The “Dumb F***’s”
The significance of the recent news about Facebook is not in the detail, but the framing. The fact that Facebook has huge potential to abuse, misuse and be careless with user data has been acknowledged for a long time. What the case of CA has done is brought the darker side of the platform much closer to the light. It has shown us exactly what happens when that potential becomes reality.
Where this light shines brightest, is in the conflicted public image of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. A hero to many for connecting the world, but a privacy plague to others who note the pervasiveness of a platform which has made itself so central to most peoples lives. He appeared on news networks and made his post (after 5 days of silence) proclaiming how mistakes were made, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals of what we are beginning to see.
In the midst of all this PR-orientation, an exchange between Zuckerberg and and a fellow Harvard student has resurfaced.
For context: it’s the early 2000’s, and Facebook only exists on a few Harvard servers. The full transcript is available below, but for the lazy… Mark refers to users who trust him with their personal data as “Dumb f***’s”, questioning why they would trust him in the first pace. A little concerning from a man who now has the digital profiles of over 2 Billion people on his platform, you might say.
Well, These New Zuckerberg IMs Won't Help Facebook's Privacy Problems
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his company are suddenly facing a big new round of scrutiny and criticism.
Sure, people change. Few of us would stand by most of what we said 10 years ago. But it does give us some insight in to the attitude of Zuckerberg and explains why Facebook has generally conducted business in questionable ways.
The rest of the Facebook founders’ business dealings are also cast in shadows, controversy and stories which generally conflict with the idea of a founder who cares about ‘earning the trust’ of Facebook users. Does a founder who allegedly stole the concept of his business and settled out of court with a business partner that he pushed aside, strike you as trustworthy?
Of course, all successful people have some skeletons and are a target for those who gain from their reputational loss, but Zuckerberg’s past is littered with these question marks.
And of course no one is perfect, but you’d hope the owner and founder of a platform that yields such power has a better grip of reality and displayed more honesty.
These are all brief points, but to see the real roller coaster Facebook has gone through, read the Wired article below, written before the times of CA buying elections on the platform.
How did we get here?
I remember when I first signed up to Facebook . The format was simple, the blue theme was a little darker and your news feed was just your friends, who were all about 13 as most Facebook users were back in 2008. The biggest fear of the platform was its use for cyber-bullying, not swaying US elections or UK referendums.
There’s a great line from The Usual Suspects (a must-see) which seems appropriate in all the chaos that surrounds Facebook’s current business.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Facebook may well have done this. A seamless, fluid experience that is one with your life. A platform which so successfully facilitates the social side of human beings and translates that into a business, leading us to gloss over some of its rougher edges.
Maybe all great products do that, think about your iPhone, or who you ask whenever you have a question (its Google). They all have a very seamless transition into your life and they all seem completely unobtrusive on the surface. Who could imagine life without them? Once you scratch that though, or blow it out the water as the Cambridge Analytica scenario has done, things start to look a little different.
This isn’t by chance, not at all. It’s by design. Facebook hoovers up some of the world brightest minds in business, product management, software engineering and PR to create a platform which is synonymous with anyone who has a smartphone or access to the internet, which is almost 50% of the world as of 2016.
All this wouldn’t look so bad if it wasn’t for the well-managed persona of Zuckerberg, or the mission statement of wanting to connect the world. There is a stark contrast beginning to emerge between the innocent likes you leave on a friends photo, and how those likes can be used to swing elections in your country.