Have you ever noticed how the ads you see on Facebook can be spookily relevant to you? Maybe you’ve been shopping for a tent online, and suddenly your newsfeed is populated with adverts for tents, or you’ve been chatting with someone in another country and then finding travel adverts.
In the last few months, we’ve found out just how much Facebook could know about us. Facebook can follow users’ locations, track other websites we view, log phone calls and text messages, and can see what we do after logging off – even people who never signed up. It then makes this data available to anyone who pays, from companies selling yoga mats to political parties intent on fueling social division.
Who consented to any of this? With the rapid change in technology, tech companies and marketers have taken advantage of the low public understanding of technology and data. How often do you actually read the entire terms of agreement that you’re signing up for?
Knowledge (and data) is power
This level of data collection and surveillance can concentrate an enormous amount of power in the hands of a single corporation.
Recent scandals have highlighted how Facebook’s power can be used to foster polarisation, radicalisation and undermine democratic elections. Cambridge Analytica – a British political consulting firm which combines data mining with strategic communication for political elections – was allowed to exploit Facebook data to fulfill its own agendas, generating massive profits while entrenching power imbalances and taking power away from citizens. Bloomberg reports that 2 billion people could have been affected.
Users have no idea how much information Facebook has about them, or how it’s being used, making it difficult to regulate. This lack of information has worrying implications for democracy.
What does it mean for activism?
Facebook’s power is increasing to the scale of a pseudo-state. Beyond the immediate threat to democracy, what are the implications for activists on the platform?
Many activist organisations, large and small, depend on social media to organise, mobilise and share stories to inspire action. Greenpeace, for example, has over 100 different pages on Facebook, with several million followers engaging with their content. It’s one of the main tools they use for campaigning and spreading environmental news.
Facebook has created a place for activists to meet virtually across the globe. It’s a lifeline in countries like Hungary where the government has a tight grip on news media outlets and works to silence civil society. When campaigners can’t get their voices heard in mainstream media outlets, they can use social media to reach thousands of people.
“Because so many of us are working in different countries, and without a formal structure, Facebook helps create an ad-hoc structure for our campaign,” says John Hyland from the Repeal the 8th campaign (a group promoting abortion rights for Irish women) in Brussels.
His main concern is not knowing exactly what information Facebook is collecting, and what applications it could have. “The thing I’m most worried about is people leaving a record of illegal activity,” he says. That’s part of the reason why more and more woke citizens are taking their personal information off the platform, changing their names and anonymising their photographs.
What can be done?
The obvious thing to do would be to delete Facebook, but for many users, this is not an option. “The platform is just too useful for activists,” said one community organiser at Greenpeace. The ability to create events pages and attract participants can be invaluable to promoting organized events such as protests or demonstrations, for example.
A small group of concerned activists formed the Facebook Blackout campaign, with the aim of getting Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, to improve Facebook’s practices and make governments put in regulations to control the scale of its surveillance. An online protest called Faceblock encouraged people to boycott the platform for 24 hours during Zuckerberg’s testimony to let him know that users are not happy with his current business model. Zuckerberg has already made some concessions regarding data privacy, democracy and research into the platform, and has recently sent reminders to all its users about updating their data settings. Drastic changes have been made to its API, but Facebook’s hugely profitable business model is not about to change anytime soon.