To be honest, I never thought that one day I would be writing an exclusive piece on a social media app. But it shows you how the world has changed. This seemingly innocuous app sitting on your computer or smartphone home screens presents layers upon layers of threat to your privacy and human civilisation in general.
I did not decide to ditch it lightly. I have used the said account for over twelve years. It all began with a rather naïve suspicion. A few years ago someone told me that if you utter a random word while the Facebook app is open on your phone, the next ads you see on the app would be related to what you uttered. I conducted a test to see it for myself and vaguely remember spotting ads to that effect. But it was more a matter of fascination than of worry. I made nothing of it and moved on.
What troubled me over time, however, was the inability to block random friend requests. It is supposed to be a closed community where you can share personal memories with friends and family. But the company was not ready to give me even this much control that I could disable the friend request button. Later it wouldn’t even let its users access the personal data it stored. Other companies in contrast extend this courtesy.
But these were, in my mind, minor issues. The real shock was to come in early 2018. On 16th March that year, Facebook suspended accounts of a British firm Cambridge Analytica, which had allegedly retained data of 50 million US citizens obtained through a third-party app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’. This decision was taken to get ahead of media reports (particularly in The New York Times) revealing this damaging information. Then on 19th March, the UK’s Channel-4 started airing its 5 part series titled “Data, Democracy and Dirty Tricks” on the matter. Cambridge Analytica was involved in manipulating the minds of voters. Through the acquired data it had prepared each user’s psychographs which would be used to target the voters through custom-designed ads and fake stories to convince them in the 2016 elections that Hillary Clinton was devil’s spawn and only Trump was their saviour. This interaction of a user’s biases and algorithms is called a filter bubble. Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon was heading the organisation. Imagine if a third-party app on Facebook’s platform could garner enough data in a short span of time to develop demonstrably effective psychographs and campaigns, how much data Facebook must have collected over the years? No wonder it is the only social media company that doesn’t let you access your data. If you have been reading my column since that time you may remember I brought all this to your attention in a piece titled “Changing algorithm of democracy” on April 5, 2018.
Stripped to its bare bones Facebook offers little utility to its users. It is, after all, just another personal bulletin board. And yet its market cap defies logic. Consequently, its head Mark Zuckerberg is among the richest men in the world and the company among the most successful ones. The affluence and the power of the company are such that not only has it driven its competition like MySpace into the ground but it has acquired really valuable assets like WhatsApp and Instagram. What Instagram now does to children, especially to young girls, you must have heard in the testimony and interviews of the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Enter Artificial Intelligence. If you have been paying attention to Zuckerberg’s public interactions particularly congressional testimonies you must have seen him casually mention the use of AI in combatting fake news. That is small potatoes. Facebook’s algorithm qualifies as a powerful AI. To train any AI you need data. To understand what is going on, let me reference Kai-Fu Lee’s book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” here. Mr Lee identifies four types of AI. Internet AI, Business AI, Perception AI, and Autonomous AI. Internet AI is the above-mentioned algorithm. American companies are big but Chinese software generate more elaborate data and have access to a huge local population. In Perception AI involving face and voice recognition tech China again had an advantage had it not been for Facebook where 2.9 billion people voluntarily and constantly upload their pictures. In Autonomous AI involving robotics, the competition is ongoing. The US and western companies had more detailed and older banking records hence their advantage in Business AI but then new Chinese apps emerged that had access to the day-to-day transactions, movements, and choices of a 1.4 billion strong local population, and consequently China pulled ahead. But now notice what Facebook has done.
This much power in one man’s hand should never be acceptable. Now let us take a look at the man himself. Zuckerberg first came up with the app in a dorm room to rate campus girls based on their ‘hotness’. Something was already awry with his moral compass. But his recent fixation with Roman Emperor Augustus (ever noticed the resembling haircut?) should give you goosebumps. Zuckerberg tells you what was great about Caesar: “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”
Forget about 200 years of world peace. Pay attention to “a really harsh approach”. This guy now has this much power. Remember, if Trump’s 2016 campaign could become unstoppable by using data obtained from Facebook by a third-party app, what would happen if Zuckerberg or any of his ruthless acolytes like Sheryl Sandberg were to run for highest public office in America or anywhere in the world? Who would stop them and who would remove them from power at the end of the term? Business and political power do not mix well. Trump has already taught us that.
Given that Facebook is a monopoly the least the western regulators could do was to separate Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as business entities through an anti-trust action and force Zuckerberg to step aside as the CEO. But in America where expenditure on political campaigns by corporations is considered free speech because of the verdict in Citizens United vs FEC case, lawmakers have predictably been missing in real action. Until any meaningful action is taken, I refuse to be a willing guinea pig in this terrifying human experiment. That is why I deactivated my Facebook account and I strongly recommend you take a long hard look at yours.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2021.
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