The Chaos of Facebook

Screen Shot 2019 04 24 at 5 44 54 PM

It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook has been in the news a lot in the past three or four years, and not in a good way. In the US, we’ve seen a long parade of issues just regarding Facebook and it’s part in the 2016 elections.

But Facebook is a global company. We are not alone in the their executives putting profits before the welfare of their “members”.

For part of that international perspective regarding Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, watch this talk from the recently completed TED Conference. It’s presented by a UK reporter who went back to her hometown in the southern part of Wales to learn how Facebook had impacted the 2016 Brexit vote.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.

But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.

She ends her talk with a passionate challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”, many of whom were likely in that TED audience.

Because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.

And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you. And it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right or “Leave” or “Remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is.

I would argue that our own 2016 election also demonstrates that broken democracy.

If you can stand a deeper dive behind the more recent problems at Facebook, read the long but excellent cover story in the May issue of Wired.1 The reporter covers what they call “15 months of fresh hell” inside the company, based on interviews with “65 current and former employees”.

It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

As I said, the story is long and is difficult to summarize in one post. But the TL;DR is that the leadership of Facebook either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or they’re afraid to make substantial changes that will hurt growth and profits.

It’s excellent reporting and worth an hour of your time to read the whole thing.


The graphic is from the animated header of the Wired story. Seems an appropriate illustration given the chaos being sown by Facebook.

1. Wired Magazine offers some of the smartest reporting available on tech and its impact on society. It’s worth a few bucks to subscribe.

Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.