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Delete Facebook to keep the data predators at bay? I don’t think so

March 22, 2018

Facebook is a great tool for keeping in contact with people you once met, once knew and might never see again. Does the fact that it allowed your personal data to fall into the hands of a bunch of amoral pirates in pinstripes and the political thugs that hire them mean that you should cast Zuckerberg and his legions into the outer darkness of your world?

There’s a tornado of opinion on Twitter and other social media that says you should.

If you’re prepared to forsake all those pictures of grinning babies, cuddly pets and silly videos, not to mention the ads for stuff which mysteriously appear after you’ve searched for products or services on some website that you wouldn’t expect to have any connection to Facebook, then go ahead and delete it.

But while you’re at it, delete all the cookies lurking on your computer that help other companies mine your data without your being aware of it. In fact don’t use your computer at all, because the cookies will soon reappear once you continue using those sites that are so much more convenient than your local high street.

If there is a problem, Facebook is not it. At least, it’s not THE problem. In fact, millions of people don’t have a problem at all with online ads and emails that try to anticipate your next purchase. Do I object to Amazon prompting me on newly-released books, or special offers of products that keep our elderly dog mobile? No. Am I bothered that every second email I receive is trying to sell me something? Yes, but irritated more than outraged.

At least the days when I would be inundated with spam offering me Viagra and Cialis appear to be over. Perhaps the originators have figured out that I’m too old or clapped out to find any use for such products, which would be rather insulting.

Would I be bothered if I was bombarded with Brexit propaganda, possibly as the result of my following Nigel Farage on Twitter in an effort to avoid building an echo chamber? Yes, I probably would, especially if it meant that Twitter had been hacked, because all the trolls would be offered Novichok nerve agent, bomb-making kits and combat knives. But then again, they can get lots of horrible stuff on the dark web anyway, and Twitter probably has been hacked, so have at it, chaps.

I like to think I’m smart enough to figure out when someone is trying to influence my political beliefs. What’s more, as we’re increasingly flooded with fake news, Russian bots, manipulative attack ads and all the other tools of the online trade, it seems logical that here in the UK, and even in the US, where there seems to be a bottomless well of gullibility, we’re getting better at figuring out when someone’s pulling our chain. In other words, slowly but surely, we’re developing an immunity to what worked in the political campaigns of 2016.

As for all those product ads, we get them because clearly they work. And the money they generate keeps internet whales like Google and Facebook afloat, not to mention all the minnows that swim alongside them.

If disengaging from the web is a step too far, which it would be for most people who have come to depend on it for all manner of reasons, there is another option, even if it doesn’t rise above the level of devilment.

Spend half an hour a day liking stuff you don’t like on Facebook, and searching for products that you have no intention of buying. If nothing else, that would give you the satisfaction of watching the crap you’ve put out there recycling back to you – a sort of disinformation game, if you will. If enough people regularly sent bum steers out into the internet, then there could be a significant degrading of the data industry’s much vaunted pinpoint accuracy.

I’m not suggesting you do this with politics, by the way, especially on sites where your disinformation tactics are available for public view. Come the revolution, which seems ever more likely as our democratic institutions appear to be under increasing threat, you might find yourself on the wrong side and suffer accordingly. And you might also lose a lot of friends. Besides, politics are too important to play games with, even if others are more than happy to play games with you.

Ultimately, we all need to get smarter about the implications of what we do on the web, especially when we click on those smiley faces and like buttons. The good news is that episodes like the Cambridge Analytica scandal serve to make it harder for would-be successors to do the same thing again. You would also hope that as the average age of internet users gets ever lower, our youngsters are getting more savvy, both through education and – just as important – word of mouth through their peers.

What’s more, particularly in the case of the US, we perhaps overestimate the power of political manipulation via the internet. I read one recent op-ed from the States suggesting that a large number of Trump voters didn’t even have the internet. They relied on the likes of Fox News to shape their opinions in the 2016 election.

The irony is that if Trump inadvertently manages to lift a substantial number of his followers out of poverty, they might find that the internet they sign up to for the first time is significantly different from the wild west that helped him get elected, thanks to regulatory pressure brought to bear on today’s giants. And by that time, a significant proportion of Fox News addicts will no longer be around. None of which bodes well for Trump’s chances of re-election in 2020, if he survives that long.

The one lesson I learn from these recently-revealed shenanigans is that the internet is not too dissimilar to the natural world. It has predators and prey. Just as species evolved with mental and physical countermeasures that protected them from being preyed upon to extinction, early humans developed tactics to avoid being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers.

Now evolution seems to be playing its part again. Will we be smart enough to avoid eating the wrong internet fruit, and building shelters against the virtual beasts that want to devour us, or will significant numbers of us be left behind, if not to die but at least to languish in hopeless poverty, useful only for the vote we cast every few years?

Big question, which I’m not smart enough to answer. But at least I remember – without much sentimentality – life before the internet, and I have to say that I’ll take today over yesterday any time. As for tomorrow, it won’t be that long before I’m too old to care.

  1. Well out, Steve. At last! A breath of sanity and balance.

  2. Elif permalink

    Another great article, Steve. I shared it with a nephew who posted this morning that he was deleting his account. I don’t know if you know this, but I deleted my Facebook account almost a decade ago, only to rejoin a few years later because of CPISP! Fun times 🙂

    • Good to hear from you, Elif, and thanks! Interesting about your nephew. I think Facebook’s future is very uncertain. I’ve spoke to lots of young people in Saudi about their social media use. Among many of them, Facebook was seen as pretty passe. Similar story elsewhere. This is anecdotal, I know, but the big question is whether its appeal with older users will continue, now that the implications of its data collection practices are becoming widely known. It’s basically an advertising business masquerading as a community resource. Nothing lasts forever!

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