Social media has been on a wild run for the past few years. They have helped us connect to people across the world, and share the lives of others in ways we never imagined. The one big factor in social media’s rapid and overwhelming success was that it was free. But in reality, there is a price for these services, and lately, I have begun feeling it may be too high.
Social platforms expect us to share our privacy to a certain extent in return for their services. When I first signed up, that didn’t seem like too much to ask. As long as they didn’t expect my credit card or financial details, I didn’t think my life was of any interest or value to anyone. So I willingly handed over the keys to my privacy, like millions of others. In return, I got to share in the lives of the many who had shared their privacy and their lives on social platforms.
It seemed a win-win situation. But the truth is once your life is online, it isn’t too hard for the wrong people to find out all about you. How much you are worth, where you live, your friends, your likings, your weaknesses, your daily routine… and how to use this data to against your interests. From simple stealing using your financial details to bullying, blackmailing, recruiting for terrorism, identity theft, manipulating elections, and things I can’t dream of.
The thing is I have always felt I’m too insignificant to be a target for such crimes. It’s always something that happens to other people, not me or mine.
And then a year ago, a friend of mine disappeared. His family tried everything within their means to locate him, but the police were unable to find any trace of him. This friend used to be quite active on Facebook, with insightful comments and a sharp wit. So for the next year, I would check his page off and on, hoping against hope that he had just whimsically gone off social media.
Finally, almost a year later, someone posted a news clipping on my friend’s Facebook timeline. It was a police report that talked about a mugging, a fatal injury to the victim, the tracking down of the assailants by the police, their arrest, and their leading the police to where they had hidden the victim’s body.
The victim was my missing friend. It was such a mindless tragedy as he was a helpful and generous character whose only crime was that he was wealthy, an outcome of his hard earned success as an entrepreneur.
As I was about to add to the RIP comments on his Facebook timeline, I paused. The only person who I wished could see my comment was my friend, but he was gone. Somehow, it didn’t feel right. My friend’s timeline is usually bubbling with his personality, and to see it instead filled with these RIP comments was disconcerting.
But what worried me even more was what if someone decided to speculate on the cause of his death. And that too, on his own timeline. As the bard put it:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ’Tis something, nothing:
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
Of course, these comments can only by people that my friend had added as ‘friends.’ But one loose comment is all it takes. We have all seen such comments posted on social media, and how it can play out.
Maybe what people say does not matter to him anymore. True, but it will hurt his dear ones to see groundless accusations go unchallenged. So that does not work for me.
For instance, some years ago, another schoolmate of mine was found dead at his home. There were rumours of his body being found by the police in a compromising situation. That was it for the boy, a soft-spoken, gentle soul. India is a very conservative country, and no one even talks about him anymore. His family must find that hard to bear.
Coming back to my friend. He was not the sort to back down from a fight. While he was alive, anyone who dared post any debatable stuff on his timeline would be swiftly put in place. But now that he’s gone, anyone in his friend list can say whatever they wish as he’s no longer there to defend himself.
To be honest, no such comment has been made as of now on his timeline. Probably even if someone did, his friends would spring to his defence. But as the old saying goes, words once said can never be unsaid.
I must admit I have no clue who the muggers were, and if they tracked and targeted my friend via social media. But it’s possible they did. As far as I’m concerned, this is definitely an area where it’s better to be safe than sorry.
It’s too late for my friend to do anything about it.
But the rest of us can, and maybe we should. The ideal solution would be to take advantage of social media without sharing too much of your privacy.
In fact, I had already been creeped out by Facebook some time ago. After initially signing up with Facebook, I moved back to India, and changed my phone number. I never did give Facebook my new Indian number. However a while later, Facebook began emailing me suggestions of other Facebook users whom I might want to ‘friend.’ Half of these were from the address book linked to my Indian phone number. The one I hadn’t shared with Facebook.
It wasn’t really a mystery how Facebook got these names. Facebook acquired WhatsApp a few years ago. Some time later, they put out an update for WhatsApp. It included a hidden feature by which all contacts on WhatsApp were shared with Facebook by default. When the news came out, I went into Facebook and turned off this feature. But it was a case of ‘closing the stable doors after the horse had bolted.’
