Tag: Social Media

What amount of information does Facebook actually hold about me? – Here is what I found and how….

Facebook

In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a political consultancy in London has been accused of harvesting and applying Facebook users data inappropriately to shape political campaigns in the United States, I decided to find out exactly how much information Facebook holds about me.

I downloaded this via a single click in the settings section of my Facebook account. Find out how in the last paragraph of this article.

In the Photos and Videos sections, I was pleasantly surprised to see photos and videos that I had completely forgotten about. In the Messages section, I was able to view conversations with friends from 11 years ago when I joined Facebook! Some of these conversations took me right back to what my life was like at those points in time. The Timeline section shows all the comments I’ve ever posted and I was able to go back to my first post on the platform, including the date and time it was posted!

I was also able to see my ad history, not only ads I have clicked on Facebook but also on Instagram! Now, I have the Instagram app on my phone and I know the company was acquired by Facebook in 2012, but I didn’t realise that data from my activity on Instagram is being flowed directly into the Facebook app. I was able to see advertisers with my contact info as well.

In the Security section, I was able to view all devices I have used to log in to Facebook and the IP addresses of these devices including date and time stamps.

All these were interesting to me until I came across the Contact Info section where I was able to see that Facebook holds contact information from my mobile phone including people not even on my Facebook friends list! 70% of my phone contact list are known to Facebook, including the contact info for the Indian Takeaway I frequent on days I feel a bit peckish!

From what I was able to gather from a quick Google search, the Facebook app on your phone apparently has access to your phone contacts and you gave this permission away when you downloaded the app. I think you can manage this though and restrict this access by going into your settings.

The good thing about downloading this data is that you are able to see the evidence of the power of Facebook. Every Like, every comment, every photo you’ve posted, adverts you have clicked on and places you’ve been are being meticulously chronicled in great detail and made accessible to you and I am sure, the government and other authorities as well (on demand probably). How much of this data is accessible to corporate interests and political parties is less known. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company (prior to 2014), then known as SCL Elections, has been accused of interfering in the 2007 general elections in Nigeria where it is alleged that the company organised rallies in Nigeria to weaken support for the opposition. There are also allegations of political interference by the same company in Latvia and Trinidad and Tobago elections in 2006 and 2010 respectively.

If you feel there is anything on there you would be uncomfortable being made public (e.g. those old photos you were tagged in or the ones you posted, or even opinions you expressed a long time ago that you no longer hold), it is the time to clean up and check how much consent you are giving apps to access your personal data, in your settings.

The more disturbing aspect is how secure is this data? The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shows it is not as secure as we would like it to be. I know a lot of people say if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t worry. But I think this is a naive position as you should be concerned about how much information about you is available to a private company who makes billions of dollars trading in that very information. Imagine giving the keys to your house to a private insurance company for example, and saying you have nothing to hide! That would be unthinkable. Facebook is no longer a passive fun app where we post smileys to far-flung friends, it is a very powerful machine hoovering up and digesting every aspect of our lives and making a huge profit from it.

Information about you could be used for positive as well as negative or criminal purposes, protecting it is important. In an age of identity theft, impersonations and blackmail, you ignore this at your peril.

If Facebook holds this much information about us, I wonder what data Google and Apple keep about us all and what they do with it or ‘can’ do with it!

To view your own Facebook data (see screenshots below), go to your settings in your Facebook app (desktop or mobile) and in the General account settings tab, click ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’. It will take about 10-15 minutes and an email will be sent to you with a link to the downloaded data.

How Facebook, Google and Apple control our lives whether we like to admit it or not

Modern Keyboard With Colored Social Network Buttons.

I was reading the interview with Tristan Harris, the technological ethicist, in WIRED, the business and technology magazine, this morning and could not help but agree with him on his views about how social media has hijacked our lives and constantly compete for our very souls in this modern digital age.

“Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision” – Tristan Harris

I have always been concerned about the influence of the ‘three kings’, Facebook, Google and Apple on our lives, and on modern society in general. It is no longer news that these three are also the ‘king makers’ in today’s global village. Fake news is the dilemma of our time as millions of people are manipulated by false information. Elections across the world are being swayed by fabricated news, deliberately manipulating facts or plain falsehood disguised as truth. We are all swimming in a sea of information with most of it junk information. We are caught up in a web of smokes and mirrors and we cannot tell head from tail anymore. They tell us.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I check is my phone. If you are being honest, you are exactly the same. Phone notifications have come to rule our lives, we wait for those comments and likes on our social media posts, respond to these and then scroll to others’ posts, ‘like’ and comment on theirs, continue scrolling endlessly only to click on the link to that Youtube video and that’s your day gone. I don’t know what the research says, but I would think our generation may be the most attention deficit generation in the history of mankind with multiple distractions by the minute from apps. If it’s not Facebook, its Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat. These platforms compete endlessly for our attention by pushing the most aggressive advertising, tell us what we should like, show us what they think we are missing and give us subtle ideas about what we should be doing with our lives. They even hook us up with new friends who are friends of our friends. The amount of data they have on our innermost thoughts and beliefs is staggering. Never before have we put our deepest feelings and habits into the hands of corporations who are endlessly using this data to shape our lives.

“Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts. But we have three technology companies who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over—with newsfeeds and recommended videos and whatever they put in front of you—which is governing what people do with their time and what they’re looking at” – Tristan Harris

One of the leading cause of stress and distress in young people today is Facebook. In fact mental health issues are now considered directly correlated with use of Facebook, admitted by the tech giant itself. Body image, career expectations, self-perception are all linked to what we see others doing on a minute by minute basis. Mankind has never had this level of insight into other people’s day to day lives. Real human interactions are now suffering from addiction to endless digital feedback and validation. How many of us show up at a family dinner only to whip out our big screen phones and put it on the table, ready to continue engaging with the online world, as those notifications never stop coming. We never switch off! The effects of not having that old undivided attention to something is being eroded. It is a lot of stress on the brain, to have to keep all these channels going at the same time. Imagine you are about to rest for the night, then suddenly had a notification popped up on your phone just as you settle into bed, you check it and it’s a reply to your comment on a post earlier in the day, critical of your viewpoint, immediately your brain responds and you want to respond back with why you were right in your previous comment and alas you are up till midnight arguing on Facebook! Then you check your WhatsApp to see whether your mum has read that message you sent earlier (those two blue ticks), she has read it but not responded, you wonder why? You worry a bit, was it what you said in the text? Gradually your planned peaceful night rest slips away from you. You get to work the next day feeling like you have had a vigil, your productivity suffers.

Tristan Harris pushes the idea that tech giants have a lot they can do to help us take back control of our lives in the age of social media. He runs a website called Time Well Spent.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children”

– Tristan Harris (www.timewellspent.io)

Even though we like to believe we are in control of our use of these platforms and the information they feed us, in reality, we are all pawns in their great chess game. There are maybe 10-11 engineers at Google working together at the one time to ensure that video plays instantly when you scroll past it or ensure that advert uses the best visual possible to lure you to that expensive shop. They earn a lot of money for this. They cleverly design their apps to ensure we get addicted by keeping us constantly engaged, so they can push as many advertising as possible to us, make money for their shareholders and grow their influence. Most people get their news from social media links and form opinions based on what they see in their timelines. A few go after verification, but most consume these subtle suggestions passively without checking. Tristan believes tech companies instead of making their apps as addictive as possible, rather should look at the benefits to mankind and see the bigger picture. Those two ticks in WhatsApp for example keep you tied to the app, you want to see the message has been delivered, you want to see when they were seen, and then wait for the reply! With letters you put in the post, you only have one layer, not three, which means less mental stress. Tristan is not advocating going back to the dark days of paper letter writing under candle light, but says companies could help people by reducing those layers of engagement with their apps and giving them some measure of control. For example those two ticks in WhatsApp could be removed or modified to help the user reduce their need to check back constantly hence reduce distraction from real life. Same with Apple iPhones, where you can see those little dots showing when someone is responding to your text. If they (the responder) changes their mind and decide not to respond immediately, or postpone their response to a later time, then you start to worry and wonder why they changed their mind. If you didn’t see those dots in the first place, you probably would be less stressed and just receive the response when it finally arrives.

