Ever since computers were developed, human data has been a precious commodity (Kotu and Deshpande, 2019). Social media’s increasingly pervasive role in modern life has intensified the transformative influence of powerful entities like Facebook as they tap into boundless stores of user data and sell it to third parties for profit. By collating and analysing patterns in human behaviour, Facebook has revolutionised sources of profit for online businesses and boosted the value of Big Data, a resource now more precious than oil.
Following recent scandals that have exposed Facebook’s divisive data sharing practices, internet users are gradually waking up to how third parties use their personal profiles to manipulate their beliefs and behaviours (Thurlow and Mroczek, 2011). Although Facebook has faced some opposition from disgruntled users and official regulators, its ability to share data has been irrevocably transformative, touching every aspect of digital culture.
Facebook’s commodification of human data has made the entity a powerful force of change. Most notably, it has weakened the function of democracy and diminished the right to privacy online. This article will establish that, through trading data, Facebook has reformed business models, corrupted processes of political campaigning, tarnished the authenticity of online interactions, and transformed digital cultures throughout the world.
From Nazi to nosey: How the history of data collection illustrates Facebook’s transformative effects
Although regular media users are now the targets of Facebook’s data collection, the practice has historically been a tool for political surveillance and war (Cappello, 2017). It is arguable that Facebook’s motives for data collection are just as cunning and influential in the modern day.
The first major data project was conducted in the US in response to the introduction of the Social Security Act (1937 ) which necessitated the supervision of millions of Americans and their employers. Data-processing technologies were further developed by the British in WWII to decipher Nazi codes (Cappello, 2017). Similarly, data computing became a vital way for the US’s National Security Agency to process intelligence signals during the Cold War (Aronova, 2017).
Enigma-machine used to intercept Nazi codes. Image: IEEE Spectrum, CC
When the World Wide Web was introduced in 1989, governments and private organisations discovered that growing stores of digital information could be used for more than war time tactics (Banks and Card, 2008).
As the Web 2.0 expanded, a digital society with new sets of social values and cultural procedures emerged (Barlow, 1996). In his theory of a ‘network society,’ Castells (2012) explains that people’s newfound ability to connect more efficiently than ever created the ideal conditions for social, political and economic change.
After creating a pioneering platform with which users could share their every thought, feeling and interest in 2004, Facebook’s founders seized the opportunity to profit from the Big Data boom that coincided with the burgeoning digital landscape (Good, 2013).
When co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg opened Facebook and its stores of data to developers in 2007, third parties like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft became able to receive a user’s personal information and a list of their contacts every time they played a personality quiz or signed into an app using their Facebook profile (see figure 1).
Screenshot of a third party’s request to access personal data through Facebook.
Although data collection was traditionally used as a weapon against enemies of the State, Facebook’s decision to bring the practice to social media has significantly reduced user privacy.
This significant change is most visible when comparing the genesis of data collection with current industry practices. While it was once only accessible to governments for critical intelligence, the practice of collecting, sharing and manipulating user data for profit has grown in popularity, and now involves most major tech companies (see fig 1). As Banks and Card (2008) remark, it is wholly accurate to suggest that Nazis and Soviet spies enjoyed far more privacy than today’s average Facebook user.
An ecology of interconnection: Facebook’s social and cultural effects
While internet users have formed their own unique cultures and sub-cultures in the constantly shifting digital landscape (Barlow 1996), Facebook has prompted equally significant transformations – it has created a commercial culture in which data collection is the norm.
Figure 1. Ecology: How Facebook drives social and cultural change.
As shown in Figure 1, Facebook’s data sharing is intrinsically connected to countless spheres of the social media environment. Not only does Facebook sell user profiles, messages and networks to third parties, it has also acknowledged providing data to ‘integration partners’ who utilise user information to create mobile versions of Facebook and connect the platform to other social networking services and apps.
By deeply entwining itself throughout the social media landscape, Facebook has become an inescapable force, capable of inciting widespread cultural and social change (Shih, 2011).
Summary of Facebook’a data practices. Source: The Telegraph, CC.
Facebook’s contribution to targeted advertising
The mere fact that Facebook owns and sells most of the data that is gathered on social platforms is not necessarily transformative. Rather, it is what Facebook allows third parties to do with this information that prompts true social, cultural, political and economic change.
Although it previously resisted ads on its site, Facebook began to work with advertisers in 2006 in the hopes of increasing profitability (Good, 2013). In exchange for a significant financial contribution, Facebook began to share user information with advertisers so that they could integrate advertising content that was more effective and non-intrusive than traditional banner ads.
As Orton (2018) explains, Facebook’s collection of aggregate data, such as consumer interests, geographic location, age and gender, immediately allowed advertisers to target specific markets. Usher (2018) reports that Facebook may also access additional, more private information, such as messages and photos, as it attempts to increase the commercial value of the user profiles it sells. Orton (2018) astutely observes that Facebook’s targeted advertisements have become so meticulous, that they can even specify a user’s accurate shoe size.
See how much your data is worth to advertisers with this calculator.