WhatsApp was later question by many governments, and fined 3 million Euros by the Italian government for this unauthorised data sharing with Facebook. They were left with no choice but to remove the feature. I’m sure Facebook didn’t really mind the fine, as all that data was worth its weight in gold to them. In case you missed it, I managed to dig out a reference of how the Whatsapp update ensured hidden sharing with Facebook by default.
Since that incident, I haven’t really been able to trust Facebook. For some reason, the other social networks don’t get into my head the way Facebook does. This includes the Facebook owned WhatsApp, which is the messaging app of choice of India’s millions.
Anyway, I got a little too paranoid with Facebook, removed all my photos, and all personal data from the platform. I haven’t really posted anything on it since, and often can go weeks without visiting the platform. I do keep my Facebook account open, partly to help friends who have lost my details get in touch with me, and partly to keep track of events happening on Facebook, and track what Facebook is itself doing.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to escape the clutches of social networks. My wife is on it, but inactive. My kid insisted on a Facebook account when she moved schools to keep in touch with her friends even though she was underage. Although Facebook officially does not allow kids, they do not make any effort to enforce it as these are their future customers. My kid opened an account by claiming to be older than she actually was. All her friends were doing this, and posting photos of themselves and their families. Because of my warnings, she does not post too much herself. But she does post some stuff that could maybe someday be used by someone to target either or both of us.
We will have to cross that bridge when we reach it.
Coming back to me, I had two issues. I wanted to change who could see stuff on my Facebook timeline. And I wanted to avoid burdening my friends with the duty to protect my reputation if something should happen to me.
Accordingly, I visited Facebook, clicked on Settings, and then on Timeline.
There were two possibilities.
The first was a bit drastic with ‘Only me’ being allowed to post on my timeline. Private messages would be the only way anyone on Facebook could contact me. That struck me as being distinctly unsocial.
Not that going antisocial on social is bad. In fact, I just read about a study that says kids who spend more time on social networks are lonelier, depressed and more likely to have mental issues than kids who spend more time in real life.
The second option was interesting. By choosing ‘Custom,’ as the option to ‘Who can see what others post on your timeline?,’ I could designate one friend or a few friends as being able to see the posts. This means if I was to disappear, this friend would be the only one who could see comments on my page. If he sees a comment which implies the writer is genuinely concerned about me, he could message that person from his own Facebook account and update him with actual facts.
This way, anyone on my friend list can post whatever they wish on my timeline. But they will see nothing on my timeline, apart from what they themselves and I had posted. In short, speculative comments can only be seen by the speculator himself (and my designated friends). What I like about this is the speculator will have no clue that no one else can see his comments until he sees no one responding. That’s really sweet!
So I went ahead and made this my default Facebook setting, and deputed a friend as my timeline caretaker after getting his go-ahead. As of now, he is the only one who can see comments on my page (and if necessary contact the commenter). All other visitors to my page will only see what I have posted (and their own comments). There may be occasions when I make a post and want an active debate on my page with everyone being able to see all comments on my timeline. On those occasions, I can change the settings of ‘Who can see what others post on your timeline?’ to ‘Friends.’ And revert back to the above default setting once the discussion is done.
Of course, there’s a catch. What Facebook giveth, Facebook can taketh away. Facebook’s existence depends on social interaction, and if they find too many people opting for this setting, they might simple remove the option.
As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free Facebook.
The only way to guarantee my privacy is to delete my Facebook account. However, doing this is a bit extreme as I would lose access to the network which brought me news of my friend’s passing.
My problem is I want my cake and I want to eat it too.
There’s an interesting report out recently about a study which points out that, “…social media seems to systematically amplify falsehood at the expense of the truth, and no one — neither experts nor politicians nor tech companies — knows how to reverse that trend.”
That being the case, we can expect many more battles of this nature in the coming years. It’s the price we have to pay for giving up our privacy to social media in return for access to their network. We will have to redefine limits, like when I decided to say ‘no one’ to ‘who can see what others posts on my timeline.’ But it will be a lot like drawing lines on sand. Every time, we draw a line, the Facebooks will brush off the sand (change the rules), and the cycle will repeat endlessly.
Somewhere, my friend must be laughing at the insanity of it all.