There have been recent accusations that a political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, used the Facebook profile information of millions of Americans to finesse Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential victory.
This comes hot on the heels of accusations of social media interreference (also known as “computational propaganda”) by Russian-backed troll factories in the same election against Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Many observers are aghast, but just as many are unsurprised.
The primary purpose of social media platforms is to gather data from individual users, which can then be repackaged for a profit for, guess who – the social media company and its shareholders.
Increasingly, profits are being earned by marketing at the “granular level”, meaning that individual users are exposed to their own augmented social media realities.
The harvesting of Facebook profile information for political purposes should not, therefore, come as a shock. It is a natural extension of the platform’s commercial function.
The deeper question, however, is why are so many people obsessed with Facebook and social media? I have to confess, that I find it all rather boring. So boring, in fact, that I walked away from Facebook years ago. The whole experience was visually invasive and informationally bizarre. I got tired of millions of food photos, miserable people posing for happy snaps, and the general tendency of everyone to compete with everyone else to try and project the image of their own social and material utopia.
Perhaps more deleterious to myself was the amount of time it took to maintain the Facebook account. It required an integration of innumerable electronic devices – most pervasively, the smartphone – and very little of any substance came out of the whole process.
In my job as a law lecturer, I am often called upon to provide career advice to law students. Of course, I stress that they must study hard to increase their chances of realising high marks. They must then land their first job, and work diligently to develop specific competencies in that position. They must also learn to work constructively with others and admit when they do not know the answers to novel and complex problems.
But, as an adjunct to this time-honoured advice, I increasingly stress the need to avoid the excessive expenditure of time and energy on Facebook and social media. To have any chance of success in the modern workplace and economy, it is imperative to not just work hard, but also smart. This means not exposing your mind – which has a finite capacity for concentration – to the (unproductive) fatigue that can be generated by excessive social media usage. This brain power can be allocated elsewhere, such as thinking laterally about a work-based problem, or to provide motivation to exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Facebook and other social media platforms are by design, time sinks. Little wonder that a 2016 GlobalWebIndex report found that on average, people spent 1 hour 58 minutes per day on social media and messaging networks.
I encourage my students to consider how much extra work they might achieve, or how much extra mental energy they might have, if they were to limit or abstain from Facebook and social media. Might they not be more productive as students, and soon to be lawyers?
I also encourage my students to consider the frivolity of social media – can it be said that any of the interactions on the various platforms advance solid outcomes? Does it result in healthier friendships? Are the digital interactions emotionally fulfilling? Does it result in an enhanced career? Are dancing cat videos really so important?
Social media can also be highly negative when seeking employment. Prospective employers sift through profiles and – if privacy settings are not maintained – voyeuristically peer into private lives to draw all sorts of unfounded conclusions.
But the workplace problems do not stop there. We have all heard stories of work colleagues weaponizing social media to inform on their “friends” to superiors for their own nefarious reasons. Social media can be a significant workplace liability.
Younger members of the workplace are particularly vulnerable for two reasons: they are most likely to have prolific engagement with social media, and they tend to be junior, which makes them easy prey for more senior colleagues.
Perhaps the increasing weaponization of social media is one of the reasons why younger people are developing two profiles: a public “shopfront” or “image-driven” profile, and a more limited “private” or “real” profile. But is this bifurcation a step too far? Does it not hint at the very problems in social media itself, namely, its susceptibility to abuse, voyeurism, and superficiality?
And this says nothing of the inherent platform addictiveness and manipulation, (the “social validation feedback loop”) which sees users unwittingly devoting their time and energies to various algorithmic stimuli.
Indeed, one of the primary architects of the Facebook platform, Sean Parker, admitted in an interview with Axios that the network exploits vulnerabilities in human psychology.
Of course, there are many people who will remain committed to social media. But there are now enough systemic problems emerging to place a serious question mark over its utility.
What are the implications for democracy? What are the privacy implications? What are the workplace implications? What are the mental and emotional fatigue implications? What are the psychological implications, particularly for vulnerable young people attempting to define their character and realise their position in society?
If we want to achieve more concrete and positive outcomes in our real lives, then perhaps we should step back from the marketing and data-mining phenomenon that is social media.