It is now a known fact that Facebook has allowed advertisers to target “Jew Haters” and several other violence-inciting categories and groups, in their quest for dollars above all else. Perhaps most incredibly, Facebook has also revealed that it accepted a pile of Russian rubles from a shadowy Kremlin company in return for posting ads to Americans about divisive social and political messages during the elections. Today we ask ourselves – “is this a company that represents my values and the democratic principles of my country? What can I do about this?”
The reaction by some mainstream media and political pundits has been to make this a story about a mindless algorithm in search of the unholy dollar in the former, or in the latter that it’s a Russian story. It’s proof Putin and his goons messed with our politics. They changed our election, tainted our republic. Get Mueller on the phone.
Let’s talk about this for a moment. Such a story is great for ratings. It gets a lot of online hits. It touches the conspiratorialist in all of us who wants an explanation for our present leadership. But it misses the bigger story, the one that goes far beyond countries and politics.
The real issue at play here is what Facebook’s lack of privacy has wrought. Purposefully designing an application with a facade of privacy protection leads to no good. By creating a public forum without protective teeth, Facebook has endangered users and non-users alike in ways we can’t fathom. In mining your data, tracking your friendships, co-owning and using facial recognition on your pictures, monitoring your actions, words, location and a whole lot more, the Facebook platform rests on a foundation defenseless against personal jeopardy and harmful propaganda.
Some will say that this entire story of manipulating messaging and unscrupulous targeting is more than just Facebook. It’s an indictment on social media. After all, social media is “social” by definition. In making something social, you leave yourself vulnerable to rumor, gossip, and hearsay. But that’s not the intent or purpose of social media. It’s about sharing and connecting in meaningful ways while maintaining privacy and a semblance of control. Unlike Facebook, there are social media apps like MeWe integrated from the start with privacy-by-design as opposed to a supercilious afterthought. Granted at times, almost anything can be manipulated by nefarious types, but that doesn’t warrant condemnation of the entire platform. That is unless, you’re Facebook.
Facebook sets itself up as the everything for everyone. Everything you need to know or want to discover you can do so on Facebook. With great promise, however, comes great responsibility and that’s where Facebook has failed. By making you trade your personal privacy in the form of your data for its services, Facebook has forced you to make a pact with the devil. That devil isn’t only Facebook mind you. Facebook is the enabler. They provide the entry point to your life for third parties with hidden agendas, be they Russians or data miners such as Acxiom. Those demons commoditize you, buying your information from Facebook to use against you, feeding you with tall tales and targeted ads that show you the world according to your perception as opposed to the reality. Of course these demons go farther than your politics – they prey on your emotions, your body image, and countless other vulnerabilities too. Fact checking this unprecedented manipulation is easy – Facebook has admitted as much.
Divisive political messages are nothing new – it is a way of life in democracy. Putting them in front of you as accepted facts by catering to your leanings in the moment by a supposed neutral party is however. Facebook uses your subjectivity to remove the objectivity of news. When you read a salacious National Enquirer headline while in line at the supermarket checkout stand, you know not to take it seriously. When that same headline appears in your Facebook newsfeed however, mixed within real news, or gets shared by a “friend”, you’re not so sure. And when that same headline ties into something you’ve expressed on Facebook as a like or preference, then it feels like concrete proof.
Hillary Clinton leading an alleged child-sex ring sounds unbelievable. Yet we still got Pizzagate because a Clinton hater acted on that propaganda. The story’s believability didn’t matter nearly as much as there being a story to read. In such instances, it’s not information seeking someone out as much as the person seeking information to support their beliefs. Facebook doesn’t make you seek out anything. It hands it to you on a newsfeed platter as actual news. That news comes from filtering through and selling your information to other people so that they can sell their wares and opinions back to you. Facebook gets paid to provide a forum for selling a slanted or entirely falsified version of the truth, those alternative facts we’ve heard about.
This river of lies isn’t Facebook’s intent as much as its reality. Facebook enables targeted advertising as a moneymaking opportunity with little concern about the ramifications. Try as it might to monitor for fake accounts, it can’t find them all. Hackers, trolls and criminals have become technologically sophisticated too.
We may never know the effect that fake news distributed by Facebook had on the 2016 presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies there even was one. He may be the only one. Analysts estimate that as many as 70 million Americans may have seen Russia’s phony propaganda. Now comes word that the Senate Intelligence Committee may want to hold a public hearing on the matter. We must resolve the issue to uphold our republic and better protect everyone.
According to Pew Research, 67% of people in the USA today get their news from social media sites and fully 45% of us get our news from Facebook. That being said, if the newsfeed we see at Facebook is edited to give us the biased news we already want to believe as opposed to the real facts, then it does everyone a disservice and impairs the functioning of our democratic society.
And just to be clear, this epidemic extends far beyond Facebook users. Facebook compiles information on non-users too. Visit any website that allows you to click on a Facebook “like” and Facebook is collecting information on you, like or not. Similarly, if a friend shares information about you, a non-user, Facebook is gathering information on you. All of that can be used against you when reading information on your device. The news has been filtered down to your news and virtual reality. And it all becomes part of your “permanent record” – a catchphrase I like to use because that is what it is. Whatever you do on Facebook (Google too) and the thousands of sites they are affiliated with goes into your permanent record – it will follow you for your entire life – your stories, your indiscretions, your politics, your religious affiliations, your medical conditions, your everything.
This crisis also extends far beyond blue and red states too. Facebook has supposedly sinned against all parties. The Russia story infuriates the Democrats just as Facebook editors mining out conservative-leaning stories from its newsfeed steams the GOP. In either instance, Facebook isn’t reporting news as much as it is sharing stories with a dollar sign attached to them.
To add insult to injury comes word that ProPublica tested Facebook’s advertising platform in relation to targeted ads. It discovered that it could target users who had expressed interest in anything, including topics such as “Jew hater.” With help from Facebook’s ad-targeting tool, you can get recommendations on like-topics such as “how to burn Jews” and “History of ‘why Jews ruin the world.’ ” We simply can no longer buy into Facebook’s BS explanations and MZ’s philanthropic smokescreens.
Social media as an idea is awesome – truly the intent of the inventor of the Web and MeWe Advisor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, was to create a space for real, private communication amongst ourselves, colleagues and friends (scientists and the like in the original). But Facebook in practice is not anything like this. It lacks privacy and security which in turn opens a Pandora’s box to deception, misinformation, and manipulation. Could the company have avoided the present crisis? Yes, if its executives had taken the time to consider its users during development of the platform. But at Facebook, its members are its products to sell, not its members to serve.
The never-ending litany of Facebook’s infractions offends me deeply. I am also a social media founder, one that believes members are customers to serve; not products to sell. Before Mark Zuckerberg was shaving I had built an award-winning social media company (SuperGroups) – and today I am the CEO of MeWe, the next-gen social network, private chat, and group-sharing app that solves the personal privacy problem. MeWe has No Ads. No Targeted Content. No Boosted Fake News. No BS. It is a social app built with "privacy-by-design” and was a 2016 Start-Up of the Year "Finalist" at SXSW (South by Southwest) for Innovative World Technology.
By making a conscious decision to commoditize people and their information, Facebook shows how little they value loyalty and service and how poorly they protect their users. No, the story here of phony Russian accounts isn’t about international espionage. It’s about the human condition and should serve as a wake-up call that privacy is an inalienable right and not a privilege. When you mess with that, you change the game of life itself. You take away rules of conduct and lines not to cross.