Be Seeing You, Facebook

tl;dr: I have decided to delete my Facebook account. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated. To quote from the television show, The Prisoner: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!” Join me, and quit Facebook today. (1175 words)

“In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to ‘suppress’ their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These ‘dark posts’—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.”
          —Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, The Data That Turned the World Upside Down

I have decided to delete my Facebook account. This post is to explain why and to encourage others to do the same.

There is no shortage of criticisms of Facebook and excellent blog posts that discuss the many problems of Facebook in detail. It can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the discussion of a particular issue, such as privacy, or combination of issues and the supporting documentation involved.

But, there is really just one essential point. Facebook is a surveillance platform designed to gather and sell as much information on its users as possible and provide a medium for the delivery of advertising and propaganda to them for its clients. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated.

Of course, it has to offer something useful to the people that use it too. It helps its users stay in touch with other users they know, expand their social networks, form groups, share photos, buy and sell items, plan events, read curated content matched to individual interests, find jobs, etc. There is no arguing that it is a powerful and useful social platform.

But, it’s not free. Facebook’s market capitalization is ~$385 billion. According to Facebook’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year Results for 2016, it made $8.63 billion in advertising revenue, invested $4.49 billion in capital, and has a monthly user base of 1.86 billion. In other words, they made $4.63 in advertising revenue per monthly user, and they invested $2.41 of that in capital expenditures in 2016. Based on market capitalization, every monthly user is worth $206 to Facebook’s value.

Who is paying the costs of Facebook and our “free” use of the service? And what do they get in return? Marketers, data aggregators, governments and others get detailed information about users and the ability to deliver targeted advertising to those users that are most receptive to their messages or they can eliminate or mute other points of view. These profiles combined with the media delivery capability of the platform is Facebook’s product. You are Facebook’s product. You are being “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered” making Facebook and its clients billions of dollars.

Facebook made $8.63 billion in 2016 selling data and delivering ads to its users. How much of that money was used to influence you? And how much did it cost you to pay for Facebook at the store, at your polling place and in the various ways Facebook influences how you perceive the world, e.g., “unfriending” someone? It is difficult to say what those costs are, but the only thing that is certain is that they are there and they are likely much higher than you expect.

There are many implications from how Facebook makes money. First, Facebook is incentivized to collect as much information as possible, and it uses its ability to progressively redefine its terms of service followed by public relations and marketing to convince its users to accept a continually lowering bar of privacy. The more information it has on its users, the better its product.

Selling user’s data, invariably, is going to support the expansion of the surveillance state. The company may even do so unknowingly, such as when its data was used by a third party to produce a survellience product for police monitoring of activists of color.

Or, since Facebook is an advertising platform, what is the difference between advertising and emotionally manipulative social research on users without independent ethical oversight? Is there a difference?

If Facebook works with data brokers to deliver a targeted ads, like those featuring Hillary Clinton talking about black men as “predators”, how is this different from “fake news”? What does “fake news” mean when Facebook also engages in censorship in cooperation with various governments? Is “fake” anything that doesn’t agree with a given state’s narrative? Even the truth can be fake, when it is cut up and delivered for the purposes of manipulating an audience into a pre-determined conclusion, which is Facebook’s business model. Facebook is the primary peddler of “fake news” on the Facebook platform. Going after “fake news” outlets is simply eliminating the competition.

The article quoted at the top of this essay made me realize that Facebook isn’t just a standard media and advertising platform, one that could be managed through ad and javascript blocking browser extensions to minimize its intrusiveness. Rather, one of the fundamental tasks of Facebook is to create psychological profiles of its users (which includes ~80% of U.S. internet users or 68% of all U.S. adults), testing messages on them, and then delivering those tested messages in real time to targeted groups. All of this is done with little or no transparency, where it is difficult to tell paid propaganda from the propaganda your social circle willingly transmits through the platform, giving it perfect camouflage.

Using Facebook and allowing myself to be manipulated in this way is something I can no longer do. In conjunction with deleting Facebook, I have also deleted my other social media accounts, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Flicker, etc., because they present many of the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree.

Then, there is Google. Like Facebook, Google is in the business of collecting data on it’s users and selling advertising. This shows there is something deeply flawed with business models that are built around selling user’s information, and to the degree it is possible, we should pay for the services we use. Freedom comes at a cost — in time, convenience and money. When you are getting something that makes things easy, convenient and is provided for at no cost, you’re paying in your freedom. Best to choose the harder or more expensive path when it’s possible, and to do without when it’s not.

2 thoughts on “Be Seeing You, Facebook

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