Unfriending Zuckerberg

Issue 235

Facebook is using our personal info to manipulate us. Can we stop it?

Peter Rugh Apr 26, 2018

You are in an abusive relationship. It eats up your time, saps you of energy, takes you away from meaningful interactions with friends and family, prevents you from fully experiencing the things you enjoy most.

The man in your life emotionally manipulates you, feeds you lies, tests your loyalty, decides what you will know and what you won’t. Sex isn’t his thing. He disapproves of nudity, even implied nudity; has banned bellies, buttocks, cleavage from his presence. No, he’s a voyeur, but it’s wholesome domination that turns him on. He watches you in silent ubiquity, secreting away your wants, needs, your most minute behaviors in his seemingly infinite memory. You have made him rich and powerful and yet you hardly know him.

Sure, there are others. Jeff from Amazon. Sundar from Google. But he is the hardest to imagine breaking up with. You will be cut off from all your friends. He is creepy but you have come to rely on him.

Assuming you are one of the more than 2 billion active users of his social media platform, I am referring, of course, to your ongoing affair with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, the archetypal wonderboy coder, who, we are often reminded, founded the worldwide social network in his Harvard dorm room and who rose in the late aughts to become one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful men. His famous hoodie seemed to convey a rebel’s disregard for appearance with the monkish work ethic of one perennially hunched over a computer screen, devoted to his company’s mission of empowering people “to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Facebook pushes you to behave more consistently with your statistical grouping. That’s how they make their money.

Valued at no more than $2 billion in 2006, Facebook is worth an estimated half a trillion dollars today. Zuckerberg was savvy. He refused early buyout offers from Viacom and Yahoo but welcomed investment. He shunned ads, opting to prioritize user experience, until the company finally went public in 2012. Like a typical abuser, he charmed us first, drew us by the millions onto his platform with the flowery promise of universal kinship and locked us in with cheap but persistent appeals to our all-to-human need for validation. Before we knew it our data was in the hands of shady private spy agencies like Cambridge Analytica and God knows who else.

Then there was Zuckerberg on television, his trademark cowl replaced by a suit and tie, on the CEO apology tour. Facebook will take a “broader” view of security in the future but the company is still dedicated to connecting people, he told lawmakers on Capitol Hill, all the while wearing the perma-smile of a man gradually becoming a happy-face emoji.

Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, has a dim view of Facebook and other online platforms that purport to be neutral conduits of human connectivity. “These are shopping malls,” she told The Indypendent. “They’re not public squares.”

You might be saying to yourself, “Alright, so Zuckerberg wants to sell me jeans, some hacker in Moscow wants me to click on a phony story about Hillary Clinton practicing witchcraft. Big deal.” Maybe you even think all that nonsense about Russia undermining our democracy is overblown. I mean Vladimir Putin didn’t force Clinton to avoid campaigning in the Upper Midwest, did he? But the problem is more insidious than we have been led to believe. Our democracy is being undermined but Facebook itself is doing it, not to mention Google and Amazon, the big tech firms that increasingly mediate our reality and know things about us that we wouldn’t tell our friends or families.   

“Facebook and these big data people, they don’t care about how you masturbate or something,” says Douglas Rushkoff, who teaches media and digital economics at CUNY and is the author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. “They don’t care about who you are seeing or what you are doing. They’re using metadata. It’s how fast you are moving from one geospot to the other. It’s how quickly you swipe your emails. What’s the order in which you look at different links? It’s just data points that they need in order to clump you in with other people lik


e you. And that’s how they predict who you are and that’s how they drive you to more extreme versions of yourself.”

What does Facebook know about us? A lot more than what we like and share.

Illustration by David Hollenbach.

If you are reading this article at right now, that little “f” in the upper left corner of the page has probably told Facebook you are here. You don’t even need to click on it. Obviously, it’s not just The Indy’s website. Think of all the times you’ve seen that “f” or that hitchhiker’s thumb around the web. Millions of sites have installed snippets of Facebook code that on the front end invite you to promote their web pages, but on the back end feed Facebook your browsing history. It’s not limited to the web either. If you’ve installed Facebook or another of Zuckerberg’s platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp) on your smartphone, the GPS data tells wonderboy where you are at any given moment.

“The main thing that they are trying to do is to get you to behave more consistently with your statistical grouping,” Rushkoff said.

If this sounds paranoid, well, just because you are paranoid that doesn’t mean someone isn’t following you. A 2016 Facebook document titled “FBLearner Flow” boasted that by using artificial intelligence, or machine learning, the company can “predict future behavior.” Rushkoff gives a for-instance of what happens when Facebook, using big data analysis, suspects you are thinking of losing weight.

“If they’ve used big data analysis to determine that there is an 80 percent chance that you are going to go on a diet in the next three weeks, they’re going to fill your news feed with advertisements and stories of people dying from being overweight — all the frightening images that they know help encourage you to go on a diet,” said Rushkoff. “They’re not doing it just to sell you the product of a particular diet company. They’re doing it so that they can say that the rate of accuracy of their algorithm is not just 80 percent but 90 percent. It’s that 20 percent of people who were going to do something different, who were going to discover something else, who were going to invent something, who were going to engage in anomalous human behavior. Those are the people that have to be stopped. They’re trying to reduce human spontaneity, human choice.”

The ramifications of targeted online advertising go well beyond the dieting industry. “In the build-up to 2008, some of the biggest online advertisers were banks and subprime mortgage lenders who were using lead generators to get people into these mortgages that were bad,” notes Taylor. That was 10  years ago and targeted ads helped bring down the global economy. Imagine what they could accomplish today.

