About eight months ago, rumours were bubbling in the media about Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg as a possible presidential candidate. His philanthropic foundation had hired several experienced political strategists; he announced that he was embarking on a 50-state “listening tour”; and to document it, he hired a photographer who had worked on both the Bush and Obama presidential campaigns.
No rumours lately, though.
Zuckerberg may have been permanently cured of his political fantasies after a two-day interrogation by US Senators over a massive security breach involving the market research firm Cambridge Analytica. Using data gathered from a personality quiz downloaded by 270,000 Facebook users, it managed to harvest data from 87 million friends of friends of friends – at last count.
Zuckerberg and Facebook are on the nose everywhere for abusing users’ trust. It turns out that instead of being a platform for making friends, Facebook, the world’s fifth most valuable company, is a platform for wringing money out of its users (and their friends).
The scandal suddenly has created a case for regulating social media networks. But is data-hungry social media solely to blame? Are consumers really just helpless tools of Gen Y ruthless robber barons who exploit their ignorance and naiveté?
Without letting Zuckerberg off the hook for failing to inform in any meaningful way how user data can be exploited, we ought to ask why so many Facebook users (which means most of us) are so indiscreet and emotionally incontinent as to display their private lives on a public forum.
There are several answers to this. The nature of the platform – posting on Facebook doesn’t feel like undressing in public. The bland and ever-changing privacy policies of the company. The anonymizing effect of the internet. The Oprah Winfrey effect – opening up about the most intimate details of our lives is cathartic and purifying.
The astonishing success of Facebook is founded on the counter-intuitive discovery that we – or most of us – are happy, even eager, to surrender our privacy. The internet cliché has been proven over and over again: “If you're not paying for the product, you are the product”.
There’s something bizarrely inconsistent about this. Much of the significant social legislation of the past half century has been built on the vigorous assertion of an absolute right to privacy. The right to contraception, the right to abortion, the right to homosexual behaviour, the right to same-sex marriage, the right to assisted suicide, amongst others, have been based on a “right to privacy” which judges have discovered in legislation. So we get the paradox of people posting photos of a march for abortion at the same time as they post images of last night’s drunken party.
American legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon has shown in her book Rights Talk how this emphasis on individual assertion has helped to create a hyper-individualized society, a more atomised society, a lonelier society, a society of Eleanor Rigbys.
Facebook has become an integral part of this culture. A number of studies of teenage angst have shown that immersion in social media like Facebook makes teens more anxious, worried and even suicidal. Substituting internet interaction for face-to-face social contact can force us to construct a virtual personality. We lose that authenticity which is the foundation for a healthy personality.
What explains this strange paradox? Privacy is both as cheap as dirt and the most precious of our rights? It can’t be both.
The answer lies in contemporary confusion about what human beings are, our anthropology. If human nature is ours to shape and reshape according to whatever whim takes our fancy – the dominant notion at the moment – it’s impossible to forge a consistent stand on privacy.
Perhaps get the technology we deserve. In the era of totalitarianism, nations invented concentration camps and the atom bomb which treated enemies as mere ciphers. In the era of hyper-individualism, Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, which treats its “friends” as mere ciphers.
What will a technology based on a robust acceptance of the unique dignity of every human being look like? Will we ever find out?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.