What harm does Facebook do? In the last several months, it appears to have done plenty, opening its platform to operatives who were directly or indirectly employed by the Trump campaign. There is always someone new to blame for electing Donald Trump: depending on who you ask, it was Bernie Sanders, “the alt right,” Bernie bros, “the Russians,” Jill Stein, anyone who ever criticized Hillary Clinton, the electoral college, “the left,” Susan Sarandon, women who are going to hell for not supporting other women, Robbie Mook, Anthony Weiner — you could probably add to this list.
The search for any reason Donald Trump became President, other than people going to the polls of their own free will and voting for him, is becoming a obsession among liberal and left-wing Democrats. This month, the prime suspect is Facebook. New — or rather more complete –information about the Trump campaign’s data operation (otherwise known as “Project Alamo”) reveals that, as Vox reporter Alvin Chang put it on March 23, “the Trump campaign, via the help of a political consulting firm, was able to harvest raw data from 50 million Facebook profiles to direct its messaging.” Chang describes the relationships between the campaign, the Robert Mercer-funded Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook here, illustrated with helpful flow charts.
There have been numerous responses to this revelation. One, among my many outraged liberal and left-wing friends, has been to announce that, in effect, they are going to boycott Facebook by deleting their accounts. A mass exodus from Facebook will, they argue, force the company to take notice and change its ways. As of today, some major corporations — Playboy, as well as Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX — have joined the #DeleteFacebook movement. Yet why? As David Harsanyi of The National Review points out, “The very existence of social-media and tech companies is predicated on mining data so that they, or third parties, can sell you things. That has always been the deal.” And, as he also notes, the Obama campaign also used data harvested from Facebook in 2012, and everyone thought it was an innovation.
Is anyone surprised that a data harvesting scandal has created a hashtag campaign, one that is probably creating more data that will, in turn, help both Twitter and Facebook learn how to gather more data?
It usually feels pretty safe to blame a corporation for misdeeds, exploitation and national disasters like the Trump presidency. Corporations lie: nearly everyone acknowledges this. Big Tobacco lied about the dangers of smoking for decades. Last night I saw a terrific piece of reporting on The News Hour, based on an Occidental College study, about the people who work at Disneyland in Anaheim (who Disney refers to as “cast members”), vast numbers of whom are either homeless or borderline homeless. “This inaccurate and unscientific survey was paid for by politically motivated labor unions,” the Disney company responded in a prepared statement, “and its results are deliberately distorted and do not reflect how the overwhelming majority of our 30,000 cast members feel about the company. While we recognize that socioeconomic challenges exist for many people living in Southern California, we take pride in our employment experience.”
We are used to this kind of prevarication from multi-billion dollar corporations, and we may be even more suspicious about Internet companies because their lies are less visible. Even in 2015, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 76% of Americans, across political lines, did not trust online advertisers to protect their data. So why the rush to pile blame on Facebook for the election of Donald Trump as if this is news? Perhaps because Facebook is sold to us, in some ways, like smoking — or let’s say, drinking, which I think is a better behavioral analogy. Advertisements show healthy, happy people having fun — not lying in a gutter at 63rd and Broadway, or in a hospital coughing up blood. When we consume alcohol, we temper the knowledge that it is poison with the anticipation that it makes us feel good, and we are not sick, now. Many of us know we drink more than we should, but not so much that it has an overt impact on our work or intimate relationships. We know we care about it too much. We know we behave badly, and use poor judgement when drinking, and yet in the moment it’s easy to forget.
Similarly, we know that Facebook lubricates friendships, and yet we are often unsure whether those friendships are real, or whether they would even exist without its facilitating influence. We try to cut back — and when we do, we know we feel better. We read more, we concentrate better, we don’t wake up the next day cringing because we got into an argument that went out of control or spent too much money. And then we go back on Faceboook.
The rush to #DeleteFacebook reveals how unsure and insecure we are about our use of social media in the first place, and how much of our lives — including, for academics, work lives — has migrated into these data-hungry kingdoms. We vow not to post and share questionable news. We vow not to argue. We get all angsty about our stolen data. And yet: we go back to Facebook over and over again, because for many of us, social media is now part of who we are. So let’s roll this back and ask why, instead of blaming Facebook for everything bad that happens, we don’t, as my friend and colleague Siva Vaidhynathan asks, acknowledged that a growing global business with 2.1 billion customers is here to stay, and “do something about it”?
In this light, let’s revisit the business of online quizzes, which is at the heart of the current Facebook scandal. I know hardly anyone who hasn’t taken one — on Facebook or somewhere else — and I know a lot of people who take them regularly. I just Googled “What character are you in Game of Thrones?” It came up with almost 63 million results, and while I didn’t take the time to go through them all, the first ten were on entirely separate sites that included the semi-respectable Variety and BuzzFeed, and the British tabloid The Sun. The others are professional quiz sites that have probably shown up in your Facebook feed at one time or another. The second ten results included Business Insider, USA Today, Marie Claire, and Pop Sugar. Why pick on a Game of Thrones quiz? Well, the series of questions that produce an answer to a question so urgent that many of us put real work aside to find out whether we are Jon Snow or Cersei Lannister can also be used to learn who you are, and what will move you, as a voter, targeting you with specific ads or shaping the mood of an ad to tap into pre-existing hopes and anxieties. And that’s the kind of thing the Trump campaign did.