All media to one an extent or another contains at least a whiff of persuasion, whether it is through outright argument or simply presenting information that could influence your behavior. But Facebook is a walled garden and much of the information landscape is collapsing around it. Advertisers have fled traditional media outlets, preferring instead Facebook’s targeting algorithms, while those same traditional outlets have been forced to turn to Facebook themselves in order to reach their audience.

Sure, Facebook is about connecting people, but the company restricts, manipulates and monetizes those connections. Beyond ads, its algorithms determine which posts are more likely to appear front and center in your news feed. It prioritizes posts by people who interact with the platform frequently over those who don’t. The more you share, the more you like, the more you play Zuckerberg’s game, the more visible you will appear on the platform to others. This addictive reward system drives Facebook’s network effect. Together with WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook accounts for more than a third of the world’s web referral traffic.

And perhaps only with the exception of Google (or the NSA) does one institution know so much about so many people.

There are steps you can take to keep Zuckerberg from breathing down your neck. You can prevent his site from knowing everywhere you go at all times by changing the location settings on your phone and you can keep him off your tail on the web by editing the advertising settings on the site. It’s also not a good idea to click that convenient “login with Facebook” button when you are setting up an account on another app like Airbnb or OkCupid, unless you want Zuckerberg to know your vacation plans or your dating preferences.

It might prove harder, however, to disentangle yourself from the web of for-profit data brokers that Facebook partners with to further hone its ad targeting ecosystem with information, primarily financial, and less likely to be public online. By working with data brokers, Facebook probably knows your household income, or, as one of 29,000 targeting categories Facebook offers advertisers puts it, whether you are a “frequent transactor at lower cost department or dollar stores.”

On its site, Facebook provides a list of the data providers it works with and links to their websites, where you can opt out. But the process is much more complicated than it is when changing your privacy settings on Facebook itself. As reporters for ProPublica noted in a 2016 investigation into the company’s partnerships with big data providers, “opting out of Oracle’s Datalogix, which provides about 350 types of data to Facebook according to our analysis, requires ‘sending a written request, along with a copy of government-issued identification’ in postal mail to Oracle’s chief privacy officer.”

So is it time to leave our man, to unfriend Zuckerberg, so to speak? Or will he change his lowdown ways? During his 10-hour performance in Washington, Zuckerberg offered one solution to a range of complaints raised by congressional inquisitors. From terrorist propaganda to misinformation campaigns, racist ads to security, the answer to all problems plaguing Facebook was the same: artificial intelligence. Rushkoff describes it as “techno-solutionism,” “where you’re just going to fix the problems of one technology by inventing another one, but it just distances you further and further from anything you understand.”

Commentators have offered a range of solutions of their own. One idea is for Facebook users concerned about their privacy to pay something like a dollar a month for the service, allowing the platform to remain profitable without spying on us. Facebook would remain free to those who didn’t fork up the cash, only those folks would still be subject to data collection.

Illustration by Emily Gage.

Another idea is to simply nationalize the beast. “[I]n the past, natural monopolies like utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership,” Nick Srnicek, who teaches digital economy at King’s College in London, commented in the U.K. Guardian recently. “The solution to our newfangled monopoly problem lies in this sort of age-old fix, updated for our digital age.”

But such a solution would require a radical break with free market orthodoxy. While we’re talking big ideas, Rushkoff suggests one way to fix Facebook is to render it open source, like Firefox or Open Office — software that is managed by a collective of programmers around the world. Such a solution would put the monopoly’s fate in the direct hands of its users and the people who program it rather than a shadowy data harvester, whether that be Zuckerberg or the U.S. government. Strip away its surveillance aspects, Facebook’s operating code is relatively simple.

Yet another option is to simply delete our Facebook accounts. Even with all that’s come out about the site, this might still be a hard option for some of us to consider, particularly the homebound disabled amongst us, for some of whom Facebook is a vehicle to the outside world. But even though it is increasingly monopolized, there are still the remnants of the big wide open wild internet out there, places to discover, new people to meet. Why not tear down the walls Zuckerberg has erected?

And who knows, reflects Taylor, “One day we might realize, ‘Facebook — oh my God, everyone on it is over 50  and it is dying out.’ But it will probably just be replaced by another monopoly. Monopolies fade and new ones emerge in their place. The emphasis should be on regulatory power — what Facebook really fears.”

New regulations take effect in May that give citizens of the European Union the ability to have certain kinds of data about them scrubbed from the web and require Facebook and other tech firms to notify users within three days of a data breach. No such regulations are on the horizon in the United States with our Republican-controlled Congress, as an exchange between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Zuckerberg during a joint hearing of the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees on April 10 illustrated.

“So would you work with us in terms of what regulations you think are necessary in your industry?” Graham asked.

“Absolutely,” Zuckerberg assured him.

The usual tactics for social change don’t translate so smoothly on the internet. How do you launch a blockade against the rhizomic digital flow of information? Who do you boycott when you are the product? Meanwhile, our real world hierarchies repeat themselves, intensify and multiply online and the network effect makes building non-commercial alternatives to platforms like Facebook difficult. Remember Ello? If not, you’ve proved my point.

“Is a more fair, open internet even possible under our political system?” asks Taylor. The leverage we have as citizens to pressure lawmakers is our most viable option for making it so, she says, “because the option of exit and alternatives is really tricky given the scale of these companies and their multinational scope.” Nonetheless, she hasn’t written off the possibility that a people’s alternative to Facebook might one day emerge: “It’s really necessary not to lose that imagination.”

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Illustration (top) by Emily Gage.


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