There are times when I wonder if I am really so out-of-step with the day-to-day zeitgeist of our wonderful country. How did it come about that everyone collectively decided that Facebook was practically the worst company in the world and that Mark Zuckerberg needed to be frogmarched to Washington and keelhauled before a couple of Congressional committees?
Like Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” the our public thinkers are supposedly shocked! shocked! that Facebook leverages our personal data for its advertisers. But anyone who didn’t know until last month that advertisers were using our Facebook data to promote their own products is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron. Did they not notice that Facebook is a free service and that the only way to support all those servers and graphic designers was through advertising? Didn’t they think it was odd that when they clicked on an ad for a particular product they were subsequently barraged with more ads for the same product?
The truth is that I don’t really care who has my personal Facebook data. I just downloaded my file to see what was there and it was pretty dull. It includes my name, email, age, school, job history, political leanings, marital status and Facebook friends current and former. That is already publicly available on my page. It also includes the Facebook sites, ads, games, quizzes and other ephemera that I clicked on over the course of the last ten years. The fact that this might become available to strangers does give me a slight pause because maybe I don’t want people to know I once played Farmville, but there’s nothing truly embarrassing in this data.
Here is what Facebook does NOT have on me that many other online sites do: my social security number, my credit card number, my medical history, my drug prescriptions, my income, my online shopping history, or my criminal record (which is nonexistent, by the way).
And they don’t have my search history, thank God. If Google had been the one that was a little sloppy with my personal data I would be REALLY pissed. Some of that could be truly embarrassing.
If anything, my gripe with Facebook is that they don’t do a good enough job of dispensing my data. I almost never notice the ads in my feed because they are so irrelevant to me. If there’s a true scandal at Facebook is that they are charging advertisers good money for spots that are ineffective.
But let’s be honest, people aren’t really mad at Facebook because of privacy. Instead this tantrum is about making it into the latest scapegoat for the election of Donald Trump. I think most of Facebook’s critics understand that the company didn’t really do anything to swing the election. I mean seriously, have any of these people ever even been on Facebook? If there is any voter who decided to vote for Donald Trump because of something he saw on Facebook, I would like to meet him and commit him to the home for the dangerously naive.
Those of you who lived through the 2016 election probably remember that Facebook was a toxic place that ruined friendships; if anything the nasty posts and counter-posts only served to reinforce voters’ existing leanings, doing little to convert potential voters from one side to the other.
Facebook first came under fire in the fall of 2016 with allegations that it had allowed Russian trolls to plant “Fake News” on users’ news feed (remember those innocent days when “fake news” meant stories that were literally made up and not just news pieces that the President doesn’t like?) No one could seriously argue that these stories had any significant effect on voting and the early grudge against Facebook slowly died away.
Then came the big revelation about Campaign Analytica. It transpired that a conservative data firm had tricked Facebook into giving them the personal data of 87 million users, deceitfully held onto it when Facebook demanded its return, and then tried to help the Trump campaign develop targeted Facebook ads.
The interesting thing is, the Obama campaign essentially did the same in 2012 (see more on that here.) No one screamed about Facebook being careless with our personal data when the news media’s favorite candidate was playing fast and loose with our privacy. In fact, I distinctly remember stories about what digital geniuses the Obama campaign were (here’s one New York Times story where the digital team admits to grabbing data without Facebook’s permission and not being forced to give it back once Facebook figured out what was happening.) The Obama team even bragged about how the pulled the wool over Facebook’s eyes. As Investors Business Daily points out: Obama’s campaign director, Carol Davidsen, even tweeted that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.”
I doubt that anyone really thinks that the Data Analytica breach swayed any votes. Among other things, the Trump campaign claims they didn’t actually use their data for targeting because the Republican National Committee’s lists were better.
Look, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to get off Facebook: 1) It ends up draining your time and hurting your concentration; 2) it makes you dislike your friends who just won’t stop popping off about politics or posting pictures of their meals; 3) it makes your life seem inadequate when you see what your friends are up to.
But you’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re making a moral stand about the 2016 election or protecting your privacy. There are plenty of worse actors to boycott than Facebook.