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May 7, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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They Are Watching You

You probably use social media. You probably procrastinate on social media. You probably talk to a lot of people on social media. You probably read most of your news on social media. I do.

Social media, and more specifically Facebook, have become part of the fabric of society over the last fifteen years. At least two billion people have a Facebook account, including 2.9 million New Zealanders, or 62% of us. Social media consumes increasing amounts of our lives. The six people I interviewed for this article all use Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). All but one also used Snapchat, and half of them had Twitter accounts. “I check [social media] every half hour or so. Maybe fifty times a day?” said student Tiani Mataia. While they struggled to estimate the time they spent on social media daily, all interviewees guessed that that it would be upwards of one hour.

“I feel like I always need [social media] when I’m bored. I don’t think I could easily stop, maybe if I was forced, if there was no wifi,” said Joana Pulepule. “I think everyone should have a Facebook [account],” said Harris Findlater, media studies student, explaining how when he makes a new connection, he immediately adds them on Facebook so he can find them again.

Facebook even becomes part of academia; most courses have Facebook groups which are occasionally somewhat useful. “It takes extra effort to know what’s going on in the course [without Facebook],” said Ikmal Borhan, and electronics and computer science student. Extra effort is something that few people are willing to expend.

Social media takes up a great deal of space in our lives. What happens there—the information gathered, the connections made—is therefore fully significant. When you signed up for the social media accounts you use, you probably ticked a few boxes. One of them would have said something to the effect of “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions”. Was that the truth?

When I asked Findlater if anyone reads the terms and conditions, he laughed. “No,” was his definitive answer. “Even with everything that’s going on I couldn’t be bothered [to read user agreements],” he said. “In a sense we should just read the terms and conditions, but we’re just too lazy to,” said Mataia. “They use really technical language so I wouldn’t understand what really they’re trying to tell us [if I did read them].”

Anyone who has ever attempted to read the agreement they make with a website has probably faced the same thing. Terms and Conditions are so dense, so full of impenetrable legalese, that it’s hard for non-experts to make sense of them. We know that we should read them, but who really has time? Companies know that the people signing up for their service aren’t going to read the Terms and Conditions, and take advantage of that.

Issues of privacy on the internet spike every few years. There are the conversations prompted by every revision Google makes to its privacy policy, or Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing. Cambridge Analytica is 2018’s latest privacy controversy. Cambridge Analytica is a company based in the UK which gathers information about people online, usually through apps, and sells that information as “communications strategies” to election campaigns. This includes the Brexit election and the 2016 American presidential race. The Cambridge Analytica revelations are, at heart, about what people will agree to in ignorance.

When people used their Facebook account to download a certain app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, which had been contracted by Cambridge Analytica,  and signed the user agreement, they gave the company the ability to access not just their information, but the information of all their friends. So while comparatively few people downloaded the app (only ten did in New Zealand), thousands of users had their information taken. That’s legal—but what wasn’t is that CA then sold the information to various third parties, which has implications that we may never fully grasp. Facebook has known about the files since 2015, but did not inform users that their data had been sold (which they’re beginning to do now), taking Cambridge Analytica on its word that it had destroyed the information. This has led to Mark Zuckerberg testifying in front of the American Senate and House of Representatives to answer to his responsibility in protecting privacy of users. If you’ve seen a post saying “We care about your privacy!” when you’ve logged into Facebook recently, this is why. These revelations barely factored into my interviewee’s behaviour. Only two of them knew about Cambridge Analytica, but all were aware that using internet services involved a sacrifice of privacy. “You can’t really trust any website,” said Findlater.

There are a lot of different conceptions about how much information Facebook could access about you.“[Facebook knows] my personal network: who’s my friend, who I chat most with, and where I go because they have access to my location,” said Jackie Shaw, a Masters of Education student. “There are my public posts,” said Jesika Hermez, an Early Childhood Education student. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they do [have access to] other stuff that you don’t put up there.” She has high privacy setting on all of her accounts. “I feel like it’s dangerous [to be too public].”

“[Facebook shouldn’t access my chats] because that’s a violation of privacy,” said Borhan. “[But] if it was a really private message, I would just call them and talk.” Facebook has never said explicitly if they can read your private messages, but they do seem to use the content of chats to help nail down what you’re into.

“It’s a little invasive, not gonna lie, but I think there are benefits to [Facebook accumulating personal information]. For advertising and stuff they need that data to market towards you, and Facebook needs the money,” said Findlater. He accepts the data breaches as an inevitability. Events like Cambridge Analytica are just “the price to pay”, Borhan said.

Findlater found Facebook ads “scarily relevant”. Shaw said “I don’t like reading ads, but sometimes it’s good that it can recommend you a good restaurant, a good deal, a good place to go”.

I showed several people how to access their ad settings on Facebook (go to Settings>Ads), so they can see what “interest categories” Facebook has them pegged as, and which advertisers have information about them. No one is surprised. There’s an overall sense that it’s Facebook’s right to know this, when they give us so much. My own interest categories include “journalism” and “books” (very accurate) as well the more obscure  “dragon” and “secretary”.

Most of the people I interviewed characterized Facebook, and social media more widely, as positive spaces. They agreed that the amount of information big companies had about them was not really concerning to them — as Shaw put it, “I’m not an important person.” There was no reason for any company to use the information which has surely been gathered about them. The power of advertising on a societal level was more worrying for my interviewees, however.

I tried to contact various people who didn’t use Facebook to write this article. None of them responded to my requests (usually done through an interim person, because people without an online presence are exceptionally difficult to contact). I couldn’t help resenting them: why had these paranoid people not joined modern society, if merely for my journalistic convenience?

Over the past few weeks, while interviewing and researching for this article, I have continued to use Facebook, though I look more at individual pages and groups rather than my newsfeed. I still use a Gmail account, and a lot of other Google services. I still spend far too much time teaching Twitter about my interests.  I’ve made some changes, too. I haven’t read the Facebook privacy policy, but I did read a plain English summary of it (try tldrlegal.com). I’ve switched to using a private search engine. I put tracking protection onto my browser. Above all, I’m trying to remember that Facebook’s benign blue benevolence belies its desire to take every part of me I give it the right to (and maybe some more besides) and use it for profit. Facebook (and all the other services which have become entwined with my existence) is about capitalism, not connection.

I could tell you a thousand anecdotes about Facebook in my life: the confessions over Messenger, the glee of likes, the nuisance of advertising. But Facebook could tell you ten thousand anecdotes about me, and therein lies the problem.

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