How to maintain healthy social media hygiene in an age of data exploitation and misinformation
If you use the internet at all (which I assume you do if you’re reading this), you’ve probably received at least ten emails within the past week about updated privacy policies for the apps and services you use. This is in response the the EU’s recent revision of the GDPR (General Data Privacy Regulation), which went into effect on May 25th, limiting the amount of data that can be collected — and how it can be used — by businesses. But, while the risks of data privacy are permeating through the consciousness of governments of corporations as a result of high-profile events, including the fake news controversy during the 2016 US election and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, it seems that the general public has not yet internalized these risks, nor the fact that they are more relevant to us than anybody else. That’s why I’d like to propose a shift in the conversation to what we, as users, can do to change our digital behavior and adapt to the ever growing data-economy and the risks associated with it.
Consumer Responsibility Proposition
While we should, of course, put pressure on Facebook, and other social media platforms, themselves, to shift their policies and adhere to stricter standards, I would propose that the onus is at least partially on us —the users — to respond responsibly, and change our behavior to reflect the changes taking place in the digital world. While some have taken the route of deactivating or deleting their Facebook accounts altogether, the majority of users has gone on as if nothing happened. Neither of these is an ideal approach. Let’s look a simple analogy:
If your wallet was stolen out of your back pocket, what would you do?
A) Stop carrying a wallet altogether
B) Expect wallet producers to start selling theft-proof wallets
C) Put pressure on governments to impose heavier penalties on wallet thieves
D) None of the above
Most likely, your answer would be D, and you would simply start keeping your wallet in your front pocket. Similarly, we, as frequent users of these data-driven platforms, cannot leave it entirely to those institutions who use — or regulate the use of — our data, to solve the problem completely.
Therefore, I propose a set of guidelines for those of us who have opted to remain connected — for which there are still many good reasons — so we may responsibly adapt to the changing digital environment. Because as the price of data goes up, so does the risk associated with dealing — and providing— it.
How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?
First, I believe some clarification is in order. What, really, is Facebook’s business model? They do not sell your data, as many tend to believe. They do, however, sell a user targeting service, which makes use of your data, to allow advertisers better reach their intended audience.
With a better understanding of how Facebook uses our data, I believe we can better decide how to prevent it from being used in undesirable ways. I’ve created a convenient flowchart for your simple understanding, as well as outlined the steps in detail below, through each of which we will note the flow of data as essential theme, it being the bloodline running through the today’s social media industry, and the asset so valuable to advertisers:
- Data generation through activity: Users engage on Facebook, liking posts and pages, generating data on those users’ interests.
- Data aggregation and profiling: Facebook aggregates that “liking data” into a set of generalized profiles, associating likes of a particular subject (person, place, movie, etc. etc) with the users’ personal information (age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). They can then use these profiles to “predict” characteristics of the user that have not been explicitly stated (political ideology, religion, even intelligence level) . Side note: I’d encourage all my readers to try this tool to see exactly how your likes can inform a general profile quite accurately (and don’t worry, the results are not stored and are used ONLY for informative purposes).
- Using profiles for targeted advertising: Facebook uses these profiles to offer advertisers options to select incredibly specific qualities of their target audience, making sure that ads reach the people who are most likely to buy their product or service, or at the very least, give it a click.
- Facebook gets more and more revenue from advertisers, who recognize that it is the best advertising platform for a return on investment. More advertisers join the platform, and Facebook can increase ad prices.
- More users → more data. As Facebook’s revenue increases, they can increase their budget for marketing, product development, and R&D, all of which serve to gain new users, and create a more “sticky” experience for existing ones, thus ensuring the generation of more and more new data.
