This post might be a little disjointed, and I confess I may not be entirely consistent yet in the way I think about this subject.
With the blossoming of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — something I thought revealed almost nothing new outside of its fact pattern, but maybe I don’t track this stuff closely enough — many tech giants, especially those who generate user profiles to sell stuff, have had their market caps mulched with over $250B in value decomposing in the two weeks since the scandal broke. I shed no tears.
While I’m borderline happy that many of these companies are getting a haircut, my reasons might be slightly heterodox. The outrages of the scandal seemed to cascade like so:
- This sleazy Facebook analytics firm helped Trump win the Presidency by doing something unethical!
- Wait, Facebook let’s others do this, and they share 98 bits of data about me!
- Wait, lots of companies have data about me and are using it to profile me to sell ads and manipulate me!
None of this bothers me that much and here are my reasons.
It Helped Trump Win
This outrage I dismiss with a brief glance. All of the raging outrage and foaming of the mouth about Russian trolls, manipulative analytics firms, collusion, and more is just not believable to me. First, I find it deeply implausible that this type of social media interaction is especially effective. Just because somebody liked, read, or shared something doesn’t mean they actually did anything in the real world or had their mind changed. Second, to believe this targeted advertising/social media is so effective is very uncharitable towards my fellow Americans. My thinking is more in line with Ann Althouse:
Can anyone explain why there is so much fear of targeted political advertising? If it’s as dangerous as they act like they think then people are so weak-minded that democracy should be broken and we might as well let the machines take over.
It seems a lot of people, especially those chaffed by Trump’s win, think that online targeting during the 2018 election cycle was hyper-effective and persuasive even with paltry ad buys and rudimentary bot accounts. I’m skeptical, but if I’m wrong, then the Russians are the best social media wizards EVAR. I think it’s more likely the outrage directed at Facebook is because Democrats are searching desperately for a scapegoat to blame for Trump’s win. They grasp at any reason except the possibility they nominated one of the worst candidates in modern political history and maybe the only person who could lose to Trump.
Facebook Has Lots of Data and Gives It to Others for Targeting
Disclosure: I deleted Facebook in October 2011. My life has been fine for the 2700+ days since then. You should delete your Facebook account immediately.
In regards to the first clause:
I’m not very sympathetic to people who are suddenly outraged with the revelation Facebook shares lots of data about them.
Dupes Users freely feed vasts amount of data into Facebook and are almost certainly the primary source of most of this information. Another large chunk of the data can probably reliably deduced from the provided data. Furthermore, the list of supposed data points used for ad targeting is so pedestrian I almost laughed when I read through it. The majority of it I would bet most people would divulge in a casual conversation with any stranger. So why do people care so much this is shared out?
Facebook also works with third parties to hoover up even more data that users didn’t disclose to them directly. I would agree that this is not transparent to most Facebook users and not a good thing. But, then again, Facebook’s users are its product, and what’s so wrong with it finding out more about its products? Unless it does this illegally, I struggle to get my dander up.
In regards to the second clause:
Here I agree with the prevailing opinion. It’s not that Facebook shares this data with other companies to target users — duh! — it’s how the data is shared. In the case at hand, the problem is Facebook allowed users to unilaterally opt to have their friends‘ information shared to the third party. What a stupid, awful, exploitative policy! I’m still blown away Facebook allowed this to happen. . .except not that blown away. Yes, this policy is awful, but, c’mon, is it really that surprising? In my mind Mark Zuckerberg is arguably the least trustworthy tech titan today. I mean just watch the guy squirm when asked about privacy!
Have you deleted Facebook yet?
The Panopticon is Watching
Now the scope of the outrage has moved beyond Facebook. Okay, this is something more relevant to Facebook-free me. But I’m still not bothered by this that much.
First, in my experience, those who are trying to build a profile of me seem to be really bad at it. Apparently I am not alone. Proof of this is how universally awful recommendations/suggestions are. My favorite example of this is Instagram (unfortunately a Facebook property. . .I did confess prior I may not be consistent) thinks I’m very interested in the NBA. I hate basketball. It is easily my least favorite pro sport, and Instagram is unrelenting in its recommendations of basketball content to me. Other recommendation engines by supposedly Top Tier Recommenders such Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter are all pathetically, outrageously bad. I would say 95% or more of all recommendations are irrelevant. These are companies spending billions and billions of dollars with thousands of geniuses toiling to make recommendations worthy of a single click. I don’t get mad that they’re trying to build a profile of me. I get mad because they are squandering so much wealth and talent and my profiles are still utter garbage! How excruciatingly embarrassing! So many resources on something so useless! I will confess YouTube’s recommendations are kinda, sorta, maybe okayish occasionally from time to time. If everybody else’s recommendations were a F+/D-, then YouTube’s would be maybe a D/D+.
Second, maybe I should cut these guys some slack. After all I’m not playing very fair since I use both an ad blocker and a tracker blocker — you should too! — for all desktop browsing. But what does that say about these big, powerful, far-gazing, unblinking Eyes of Sauron? If these multi-billion dollar behemoths can be defeated with a couple of free browser extensions, it’s hard for me to feel threatened by their info-mongering ways. Maybe it is the case that their systems are so fragile it takes only the slightest effort to befuddle their conception of who I am and what even my shallowest desires are.
Third, maybe I’m naive, but I still believe users can easily and effectively opt-out of most profiling. They can at least opt-out to a degree that either their profiles are uselessly shoddy or the algorithms can’t make sense of their profiles. Perhaps I’m inconsistent here, but I live my online life largely based on the assumption that I’m wrong about the prior two points. So, I try to follow two guidelines: (1) give out as little information as possible and (2) don’t let any one company see a whole picture. I deleted my Facebook account. I turned off most permissions for Instagram’s app. I don’t use Twitter’s official app. I’m steering more shopping away from Amazon. I don’t use Google Search on the desktop (Bing is just fine). I’m switching more mobile browsing to Firefox Focus. I reject all requests for location. I use an ad blocker. I use a tracker blocker. I use private browsing most times when I leave my normal lane of the Information Superhighway. I treat all of these guys as my frenemies.
Maybe all the above effort is in vain. Maybe Big Tech still knows me down to my bones. Maybe these ludicrous recommendations are just their way to lull me into complacency. Maybe.
Maybe I love Big Tech.