Facebook, the future and us

Facebook has 2.2 billion users. It owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Four out of 2017’s most-downloaded iOS apps are owned by Facebook. It’s controversial Open Graph (an API that gave advertisers unfettered access to to user data) was shuttered in 2015 but replaced by the even more powerful Facebook Audience Network.

There’s Facebook Connect, which allows users easy log-in to third party websites. Facebook even has profiles on people who don’t use Facebook. To many people (as has been said many times), Facebook is the Internet.

If this last week has taught us anything, it’s that our data – the data we put into Facebook (and other social networks) has real, tangible value. Corporations and politicians are buying and selling it. And sometimes it gets into the hands of people we don’t particularly like.

How do we make this stop? I don’t know, but I do know it’s not as simple as #deleteFacebook. That seems all too much like putting your fingers in your ears and singing loudly.

Fake news

The scandal surrounding data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which broke ten days ago and is still unravelling, has shown us a glimpse of what’s possible. While my social media feeds have been full of people saying “I always make sure to read outside my bubble” and “They’re not interested in me”, it’s clear that the whole point of this type of psychological trolling is that you do not KNOW that you’re being targeted.

Just to be clear how this happens, here are some examples of social media “fake news” from recent months – if you live in the UK, you may well have seen (and been affected by) the first one (I know I was):

Learning how to deal with this type of misinformation is an enormous challenge, but we need to deal with it face on. It’s about building a framework for the future that works for everyone. And you can’t help to do that if you don’t participate. Social media is the new town square. You can withdraw from it, sure – that doesn’t mean the conversation won’t go on without you.

Bad data

Yesterday I downloaded all the data Facebook has on me. According to Facebook, I like first-person shooter games, international wrestling and Boys (2003) – an Indian Tamil coming-of-age film I’ve never seen. I’m also interested in the British National Party and the Second Coming, as well as “bleach” and “sand”.

These are just 7 keywords in the list of 328 “ad topics” Facebook has for me. Needless to say, there are plenty of things I DO love that haven’t even made this list. And that’s after more than ten years of quite intensive input.

No matter. Facebook has given my contact info to 232 advertisers. In my ten years on Facebook, I’ve apparently clicked on just 5 ads, and they were all run by friends of mine (so all those ads about first person shooters simply aren’t hitting the mark).

It’s not great that Facebook has this wrong information about me. I’m not sure what to be more concerned about – the fact that Facebook knows I like yoga or the fact it thinks I’m a fan of the BNP.

Machine learning

In China, the authorities are building a social credit system (based around opt-in use of a mobile phone app, Zhima Credit) that ensures some people cannot access airline travel, certain consumer goods or luxury hotels. Individuals who’ve behaved badly (a subjective assessment, made by those in power) become effectively, second-class citizens.

As we feed information into apps and web pages and machine learning improves, the Internet is learning all sorts of things about us. This isn’t just about social media and Facebook. This about how everyone – from technology companies to consumer brands to governments – can now gather and interpret data at scale. Our data is informing the science behind algorithms and automation and – ultimately – artificial intelligence (AI).

Hit ‘refresh’ not ‘delete’

So, in the nicest possible way, I’m urging you to stay with the conversation. Make social networks work for you. Find like-minded people. Ensure your voice is heard. Demand greater transparency. Don’t think your input doesn’t matter, because diverse viewpoints are everything. And the internet is where our future is being built.

As data scientist Zeynep Tufekci says so eloquently in this TED talk, we need to build AI that “supports us in our human goals but that is also constrained by our human values”.

Do we want the robots of 2030 to all follow the ideologies and ethics of Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Theil? I don’t think so, but if the rest of us opt out, that’s effectively what could happen.

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

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