It is probably inevitable that we are ruled by our phones and tablets, but in the midst of the madness we can still seize back control if we understand that these companies are not working entirely in our interest and they are mainly concerned with their profits and expanding their influence and market share. Most of us will continue to depend on them and see the world through their lenses, the impact of this on the future of mankind is not entirely clear. We have unleashed a ferocious beast whose creators cannot even tame.

 

 

‘Bots’ – The problem of ‘fake news’ in the age of social media

By now, the phrase ‘fake news’ is no longer new to many people, but its influence couldn’t be more widespread. We have all been victims whether we like to admit it or not. We have been exposed to propaganda disguised as news through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or Instagram and some of us have ‘fallen’ for it. We all like to think we are not being manipulated or controlled by what we read or see on social media, but the truth is, we are.

FAke News
Photo credit – http://www.mashable.com

The influence of ‘fake news’ is more devastating in countries where there are delicate balances of power and spreading false rumours could easily offset this balance, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. For example in multi-ethnic societies like the ones in Africa and Asia, spreading false information about an ethnic group could quickly increase tensions and could lead to strife, or conflict in extreme cases. It could alter the political landscape and cause power shifts.

Countries, organisations or individuals who want to influence the socio-political dynamics of a society know the fact that most people will believe what they read, if you can sensationalise it enough. Gone are the days when media corporations are the only ones who could wield this kind of influence, today, an 18 year old with some knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and video editing software could create powerful ‘false information’ that would get the attention of millions of people. I think this is scary enough, but when you now realise there are actually groups and syndicates out there (sometimes sanctioned by governments) sending out internet ‘bots’ in their millions into societies with the sole aim of churning out hundreds of tweets per hour, spreading false information manufactured with state of the art softwares, then the ball game changes.

This week it was exposed that there are state-run organisations in Russia who have well developed methods of targeting western democracies with false information with the sole aim of creating suspicion and fracturing societies. The allegations are endless, the UK referendum, the US elections, the Immigration debate, the Catalonia referendum etc.

A particular photo was held up this week as a clear evidence of this type of deliberate misinformation for political gain. I could remember seeing this picture (below) circulating widely on twitter when the tragedy occurred on London Bridge earlier in 2017. The reaction it generated was that of fury and anger. The tweet read:

“Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”

Blog image
Photo credit: London Evening Standard

At a time of difficult discussions around immigration and religious freedom in Britain,  this photo added a lot of fuel to the fire, particularly for far-right groups who were already injecting a dose of toxicity to the debates.

It has now been discovered that the twitter account behind this photo was actually an internet bot manufactured in Russia. An internet bot as defined by Wikipedia as “a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone”. So these are computer codes controlled from thousands of miles away, which wield ten or twenty times more ‘tweet-power’ than a human being.

Contrary to the tweet, the young woman wasn’t ignoring the crime scene, but rather horrified at what was happening around her. The photo was taken out of context and used for a malicious narrative.

As the general population is now beginning to understand, millions of twitter accounts, facebook profiles and instagram accounts are actually bots. Many of these accounts are used for criminal purposes, contain malicious content or were created to spread false information very quickly across the web. Bots do not know borders or political boundaries. Tweets sent by bots in St.Petersburg will be seen in London in seconds and its intensity beyond your wildest imagination as it saturates the media space at a rate that can never be matched by a human being.

I don’t know what the solution to ‘fake news’ and malicious bots is, but I am sure Russia is not the only suspect. The extent to which this actually affect societies and shape public opinion is yet to be clearly established.

The only effort we can all make is to make sure we do not believe everything we read or view on the internet. Many videos though look like they are real, many times they have been carefully ‘doctored’ and taken out of context to drive home a particular agenda. I see this all the time on Facebook. Social media is fast becoming a playground for people with an agenda. Some of these posts for example disguise as an emotional appeal, designed to tug at your heart strings, be careful, and do your research before you fall for it. I see it all the time, people jumping to conclusions on a sensational post on facebook. Protect your mind.