- Facebook is facing intense scrutiny and backlash from lawmakers, users, celebrities, and even major Silicon Valley names like Apple CEO Tim Cook.
- The big cultural moment – urging people to #DeleteFacebook or #RegulateFacebook – is a great reminder that none of these so-called free services are truly free.
- Whether you’re using Facebook, Twitter, Google, or the other myriad “free” internet services, you’re always paying somehow. In the case of Facebook, you’re giving up your personal information.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But how about this one: “If you’re not paying, you’re not the customer – you’re the product.”
It’s a similar concept – ain’t nothing free! – but with a slightly different spin. I heard it most recently on last week’s Slate “Political Gabfest” podcast, where the cohost David Plotz brought it up in relation to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.
It struck me as an especially important phrase to remember in the era of “free” internet services. It’s easy to use services from the likes of Google and Facebook and Twitter every day, never thinking of what you’re trading for those services. In the case of Facebook, it’s your personal information.
In case you weren’t already acutely aware, the information gathered about you by Facebook – your interests, your age, your location, your gender, etc. – is used to sell advertisements. Rather than you paying Facebook to use its social network, Facebook makes its money by selling ads.
That’s how it stays “free” to you and me: Facebook uses the demographic information of its over 2 billion users to sell targeted advertisements.
These targeted ads can be relatively benign, like an advertisement for “Super Mario Odyssey” being served to someone who liked the Nintendo page on Facebook. But that user information can also be used in ways that Facebook users may not like – such as the case with Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that used the information of over 50 million Facebook users to help the Trump campaign target voters.
Recent reports regarding the use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica sparked enough outrage that the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began trending. As a result, major names like Apple CEO Tim Cook have spoken out against the company. Even a former Facebook executive, the WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton, tweeted, “It is time. #deletefacebook,” which sparked the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, to remove his companies’ presence from Facebook.
The same type of information used by Cambridge Analytica was also used by Russian bots leading up to the 2016 US presidential election – thousands of ads were purchased by fake Russian accounts.
Facebook says it discovered roughly $US100,000 in ad buys from June 2015 to May 2017, representing approximately 3,000 ads connected to nearly 500 affiliated fake accounts. The ads were intended to sow discord, divide US citizens, and galvanize political extremes leading up to the November 2016 election.
It may be more shocking if it weren’t so logical.
Facebook – and other “free” service companies – are in the business of using user data to make money. They aren’t regulated like public utilities, and they aren’t necessarily in the business of protecting your best interests. Do your interests line up with their financial goals? That is the question.
It’s a good question to keep in mind when considering your use of services like Facebook and Twitter in the modern era. As the “product” in this equation, you, the user, can opt out altogether – and without a “product,” perhaps companies like Facebook will more carefully address your interests as they reexamine their business models.