Americans have been paranoid about being manipulated by mass media for almost a century, so while the technology is different, the cultural fears are not. What’s confusing about the outrage is not that it happened, or that Cambridge Analytica broke their deal with Facebook, but why Facebook users insist on trusting Facebook to protect their privacy in the first place. “I think it’s safe to say that if people were told truthfully what it was for,” Casey Lynn Fiesler, an assistant professor of information science at University of Colorado in Boulder, said in an interview with refinery29, “people would have cared.” But I doubt that: I think people know and most of the time they actually don’t care, or they wouldn’t use Facebook the way they do. While not everybody can be an expert in social media, we have known since Zynga’s wildly popular FarmVille game took the platform by storm in 2011, that everything fun on any digital media platform is designed to keep you there as long as it can, dump cookies on your computer and compile a profile of you. What FarmVille was harvesting was not digital animals and crops, but information about you, which you gave them to re-sell to advertisers.
Knowing, of course, is not the same as acting. So how can you act, if you really don’t want social media apps to know you better?
- Practically everything is collecting data on you, so the question is not whether, but who — and what they do with it. One answer to this comes out of the movement for platform cooperatives, a movement that promotes the ownership of digital platforms by workers. In 2016, as it appeared that Twitter might go bankrupt, Nathan Schneider launched a “Buy Twitter” campaign, which proposed that this massive data-gathering operation be owned by its users. In other words, until we grapple with the fact that Internet corporations are corporations, major change will not occur.
- Insist on public regulation of social media that mandates transparency rather than mere notification. As Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, who does support some regulation of these powerful platforms, notes, “Too often, privacy rules take the form of more stringent notice and consent requirements — a longer series of boxes to check each time data is shared. Like antibiotics, these invariably become less effective the more they’re used. Force users to click through too many privacy notices and, like most websites’ terms of service, they become one more nuisance users sleepwalk through.”
- Throw all the switches you can that deny transmission of data to the platform or to third parties. Although Facebook has made privacy settings easier to find and use this week, you actually need to get in the habit of using them for that to matter. Periodically, I do social media hygiene, de-friending and unfollowing people who I do not recognize, and disconnecting from apps and pages that I never look at. This time I was surprised to see how many apps I was linked to on Facebook that seemed generated by the platform itself, or that had been added by advertisers whose product I had casually explored. Pick a day — the first day of every month, perhaps, to go through and clean things up. There is no reason to not buy products advertised on Facebook, but if you don’t want that advertiser to track your other data, get rid of their app.
- Don’t take quizzes, click through to listicles, or respond to polls. Ever.
Launching a boycott that allows each person to “do something” seems to be our political default mode nowadays. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the righteous among the bourgeoisie seem to think that withholding their consumer dollars can end all pain, suffering and injustice. This doesn’t mean that boycotts themselves are meaningless: they raise consciousness, they bind groups together in common cause, they can promote empathy, they spread information about how consumer and investment markets support oppression, and they help individuals detach from objects and goods that are produced through exploitative labor practices. It’s also important to remember that boycotts also punish and stigmatize, and that they reflect historical legacies of stigma, a reason why good people often disagree about their virtue.
Let me remind you too that this is not the first call to abandon Facebook. In the fall of 2014, I wrote about a Facebook boycott that originated among LGBT activists. Queer academic colleagues, I reported, were “vowing to leave the Big Blue Monster because of a policy that forces San-Francisco based drag queens to use their legal names. It is not just drag queens, and has not only been enforced in the Bay Area: I think Facebook is forcing everyone everywhere to use their legal name, but drag queens and friends of drag queens are particularly incensed about it for obvious reasons. Because everyone who is Leftish makes policy with their feet and their pocketbooks nowadays, I sense a general consensus among queers that we should all snap our purses shut and conduct a mass exodus to Ello.”
Ello was, and is an ad-free social media platform that — I think it is safe to say — did not really catch on, and has now re-branded itself as a community of artists. Suffice to say, all of the people who briefly migrated there (it was a lot like being in the super-dark back room of one of those old-timey gay men’s bars where you would bump into people, have a brief moment of recognition, and then probably never see them again) are still on Facebook.
And here’s a little boycott hindsight: in the wake of the proliferation of fake social media accounts in the fall of 2016, are we still clear that people should not be asked to use their real names on social media? In fact, the only person who will be changed if you choose to boycott Facebook is — you. And you are going to have to decide whether that change is worth it to you. What it isn’t going to do is un-elect Donald Trump. Or prevent him from being re-elected. And I would argue that whether Donald Trump was “legitimately elected isn’t even the issue: in fact, it distracts us from what should be a bipartisan effort to regulate digital media, force it to be transparent about what the real costs to living your life online are and allowing us to make real choices about our personal privacy.