Note that nowhere in the process does the advertiser get ACCESS to your — the user’s — data. There is no way for them to associate your name with your generalized profile (likes and interests), and as such, your personal privacy is relatively safe when the data is in the right hands. But, we would be in error to believe that those right hands are so adept as to avoid any or all fumbles, or that they don’t have an agenda of their own. So, despite the relative improbability of a future breach, there are still several concerning aspects to the usage of our data which I believe everyone should be aware of:
- Corruptibility of political campaigning and the integrity of democracy. This problem is widely known and has been covered endlessly in relation to the Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, so I will expound more on problems 2, 3, and 4.
- Exponentiation of profiling by association. Facebook also has the ability to profile your friends, solely based on your activity (i.e. the activity and resulting profiles of a given user’s friend group). Referred to as lookalike targeting, this method is actually what generates such incredible value to advertisers; they can accurately target individuals who may not have explicitly expressed their interests (through likes), but are simply connected to people who have. As such, by generating these profiles-by-association, Facebook ads can reach a much broader audience. What this means for the user, however, is that your likes can influence the ads that your friends see, and vice-versa.
- Data from anywhere, data from everywhere. Facebook’s data collection is not only limited to the activity contained within the platform itself, but is spread all across the web. From third party websites who have opted in to the Facebook Audience Network (“the power of Facebook ads, off Facebook”), to apps that link with your Facebook profile, your data is going from your phone (or browser) into Facebook’s hands, making targeting even more accurate. Businesses can also track a user’s activity on their own website after launching an ad campaign on Facebook, and then tailor future ads based on that activity. Apart from resulting in more relevant ads, these operations represent a serious privacy threat which could reveal the most personal details about an individual — or even family — if compromised.
- Echo chamber effect as a result of Facebook’s algorithmic feed, which shows users what they want to see. As Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm gets to know what you views and interests are, it will start showing you a stream of content designed to ensure the highest likelihood of engagement (i.e. likes). What this means is that you’ll end up only seeing stories and content which reflect the viewpoints you already possess, leading to a cycle of belief reinforcement called the echo chamber effect. In the long run, this causes extreme polarization — making liberals more liberal, and conservatives more conservative — leading to more conflict, rage, and misunderstanding in the digital ecosystem.
Not to mention other non-data-related risks posed by Facebook in the realm of mental health.
What is social media hygiene?
While we could go endlessly down the rabbit hole about the potential for data exploitation and the future possibilities opened up by AI, the last thing I want to do is provoke any kind of panic or paranoia. It’s certainly not a lost cause, and I am not trying to condemn Facebook as “evil”, nor will I inveigh my readers to delete their social media accounts completely (update December 2018: my position has changed, and I have argued that Facebook is evil, and have since deleted my account. But for those who are not willing to go to such lengths, please read on). Rather, I will offer a few very simple recommendations, which will allow us to make the most of our digital experience, without sacrificing the integrity of our data, our privacy, and quality of content we see. This is what I call practicing good “social media hygiene”.
Tighten your grip on privacy
Perhaps to it’s own dismay, Facebook does offer tools to configure from where and for what your data is being gathered and used. It’s simple to opt out of some of the more exploitative operations — that is, if you know where to look. Therefore, I’d like to encourage my readers to take a vigilant approach to the settings we choose to enable, such as opting out of ads driven by data from third party websites and applications:
Less likes, more comments
Likes, and more recently “reactions”, are a very simple tool for Facebook to gauge what a user is interested in (read: what a user “likes”). Therefore, by liking (or reacting to) fewer posts, we would be providing less data for Facebook to profile us — as well as our friends — leaving another, perhaps more constructive option for engagement — commenting.
Commenting can create a more meaningful connection between you and others by opening the door to two-way communication. As opposed to choosing from a preset list, commenting allows us to be more creative in our reactions, e.g. pointing out the intricacy of composition in a photo upload, or telling a friend about your experience in a mutual location on a “check-in” post. Commenting also opens up the possibility for learning new things. Ask questions, contest a viewpoint (a healthy debate never hurt anyone), offer tips, advice, experience. By sharing our knowledge and experiences on an individual level, rather than passively letting people’s lives scroll in front of our eyes, we can choose to maximize the gains of our social media usage — capitalizing on individuality, not generality, for the sake of mutual understanding, not for status or self-gratification.
