There is a lot of angst about Facebook data right now and due to the way these things go, it would be easy to discount all the attention as a temporary obsession and politically motivated. That would be a mistake. What we have seen documented over the past week is how the future looks if we are not very careful. And when I say that we need to be careful, I mean that we need to be very careful that we are not weaponized. Based on my experience with developing Facebook apps and using its advertising platform, I think that is very possible.
When I refer to the concept of being weaponized, I am talking about the idea that people can be manipulated by others to the point where they actually become effective, damaging tools to further a nefarious goal. What kind of tools? Perhaps for spreading propaganda. Perhaps for creating disunity to harm a cause. Perhaps for convincing someone to incite violence.
The question as to whether we can be weaponized though services like Facebook is both interesting and not interesting. It is not interesting because similar manipulation clearly happens all the time. For example, advertising is manipulation even though the goal is usually a harmless attempt to get us to buy something. Politicians are great manipulators and throughout history, politicians have managed to weaponize untold millions of people. Do you think Putin has not weaponized people? Hitler? Many of our own Presidents?
What IS interesting about Facebook in regards to the idea of weaponization is that it is like pouring gas on the fire, giving evil operators the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. And in that regard, the threat is real simply because Facebook has an almost unimaginable treasure chest of data. It makes perfect sense that Facebook data would be dangerous beyond imagination in the hands of the wrong people and it also entirely reasonable to believe that there are companies and governments way ahead of our imaginations in how they are trying to access and use that data. In other words, it is not a stretch to imagine that a country like Russia may see Facebook data as a weapon to develop that is just as important as their nuclear weapons.
You might be wondering if Facebook data is really useful. Can you really tell anything about a person by noting that they like Taylor Swift or that they are friends with a particular person? You would be surprised. While I don’t do Facebook advertising at the moment, I have done a lot of it in the past and have found their custom audience technology remarkable. Essentially, you can give Facebook a list of people and it will analyze them and come up with a similar group of people that you can advertise to. The results of that are uncanny and almost feel like magic. Trust me, Facebook knows a lot more about you than you think. Furthermore, what they know is stored somewhere and is susceptible to theft and misuse.
I don’t know how much of this manipulation and weaponization went on in the last election but I can say this: a lot of our Facebook friends clearly lost their minds and that was probably not an accident. For sure, somebody has figured out how to weaponize Facebook users at least to spread propaganda because it seemed that a third of my otherwise intelligent friends were passing around fake news that I would have assumed you would have to be a fool to believe. As you know, I left Facebook last year, and a major reason was just the fact that I could not bear the stupidity that I was seeing, mostly from political zealots either on the far right or far left. I also saw a ton of anger that just seemed to come out of nowhere. Frankly, when I could not laugh at it, I often got annoyed and sometimes reacted. I will raise my hand as a person that possibly was weaponized.
Don’t think that this is going to get easier. Evil people, companies, and governments are going to continue to pursue Facebook data and they are going to invest a ton of of money into learning how to use it more effectively. When you ponder on that, it is very easy to see a path where Facebook could be used to start a war. Perhaps even a civil war. It would not take much than what is already happening.
I happen to love the idea of Facebook and there are a ton of great things about it. For me, the cons outweigh the pros but I would never condemn anyone that stayed on the platform going forward (I still maintain a professional page there myself). However, be cautious. There are some simple things that I think might make sense if you plan to keep participating:
- Go through all your Facebook apps and delete any that you don’t use or can live without. Those apps could be collecting data about you and it could be going anywhere. I think Facebook is a decent company but they simply cannot control what happens to data once it goes to someone else.
- Stop using Facebook login on other sites. I know it is convenient but you are opening up yourself to potential privacy issues because you can be tracked in certain ways on other websites than Facebook. Also, if you end up ditching Facebook in the future like me, it will make things easier to use those other sites.
- Go through your Facebook profile. Unlike pages unless you really want to keep up with them. Get rid of friends you don’t really know. Think carefully before connecting with political causes on Facebook because that will make you a bigger target for weaponization. The less you share about yourself with Facebook, the less risk you have.
- Don’t encourage the hate, the politics, the fake news, and the clever but dishonest memes. Be like my wife Marla and just ignore that stupidity whether you agree with it or not. If enough people could do that, Facebook would get a lot safer and a lot more pleasant. If you can’t do that, acknowledge your weakness (as I had to do) and ditch the platform.
- Work on yourself both on and off Facebook. Find friends that you disagree with on big issues and learn to dialogue respectfully. This has become a lost art but it is critical to any civilization.
Can you imagine a place where you went to connect with friends and family that you can’t see in real life as much as you would like? That is what Facebook once was and that is what it should be. I am not sure that it cannot get back to that point, but it will require lot of behavior to change. I think it is redeemable but at the moment, I agree that it is dangerous.
By the way, it is human nature to focus on all our friends that mouth off on Facebook or share too much. Don’t be that way. This starts with us. We are all fooling ourselves if we think that we can’t be manipulated or even weaponized.