Doc Hoff’s Blog Blog Project: “To Delete or Not to Delete” by Madison Matera

Continuing my BlogBlogProject, in which I publish student voices from courses I teach at the University of Delaware, here is a college student’s perspective on the “Delete Facebook” campaign from University of Delaware sophomore Madison Matera, who is majoring in Political Science and International Relations.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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In wake of the Facebook data privacy scandal, many people are deciding whether or not they should delete their Facebook. People were already losing trust in social media companies, and are worried that their information online is not being kept safe. This story just added fuel to the fire.

In mid-March, The New York Times and The Guardian reported that a data-mining firm named Cambridge Analytica, which had worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had improperly obtained access to more than 50 million user profiles. Experts believe the firm could have used that data to garner an unfair advantage in targeting voters.

This all started back in 2014, when a University of Cambridge researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created an app called thisisyourdigitallife. Around 270,000 people downloaded it, gave away their information, and Kogan passed along that information to data-mining and political strategy firm Cambridge Analytica, without those people knowing. At the time, Facebook allowed developers like Kogan to access information about you and your friends. Christopher Wylie, who used to work at Cambridge Analytica, told The Times and The Guardian that that was how the company was able to gain access to as many as 50 million peoples information. The idea was, that by obtaining your Facebook likes, the company could begin to understand your personality, and then more effectively target political advertising at you.

In 2015, The Guardian revealed the scheme. Facebook went to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and demanded that they delete all of the data that they had obtained in violation of Facebook’s rules, but the reports say that Cambridge Analytica and Kogan never deleted the data, and Facebook never followed up to see whether they had deleted the data as promised.

This gets down to the core of the issue and why many people feel the need to delete their facebook accounts right now. It was way too easy for developers like Kogan to gain access to their data, their friends’ data, and to share it. Facebook just let it happen and never informed people that their data had been used improperly.

This scandal also emerged at a time when people’s trust in Facebook was at an all time low. As we discussed in class, after the 2016 election we saw how fast obviously fake stories could spread on Facebook, sometimes faster and more persuasively than the true ones. We also learned that Russian-linked groups had waged a highly effective misinformation campaign on Facebook, in some cases even illegally by ads. Meanwhile, there has also been new research coming out that shows the effects of social media, and how just browsing your newsfeed could make you feel worse about yourself.

Based on a survey of students in our Media and Politics class this semester, the majority of us are not very confident that the social media sites we use are keeping our personal records safe. Forty-one percent of those who completed the survey are “not too confident” that the social media sites they use are keeping their information safe, and 35% are “not at all confident.” Almost 60% are concerned in some way, shape, or form about their privacy while digitally connected.

Zuckerberg finally announced plans to address abuses like Cambridge Analytica’s. Facebook had already stopped developers from gaining access to information about your friends back in 2014, now it’s going a step further. If you go three months without using an app, Facebook is going to cut off developer access to any information about you. And for developers that did have access to all that information, including information about your friends way back in 2014, Facebook is going to demand that they submit to an audit or be kicked off the platform.

So will this fix the problem? Restricting developer access to your data could help Facebook start to rebuild some trust, but the larger issue for Zuckerberg is that he’s really confronting three crises at once. (1) The data privacy issue that the Cambridge Analytica story reveals,(2) the newsfeed integrity issue and whether we can trust what we see on Facebook, and (3) the broader cultural reckoning over social media, how we spend our time there and whether its ultimately good for us and the world.

In January, Zuckerberg said that fixing Facebook’s platform would be his personal challenge for the year. And yet, as he wades through this latest crisis, it’s not clear Facebook is doing everything it can to address it. And as a “Delete Facebook” campaign starts gaining steam around the world, the challenge of fixing Facebook’s platform feels greater than ever.

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This blog was written for Dr. Hoffman’s Media and Politics class by University of Delaware Political Science sophomore Madison Matera, who is also minoring in Economics and Public Policy.