Avoid the skewed reality of Facebook’s Top Stories algorithm
Does a Facebook post exist if no one’s there to like it? Due to the increasing amount of content shared, and to maximize user engagement, Facebook changed the way it presented information to users by introducing “Top Stories” in 2011. Top Stories shows users content it “thinks” they will like, agree, and engage with.
Top news stories are selected by the social networking system based on a ranking algorithm that incorporates an analysis of affinities for interests, users, and entities in the social networking system based on user interactions.
(Quote from Facebook Inc.’s patent application: Selectively providing content on a social networking system)
As we have seen, such selectivity of content in our feeds could lead to some unintended negative consequences (namely, the echo chamber effect). But psychological effects aside, when we are exposed only to top stories, we are seeing only that — the top — the surface — of what is really going on in our communities and within our network of friends. We are missing everything under that surface, that which may be liked by fewer users, but is nonetheless insightful or thought-provoking, inspiring or entertaining, — a joke or an observation, a photo of a sunset or a story about a recent scientific breakthrough.
Social media has made it possible for us to be anywhere in the world through photos and videos; to engage with people in different locations, of different cultures, with widely different backgrounds and worldviews, all in real time, all with the touch of a finger, all of which we can experience if we just look below the surface. And to do so, we simply have to switch to the “Most Recent” option on our news feed.
Not from your friends, not from Mark Zuckerberg, but from yourself — the social media representation of yourself, that is. By changing your name on social media to one that is not found on legal agreements, IDs, and government documents, you’ll be able to distance your real-life activities from your virtual ones. In other words, whatever records of you there are in the real-world (purchases, contracts, mailing lists, etc), will not be attributable to your Facebook profile, and vice versa, in the case of a breach on either side.
There are also several other good reasons for changing your name on social media, which I’ll leave for a future article.
Choose who you follow wisely
Given that any person nowadays can create a public Facebook page, relating to any topic of interest, any sub-culture, worldview or belief, in addition to the abundance of pages for public figures, obscure or renowned, it’s easy to understand that there are plenty of sub-par quality pages out there, some with not-too-pure intentions — whether to spread false information, sway opinion, or simply gain undue popularity.
To filter out that poor quality content and make your feed fresh, fun, and informative, I’ve come up with a three-point recommendation to help guide our following decisions.
First: Follow pages for lesser known figures and organizations to make more of an impact. Following a page, especially that of a high profile subject, does not necessarily give credit to the associated person or organization, as those pages are more often than not run by PR agencies, fans, or irrelevant parties. And as we’ve already learned, your like could reveal more about you to advertisers than you might expect.
Second: Follow individuals and organizations you can attest to off of Facebook, and not only because they already have a large following. Virality is not a testament to consistent quality.
Third: Keep news to a minimum. While many news outlets can be legitimate, some are outright fake (read: do not publish real news), while others simply have an extremely biased agenda. On social media, it’s often hard to distinguish between the three, leading users to believe false information or adopt a one-sided view. For now, it’s best to get your news elsewhere (a newsletter, for example).
Now, with a newfound understanding of Facebook’s targeting, algorithms, and the implications of our engagement, let us continue forth into the digital utopia of social networking with a fresh attitude and a clean perspective. Let’s wash our hands of our old, careless ways of liking following, and immunize ourselves to the risks of misleading content. In doing so, we will strengthen our connections, express ourselves more genuinely, and gain maximum fulfillment from our social media experience, all while being confident in the integrity of our virtual actions and the effects they may have on the ourselves, our friends, and on society.
Disclaimer: While Facebook is mentioned often, the principles above are can be easily adapted and applied to most other social media platforms, including Instagram, Twitter, and even LinkedIn.