Firth’s take on tech: That’s it, I’m ditching Facebook … but not really

David Firth

That’s It! I’m ditching Facebook

Actually, I am not ditching Facebook. If I were to ditch Facebook for the privacy issues that actually exist (as opposed to the ones that most of the press is making up) then I would have to also delete pretty much every app on my smartphone, and then drop that smartphone in the trash.

By now I think we’ve all heard that Facebook was hacked by a tech genius who worked for Cambridge Analytica, which is nearly always called a “Trump affiliated company,” and they did this to steal 50 million user profiles which they then used to help Trump and the British Brexit campaign to psychologically manipulate voters through targeted ads.

First off, there was no hack at all. Users of Facebook clicked a non-malicious link in their Facebook feed to go to an app called This is Your Digital Life, which promised and indeed delivered a personality quiz app developed by a professor at Cambridge University.

People still click on these “if you were a color which color would you be?” sorts of links every day. Before anyone could use the This is Your Digital Life quiz, you had to click through and accept a privacy policy.

No one read this policy.

Contained within that privacy policy was extremely common language about the user given the app access to all sorts of information on your phone, including your Facebook contacts. So, everyone who used this app gave the writer of that app permission to get all the information that was “hacked.” Another way to say that is, there was nothing done wrongly at all and every user accepted that their contacts and data would be harvested.

Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher at Cambridge University who wrote the This is Your Digital Life app and collected all that information out of Facebook legitimately, then sold that information to Cambridge Analytica. Now, that action is specifically prohibited by Facebook in the terms of service they have for app and quiz developers. That said, Facebook has known that this has been happening for years, and there is not much they can do about it, so they haven’t: how do you know that digital information is being sold to someone else?

As for Cambridge Analytica being able to manipulate how people vote by having data about them, the results on that are incredibly unclear if not actually very unlikely. Facebook itself famously ran a test to see whether they could influence Facebook users.

For 689,000 users, they tweaked the algorithm running their news feeds so that it would display either slight more or slightly less status updates from friends that contained positive or negative words. They then measured the impact on the positiveness or negativeness of those users’ own posts.

That is, they measure a real action by the person they tried to influence. This is a way stronger test than saying that if you show someone an ad then they will vote for a Russian, without actually seeing if the person even voted at all, let alone for a Russian.

The results of the Facebook research: those who saw less negative updates used around one more positive words for every 2,000 words in their updates, and those who saw less positive updates (what you could call negative advertising) used around 1 less positive word per 100 in their status updates.

Since the average length of a Facebook update is 11 words you can see that the results of this “psychological manipulation” test were tiny. And that was for status updates, which is completely different from actually going into a voting booth and casting the one vote you have for the next four years.

There are actually plenty of reasons for ditching Facebook, but this is not one of them.

David Firth is a professor of management information systems in the College of Business at the University of Montana and a faculty fellow with Advanced Technology Group in Missoula.