While the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights specifies that “privacy” and “freedom from interference” are basic human rights, these significant innovations have transformed the level of privacy that was previously expected.
While some scholars (Tucker, 2014) have argued that targeted advertising has enabled a more personalised user experience, Couldry (2014) presents a compelling argument that Facebook threatens the organic creation of culture online. According to Couldry (2014), a user’s Facebook ‘feed’ (ads, videos, articles and posts) is an artificial representation of what the platform perceives to be desirable to the user. A person’s unique experience is manufactured by Facebook as it tailors content according to its constant surveillance.
As a result, using Facebook is no longer just about connecting with friends, but consuming targeted content that is designed to make users buy. The economics of cultural production have thus been fundamentally altered in the digital age as Facebook dictates the users’ social experience, rather than the user themselves.
As the world’s second-largest advertising company and the most popular social platform globally, Facebook is an irrefutably powerful organisation. The corporation’s abuse of its significant influence through data sharing is undeniably transformative as it has compromised traditional conceptions of privacy and impaired organic social interactions between users.
How Facebook has transformed global politics
The implications of Facebook’s data practices extend beyond the degradation of user privacy, as it has fundamentally altered the nature of democracy across the globe. In the same way that Facebook has used its data to create targeted ads, it has been able to filter out information to control elections and political campaigns.
Facebook’s politically transformative effects can be summarised into three claims:
- Facebook data has been used to influence election results
Couldry (2014) reveals that government and military access to Facebook’s vast data sets could have a significant impact on democratic processes in the long term.
The famed Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates the devastating political consequences of Facebook’s failure to regulate its platform. During the 2016 US Federal elections, the data marketing firm was able to harvest Facebook’s online information to identify voter groups and design microtargeted messaging to influence popular opinion and even change voting behaviour (Cadwalladr and Harrison, 2018).
Facebook’s sharing of data has thus had an unquestionably transformative effect on honest democratic processes as it has fueled the propaganda machine and swayed the outcome of elections around the world.
- Facebook has failed to fact check political posts
Facebook’s data collection could potentially be responsible for the outcome of the 2016 US election in favour of Donald Trump. The platform failed to fact-check misinformation and fabricated articles that were released by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to targeted American voters.
Despite Zuckerburg’s assertion that Facebook would flag inaccurate political advertisments if they created an imminent risk of harm (see video below), Rep Ocasio-Cortez (2019) emphasises that access to user data could permit political players to target social groups and degrade true democracy.
Zuckerburg questioned on Facebook’s policies. Source: PBS News Hour, CC
- Facebook does not adequately monitor how its database is used
As Flew (2014) explains, Facebook similarly failed to prevent political actors from using its database as a tool for political organisation and surveillance during the Obama Campaigns. In 2008, American democrats were accused of using Facebook to harvest information about supporters and target disenfranchised African American communities accordingly (Dumenco, 2012).
Flew (2014) makes the valuable assertion that, if governments can target voters on the basis of race or socio-economic status, they are equally capable of using data to exclude and discriminate. The academic explains that Facebook’s data practices could politically disempower citizens and “expose them to the predations of those with concentrated political and economic power (Flew, 2014, 202).”
Rosanvallon (2008) supports Flew’s (2014) argument, explaining that Facebook’s data sharing contributes to a “counter democracy” in which national politics are disrupted by the unique flow of meanings on digital networks. Bennett & Segerberg (2012) similarly argue that government access to Facebook’s social networks has facilitated long term political transformations.
Facebook’s failure to regulate how third parties use its data thus suggests that the platform has transformed the nature of politics in the modern world.
How Facebook has transformed the digital economy
Despite Facebook’s significant influence on the function of democracy, Hern (2019) argues that the disruptive qualities associated with data sharing are limited due to the threat of punitive measures and financial fallout. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal immediately reduced the value of Facebook’s stocks.
Although official regulators like Australia’s ACCC and the US’ FCC do inhibit Facebook’s detrimental transformative effects, the platform has nonetheless significantly modified online business models. Since it started sharing data, Facebook has contributed more to the global economy than many large companies (Deloitte, 2015).
Facebook’s substantial economic influence justifies Couldry’s (2014) pessimistic view that, although social platforms appear to have altruistic aims of increasing connectivity and simplifying digital communication, they are ultimately driven by private interest and financial success (Couldry, 2014).
Facebook has thus transformed the digital landscape by normalising data sharing and contributing to Big Data’s status as a critical part of the global economy.
The ‘like’ economy. Image: David Vogel, CC
Despite Facebook’s fervent claims that it is committed to implementing more ethical practices, its invasion of user privacy and degradation of democracy has likely already become an enduring part of the new media landscape. By ushering in a new type of business model in which human data is a source of profit, Facebook has become a cultural force capable of provoking social and political change.
Projected growth in the volume and detail of available data in the future suggests Facebook’s influence will only grow in coming years. In light of this, users and regulators alike must demand Facebook take a firm stance against data abuse. Only then will the cherished social platform be restored as an objective environment where users are safe to exchange information, knowledge and culture (Benkler, 2006).
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