My Turn: Facebook has been weaponized

Mik Muller, Greenfield Recorder. Published April 23, 2018

Recent revelations about the three major issues confronting Facebook and its users only confirm what many who work in the tech industry already feared: that Facebook isn’t just a social media platform that connects us to family and friends, regardless of where we live. Nor is it just a data collection engine that has been opened up to app developers and advertisers, all of whom treat the end users as a global collection of potential customers ... an unprecedentedly massive hoard of human descriptive data that can be drilled-down into and mined with frightening granularity and accuracy.

Facebook has been weaponized.

If you haven’t been following the story, that is the crux of the recent revelations. Facebook has transitioned from being just a social media platform that also has advertising opportunities, to being a weapon in a global political war.

Here are the three grave issues confronting us all regarding Facebook:

First — In 2014, a little over a quarter million people used a fun “personality test” quiz app on Facebook, providing all sorts of interesting psychological information about themselves. And because, at the time, Facebook had a much looser privacy policy for early-adopter app developers, the app was then able to reach into the quiz-takers friend list and harvest their personal information as well, linking them to the original quiz-taker, and storing all the personal information it could find, such as our names, locations, email addresses, list of friends, things we like, education, work history, religious and political affiliations, and more. They built an intricate, deep database of 87 million people, and then started to query the database for specific profiles. That is powerful, dangerous stuff.

Unbeknownst to Facebook, that massive database of private profile data was then sold to Cambridge Analytica, a company founded by Steve Bannon, which was hired by the Trump presidential campaign. The selling of the data was a breach of Facebook’s privacy policy, that data collected on their platform could not be sold or transferred to third parties.

I guarantee that pretty much everyone reading this who is also on Facebook was in that database, including me. I know several people who took those personality quizzes, sometimes multiple times. I never did, because I find them creepy and invasive, and I know that this data will eventually wind up in some advertisers drop-down menu for ad targeting purposes. But many people did not think about that when they took the “fun personality test.” That information was then used to track you and gather even more information about you, including purchases, etc.

And it’s not just Facebook that tracks us. If you visit an ecommerce website and look at a product but don’t buy it, dollars to donuts you will see an ad for that product while scrolling down your wall on Facebook or on any other website that participates in the same advertising network, such as Double Click or Google’s AdSense. And that’s super creepy, and, yes, dangerous in the wrong hands.

So... why give them more information about us? Sure, some people like being given suggestions for products that they may be interested in, but this same information can, and will, be used for and against you in politics and other less savory ways.

To wit, a former Cambridge Analytica employee named Christopher Wylie recently said in an interview that “they sought to explore mental vulnerabilities of people by creating a web of disinformation online so people would start going down the rabbit hole of clicking on blogs, websites etc., that make them think things are happening that may not be.” Trumps campaign admitted that they used this data and these techniques during the presidential primaries. And in the UK, lawmakers are now looking into whether Cambridge Analytica played a role in Brexit.

Second — It’s not just U.S.-based advertising and political firms that abused this kind of information. Russian troll factories, one of which was called the “Internet Research Agency”, employed hundreds of people to interfere with the US political system, in part by supporting Donald Trump and “disparaging” Hillary Clinton. The organization used social media advertising to target thousands of hyper-specific user profiles, each containing just a few thousand individuals, to spread misinformation and even stage political rallies in the US. These posts and ads were then shared to their circle of like-minded friends, and the cycle expanded out across the country. Officials from Facebook, Twitter and Google have admitted their platforms were abused in this manner.

Third — The origin of Fake News starts with Facebook, and Google ads, way back in February, 2016. Believe it or not, high school kids in Macedonia tapped into a gold mine by systematically creating over one hundred pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. They embedded automated advertising engines, such as Google AdSense’s ad widget, on each website, then shared the made-up news stories on Facebook and Twitter, bringing hundreds and thousands of visitors, who then shared the fake news stories back to Facebook and Twitter, over and over. One of the more successful such Macedonian kids earned nearly $4,000 a month off his two pro-Trump websites during the final four months before the 2016 election. He earned over $16,000 doing this. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.

And the truly sad thing about this particular story is these high schoolers in Macedonia didn’t care who won the election, or about how their actions affected global politics. They just wanted the spending money.

How is that right? And how are we so gullible?

The bottom line is we are being used, and played. Between advertisers following us around the web, to American political operatives playing us for their candidates, to Russians toying with our emotions and raising hackles also to support their favorite candidate, to mere teenagers influencing our elections just for pocket money, Facebook users are caught in a web of questionable reality, online.

What is the best defense? Stop sharing personal information on Facebook. If you don’t want to be targeted, you must simply limit the amount of information they have about you.

Michael Muller of Greenfield is president of Montague WebWorks, a website hosting company.