The Dark Side of Facebook


The Dark Side of Facebook

Jul 06, 2016By Michael Stoner

Lots of people love Facebook: So much so that it’s ranked No. 1 on Netbase’s Brand Passion Report list for 2016, outranking Apple (at  No. 2), Disney (No. 5), Starbucks (No. 18), and many other companies that have built strong, positive consumer brand engagements.

Facing it about Facebook

I confess: I hate Facebook for many reasons, some of which will become apparent in this post. I do maintain a profile because I have to log in at times for research — Facebook keeps its network closed and profiles off the open internet, all the better to monetize them. But I don’t update, post, tag, like, or friend anyone or anything. And I’ve never shared my mobile number with Facebook.

Despite my personal dislike of the network, I do get why people love Facebook. It’s where you go to keep up on the latest news from family and friends. You’ve stored emotional moments and photos in your timeline. It’s where you find out a little about what your teenagers are up to, because you can’t creep on them in Kik or Snapchat.

But let’s face it: Facebook is also where you go to get marketed to — and profiled and psychographed — by some of the most effective surveillance tools ever created. Even if you use the web outside of Facebook — or don’t even use the network at all — Facebook has figured out ways to follow you, spy on the sites you visit, and collect other information about you. Using your mobile number, it can figure out where you are.

In short, Facebook knows far more about you than the all-pervasive government knew about its citizens in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The difference, of course, is that you’re offering up all this information to Mark Zuckerberg & Co. voluntarily and have absolutely no control over who will use it or for what purposes.

Right now, of course, Facebook’s use of our data is fairly benign. (At least as far as we know: It’s not as if they tell us much.) For example, collected user data tailors what appears in our News Feeds using a proprietary algorithm. For the moment, Facebook is privileging news from family and friends over news from brands we’ve interacted with. Brands, including colleges and universities, can still use Facebook’s powerful tools and user data to create ads to reach audiences.

Welcome to surveillance capitalism

But there’s a larger set of issues at play here, too. It’s not as if any laws or regulations are standing in Facebook’s way of using its data in any way it chooses.

Welcome to the world of surveillance capitalism — where private entities collect information about us and retain it to figure out what advantages they can derive from it  — as  pointed out in a talk on “The Moral Economy of Tech” by Maciej Cegłowski:

Just like industrialized manufacturing changed the relationship between labor and capital, surveillance capitalism is changing the relationship between private citizens and the entities doing the tracking. Our old ideas about individual privacy and consent no longer hold in a world where personal data is harvested on an industrial scale.

And it’s not just what Facebook (or Google or Microsoft) knows about us that’s frightening, but also what could be done with all that data, Ceglowski says:

When we talk about the moral economy of tech, we must confront the fact that we have created a powerful tool of social control. Those who run the surveillance apparatus understand its capabilities in a way the average citizen does not. My greatest fear is seeing the full might of the surveillance apparatus unleashed against a despised minority, in a democratic country.

Did you know, for example, that the Ted Cruz campaign hired a firm called Cambridge Analytics to deliver psychographic profiles of the US electorate? These weren’t built from opt-ins, but from “… research spanning tens of millions of Facebook users, harvested largely without their permission … .”

A necessary evil

If you manage social media for a college or university, it’s impossible to avoid Facebook.

This year, as over the past seven years of the research on social media and advancement, it’s the channel that colleges and universities most rely on to engage their audiences. And with 53 percent of 2016 respondents reporting that they boost Facebook posts to better reach their audiences, higher-ed marketers are at the whims of Facebook’s next algorithm tweak.

You can download findings from the 2016 survey and get notified when the white paper is released.

It’s difficult to opt out of the surveillance economy. Even if you hate Facebook’s arrogance, it’s hard to avoid it. But we all should use it with eyes wide open rather than just accepting it as simply a benign and wonderful utility. It’s not.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?