On Tuesday afternoon, Mark Zuckerberg appeared at a Congressional hearing primarily pertaining to Facebook’s treatment of its users’ information and its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, a data firm linked to President Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
It recently came to light that the firm collected data, such as Facebook user demographics and likes, to create personality profiles. These profiles were used to target users with political ads of dubious honesty in order to influence their behavior.
It would not be particularly shocking if Cambridge Analytica accessed Facebook user data through hacking or some other sort of illegal infiltration. However, Facebook has stated that Cambridge Analytica’s data collection was not a breach, but rather one of the many instances in which the company willingly allowed research institutions access to user data.
But that’s alright. Users agree to their data being collected in the Facebook terms of service, which, of course, everybody reads.
Targeting ads towards users based upon their perceived personality traits is indeed Facebook’s business model, and it has been for a some time. The scandal related to Cambridge Analytica is especially shocking because it shows that such practices could – and may well have – changed political outcomes by damaging public perception of political reality. The harm this could cause to democracy are obvious.
At the hearing, Zuckerberg was also questioned on topics such as hate speech, foreign election interference and the “fake news” that runs rampant on his platform.
The findings related to Cambridge Analytica have convinced many to abandon Facebook, but it’s doubtful that this drop off will have many long-term implications for the platform. It remains to be seen if Facebook will institute real changes in its business model or if Zuckerberg will face repercussions.
At any rate, the developments surrounding Cambridge Analytica only further assert the fact that social media has been inexorably tied politics as well as all the nastiness surrounding it. To put it simply, we live in a society in which people base their world views upon nonsensical memes plastered over Facebook, and the President of the United States risks causing international incidents every time he sends out scathing tweets to his political rivals.
Shouldn’t we have all seen this coming? Probably, but I still find the situation quite poignant.
Social media had the potential to do a lot of good. Sites like Facebook should have been used as a means to keep in touch with friends and family too busy or far away for everyday face-to-face contact. It should have helped us connect with people across the world and foster understanding between diverse cultures.
But all that turned out to be a pipe dream. Whether it’s the hurtful things they say, the woefully uniformed politics they spew or the irritatingly perfect lives they claim to lead, Facebook provides you with plenty of reasons to dislike the people you friend. As a platform for hate speech, insulation and disinformation, it has given us little reason to empathize with those outside our own cultural communities.
I know it’s cliché to say that social media has made us less connected, but in many ways, it really has. By “less connected,” I mean both to loved ones and to reality itself.
Oh well. I suppose that just about all you can do is inform your friends of the truth regarding these matters, lead by example and try to not be part of the problem.