Last week, Facebook announced new and simplified measures that will enable its users to adjust their privacy settings to manage and delete personal information held by the social media platform. This move was prompted by Facebook’s suspension of Cambridge Analytica following a whistleblower’s revelation that the data firm improperly accessed and used data from 50 million Facebook profiles. As Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg stated, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The social media boom and evolving privacy norms and rules illustrate the extent to which forms of communications have crossed national borders and redefined the ways in which people around the world connect with one another. And Facebook has grown, extending its dominance of social media with its ownership of Instagram, Whats App, and Messenger, four of the seven biggest social media forums. Facebook has changed our lives, influenced political systems, and revolutionized commercial exchange.
Facebook was designed for open communication and connection. Critical to the growth of the platform is user-generated content empowering people to transcend boundaries, make new relationships, and challenge power structures. Facebook is useful for those who lack political resources, empowering them to bypass traditional political authority structures and organize. It was during the Arab Spring that revolutionaries challenged autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya using Facebook to subvert repressive power structures.
Not only has social media shaped the ways in which people socialize, it is now being weaponized toward political ends. Facebook and other platforms have allowed people to build walls and cut themselves off from one another. Social media was once seen as a new form of democratic expression, but has evolved into a forum that allows elusive actors to gather data on unsuspecting users and shape their political behavior.
How is the information we provide on Facebook being used by political forces operating on its platform? The question prompts us to consider whether Facebook can still foster greater and more meaningful engagement. The Cambridge Analytica meltdown demonstrates how one data firm can erode privacy, amplify echo chambers, and encourage people to run to their political tribe. What was once seen as a force for technological globalization and modern social life that allowed for people to circumvent conventional political and economic institutions, Facebook must now contend with firms that seek to control and manipulate data and limit people’s access to countervailing information.
Facebook’s initial steps at making its privacy settings easier to access and navigate should be followed with additional reforms. Facebook should use clear language, not legalese upon sign-up and in managing privacy. Furthermore, individual users should be allowed to opt-in to, not opt-out of, exposure to advertiser content and data analytics firms operating on its platform.
Congress should consider legislation to impose privacy safeguards on Facebook and other leading social media platforms given the current debate over whether the risks of big data outweigh the benefits. In May, the European Union will be implementing its General Data Protection Regulation, allowing personal data to be owned by the individual user. This means any use of that data will require the permission of the individual user. The data users create and the ways they describe themselves to one another belongs to individuals in the E.U., but remains with companies who mine it in the U.S.
Like people in the 28 member states of the European Union, Americans should have a right of data protection against use and abuse by advertisers and data analytics firms like Cambridge Analytica. This could upend Facebook’s highly successful business model, which is centered on advertisements.
In the end, the greatest threat to Facebook may not be the end of its business model but the loss of public faith in the legitimacy of open communication. What was once a disruptive globalizing force that eroded political, social and economic borders, Facebook has allowed for the erosion of privacy, the construction of barriers between people, and the degradation of democracy.
Chris J. Dolan is professor and department chair of history, politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.