The Dark Side of Social Media: I told you so

“Everything you post online is ultimately public.” 

I’ve been saying this for years. I started saying this to teenagers and their parents back in the MySpace days.

I altered it after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies having backdoor access to social media websites, online shopping, and even your phone itself. I started to say, “Everything you post online is ultimately public, after Edward Snowden we all know that, right?” And when I said it a room full of participants would smirk and shake their heads.

We all know governments can monitor everything we do, where we go, who we are connected to… but we largely moved on. The convenience and fun of social media outweighs any concerns for privacy we hold.

And yet here we are. Living a nightmare. 

It’s become quite clear that social media advertising tools swung key voting blocks in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum by taking things people have freely posted on Facebook and turned around and used it against us by building lists of people to target ads/content towards.

With each key stroke, like, share, or private message… you’re telling Facebook or Twitter or Google or even your device itself more about who you really are. (Apple and Amazon have remained in the clear, so far, but your iPhone or Amazon device is basically a listening device which catalogs everything you say, do, search, buy, where you go, who you talk to, and with Apple Pay… even what you buy.)

These companies– driven by profits– employ psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists to develop software that you use at a subconscious level, ultimately allowing them to know you better than you know yourself. And for what legitimate purpose? So they can target you with extreme precision with advertising.

What? You thought those apps were free? You thought they were doing it in the pursuit of something altruistic? Nah, they are doing it for money. Your money– sure, that’s gravy. But the real money is selling what they know about you and people like you to the highest bidder. Literally, you buy advertising by placing bids.

This isn’t a fault in the system. It’s a feature.

Just like I can run an ad targeting people who like Star Wars, who like Chipotle, and who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries down to a certain zip code with an ad for a used Subaru Outback… I can also run an ad or target a sponsored post at men who read articles on Breitbart, watch Fox & Friends, think Penn State’s Joe Paterno got screwed, and are a member of an alien abduction Facebook group to target them with ads and sponsored posts no one else sees. They could be sitting in church on Sunday reading a sponsored post I wrote just to manipulate them to vote for my guy in the primaries and none of their friends would know. 

This is stuff you can do right off the shelf with a free Facebook or Google ads account.

It’s shockingly easy. And cheap. 

But even more dangerous than that? Facebook and Google will allow me to upload lists of people who I’ve identified outside of Facebook and Google to micro-target advertising to. Say… people who voted for Obama but are also NRA members in a specific congressional district.

These companies don’t care how I got the list. All I have to do is check a box that says I got the list legitimately.

That’s what micro-targeting is.

You spend very little money to get a very important result.

That’s how you sell mortgages or Subarus or original Swatch watches. And that’s how you swing votes.

That’s how Cambridge Analytica swung the election. They took information you freely shared from a variety of sources, built a database of users they knew they could manipulate, than targeted ads at those people to influence them to vote one way or another.

I believe we’re ultimately going to learn that this wasn’t just some data mining company who took advantage of Facebook policies and did some unethical things on behalf of their client to manipulate voters… I believe we’ll learn there is a connection between this for profit public facing venture and a foreign power.

In other words, they took publicly accessible information about people– things they’ve shared on social media– and mixed it with things spy agencies already knew about you– to capitalize on your fears and manipulate your vote.

They say fear is a short-term motivator. Well, as it turns out, voting takes place in the short-term and someone can be influenced to vote a certain way based on implicit fears. (racism, classism, nativism, etc.)

“You are not a Facebook customer. You are the product being sold. Act accordingly.” 

Literally, I’ve said this to millions of people over the past 15 years. But few truly take the time to internalize what it means for them.

Every day you freely tell Instagram, Snapchat, Google, Apple, Facebook, Visa, Bank of America, and a multitude of other companies things about who you are, where you go, what you buy, on and on. And those companies collect that information to sell it to advertisers who, in turn, sell you more things.

You must understand that this is what’s going on. That mailer that shows up at your home, that sponsored post you see on Facebook, the reason a Starbucks opened up on your commute, the email you get from a campaign asking you what you think about ____ … none of those things were accidents.

Most are conveniences to you. [Hello, Spotify. I love you!]

But you must understand that you are being targeted.

Act accordingly. Be wise. Understand there are people, companies, and even nefarious actors, who use all that you’re doing with your phone/tablet/laptop and target you for their purposes.

They have access to everything.

They know you better than you know yourself.

That’s how the game is played.

That’s what is at stake.

I’ve tried to tell you for years.

Literally, I told you so.

Published by Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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