Most of us find the idea of Facebook harvesting our data for advertising purposes to be a pretty harmless.
If I post something about going camping it’s helpful to suddenly be shown ads for tents, right? It’s an advertising approach that certainly seems more effective than bathroom door signs, radio commercials, and pop-up ads.
But it overlooks two important facts…
- Harvesting data for advertising purposes is not the extent of the deal you and I made with Facebook when we opened our accounts.
- The majority of users don’t know they’ve made any deal with Facebook. (A recent Pew Research Center study found a whopping 74% of Facebook users did not know the platform maintains lists of their interests and traits to target them with ads.)
The danger of our assumptions.
Assuming that if we allow Facebook to eavesdrop on our conversations they will, in turn, only use that information to sell us stuff to make our lives easier is akin to leaving our house unlocked all day and assuming that whomever stops by will take out the trash.
The assumption overlooks the fact that the things in our metaphorical houses are valuable and vast, and that we know very little about the people we’ve allowed to wander unaccompanied inside. (Not to mention the fact that 74% of homeowners are unaware their houses are unlocked in the first place.)
For example, most of us assume Facebook will…
- Only collect, analyze, and sell information that pertains to products and services we indicate we want, and never things we don’t want or feelings we have about ourselves or the world at large.
- Only use the information they’ve collected to target advertising and not also use it to shape the content we see and connections we maintain on the platform, thereby creating filter bubbles that shape our reality of what we know as “Facebook” (a concept likely worthy of its own blog post).
- Only eavesdrop on conversations we’ve had publicly on the platform, not the ones conducted in private or in draft form.
- Only track us when we’re on Facebook itself and not also follow us wherever we go next on the Internet.
- Only keep deeply personal information they collect on us for themselves and not share it with other companies or agencies.
- Only sell our information to companies or agencies who have our best interests at heart.
- Only have our best interests at heart themselves.
These assumptions are simply not true.
Facebook is not your friend.
To be clear, Facebook did make some promises to behave ethically and responsibly in our “houses.” However, some of those promises were broken, (as was the case with the Cambridge Analytical scandal). It’s this subterfuge (and Facebook’s tendency to continually overreach in response to our reliance on assumptions) that currently has industry experts up in arms and others calling for users to abandon the platform entirely.
That is the problem with our “deal” with Facebook: not them using information you’ve intentionally shared in order to sell you goods and services, but them also using information you’ve inadvertently shared in order to influence your thoughts and emotions, and then selling that power to the highest bidder.
This deal we’ve made with Facebook is problematic because it isn’t just about them knowing you’re going camping (and then showing you an ad for a tent).
It’s about them also knowing…where you live, who you talk to most, what types of people you’re sexually attracted to, what your political beliefs are, how you spend your time, what your fears are, if you have any physical or mental health issues, what you do in your spare time, what kinds of news you like to read, who you went to school with, if you’re a parent and how you parent, what your future goals are, what kind of people you most hate or love, what kinds of biases you have, who you’re most likely to vote for (and if you’ll actually vote), what you looked like ten years ago, how you look today, and a host of other data.
It’s about the fact that they can make a lot of money (and, more importantly, wield a lot of power) with all of that information.
Why wouldn’t they? Three quarters of its users are blissfully unaware the things they do on Facebook are being analyzed, collected, or sold and our government watchdogs have made it clear they belong the the clueless 74% indicated in that Pew study.
So, should you be concerned about Facebook? You bet.
Like Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Facebook has shown us (particularly over the past year) that they are a company that wants to do more than just show you ads for the stuff you’ve told them you want to buy.
It’s time to start believing them and deciding what that means for you.