Delete Facebook Not

A few days ago, I came across a picture courtesy NDTV,  of a PETA protest somewhere in a metropolis of privilege, where we have a tiger carrying a sign that says “eating meat contributes to species extinction”. Before I could wrap my head around the irony of that image, I see, floating on my facebook news feed, #DeleteFacebook, yes on my Facebook feed, people using Facebook asking people to not use Facebook, and suddenly there is too much iron in my life.

Now of course all this talk of boycotting Facebook comes from the whole Cambridge Analytica revelations, CA being a data analytics company that allegedly “illegitimately” used data scraped off from Facebook users to micro-target key demographics in the US elections,

I am sorry, but what part of the recent “scandal” about Cambridge Analytica is the scandal? That Facebook sells your data? I am sorry, but have you not heard of the first commandment of modern business—that if you do not pay for a product, you are the product?

Who do you think pays for Facebook’s valuation, their stock prices, and the salary of that friend you are jealous about because he works in Facebook?

You ! Your data, your preferences. That is where Facebook’s core value proposition is, the ability to provide “hooks” for analytics engines, of course if you cross Facebook’s palms with silver.

Surely, you cannot expect them to provide you a platform for sharing your brain-droppings, totally gratis, now do you?

This is Facebook we are talking about. Not NREGA.

But privacy settings, you say. Privacy settings…yes so what? In case you havent figured this out, the privacy settings on Facebook exist to protect your data from other users, like your ex sneaking through your album, or those that havent paid the ticketmaster from getting a free “dekho”.

Privacy settings, and repeat after me, do not exist to protect you from Facebook. I know Facebook says otherwise, but bear with me.

And here is the thing. If you really cared for privacy of your opinions, you would not be on Facebook in the first place, desperately fishing for Likes and Shares. As a matter of fact, the reason why you are on social media is because you want the publicity, for what you think, for how happy your life is, which airport lounge you are currently checked in to, because you want your cousin to know you are flying business, and for people to know what political figure in history are you, even though that questionnaire you went through is pretty plainly eliciting your politics, in an analysis-friendly way.

Okay but personal data? You don’t really care for that either. You will pretty happily part with your address, phone number, email and the circumference of the mole on your left shoulder, for a store loyalty card, platinum level please, that promises 5% discount on purchases above Rs 10,000 and parking validation. You will happily post your vacation pictures while you are on vacation, telling every burglar on social media that your house is currently unoccupied. Your shock and condemnation is only when you find people actually using that data, either by sending you customized “Buy this” or “Vote for this” or by breaking in to your house.

No, no, the problem is the way Cambridge Analytica used that data, to give us Donald Trump. Well first of all, welcome to the world of statistics. It used to be unsexy when I was growing up, Goongupta Das Gupta statistics book being even less popular than Poonam Dasgupta, but now with massive computational power, algorithm parallelization, and the rebranding of statistics as “Big Data”, this is all back in fashion, and Cambridge Analytica is just one in a long line of companies which are selling analytics services,  and there really is nothing much different between selling you Cheetos and selling you a guy who looks like Cheetos.

And here is the bigger thing. It is not even clear that such microtargeting works, in a statistically significant way, in the field of political science, in this specific case whether Trump or whoever else hired CA, *actually* obtained any insights from their analytics that they would not have obtained elsewhere, for example through voter lists or door to door canvassing. There is a lot of literature, written by academics in history and political science,  immensely skeptical of the ability of such analytics to find “Oh my God I never thought of that before” insights when it comes to political behavior. By thinking of the quants at Cambridge Analytica as voodoo doctors who can alter elections by changing a configuration file, the only narrative you end up strengthening is that of Cambridge Analytica itself, and when I said I was drowning in irony, I was not kidding, because every hate post about Cambridge Analytica is an advertisement for them, and their ilk, and every overstatement about the power of the data Facebook owns makes them stronger than they are.

So best of luck, #DeleteFacebook. And well done.

Now sensationalism in science reporting is not new, I mean without the sensation, you get research papers, and who reads those? But some of the moral indignation here stems from an insecurity in the mainstream corporate media, at the possibility of them losing their role as the primary influencer of customer behavior, both in terms of buying products and voting for candidates. What a nightmare would it be if a data owner (Facebook), a data analyzer (Cambridge Analytica) and a targeter (the guy selling the product) short-circuited them out of the business they have had for hundreds of years. Of course much of the fear is unfounded, which is why Fox News and Republic TV and The Wire and the Hindu still exist, but not all of it is blind panic, because change has already started happening, as media platforms, both generic (e.g. Facebook) or specific (e.g. Breitbart) provide greater targeting capabilities than conventional TV or pageviews, not that we are, I repeat, in the mind-control apocalypse that many claim we already are in. And won’t be in, any time soon.

Putting it all together, targetting-at-scale is not black magic, and companies like Cambridge Analytica havent suddenly gotten their hands on The Half Blood Prince’s secret spell book, no matter how much they would like you to believe they have. Now intelligence that alters elections may still be provided through hacked emails, and other privileged communications, but now we are moving away from the supposed civilizational crisis posed by Big Data, machine learning or Facebook into the domain of profiting from pure criminal activity, which is as old as humankind itself.

So, please let us not panic, let us not delete Facebook, and let us obey the signs in the picture at the top, and vow not to eat zebra, tiger or giraffe meat.


11 thoughts on “Delete Facebook Not

  1. So you mean to say that Facebook shared my data to some Analytics company even though I posted the below message on my wall (and not shared, mind you)

    I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, messages or posts, both past and future. With this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me based on this profile and/or its contents. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of privacy can be punished by law (UCC 1-308- 1 1 308-103 and the Rome Statute). NOTE: Facebook is now a public entity. All members must post a note like this. If you prefer, you can copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once it will be tactically allowing the use of your photos, as well as the information contained in the profile status updates. DO NOT SHARE. Copy and paste.

  2. Well-written logical piece…. liked it. People do not realize how much information (true or made-up) about themselves they provide (in order to feel good/important or to make others feel bad/jealous) over social media.

  3. It might not be a mind-control apocalypse but I believe targeted marketing could work wonders for any political party. India has a large number of ‘Fence-sitters’; Influencing them through propaganda/fake news is not really hard. The recent ‘UN has declared India to be..’ WA forwards is one such trend.
    A lot of apps can detect a left/right align from a profile through sentiment analytics- a weapon that can be exploited by the political parties for targeted campaigning to sway them in their favor. So, there is a reason to be concerned.

  4. I see what is worrying you: when the time comes for you to to plug your next book on your Facebook “Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind” page, what if everyone has deleted Facebook and cannot read your post? That would be a disaster, indeed!

    But you needn’t panic, Arnab. People are too addicted to Facebook now to delete their accounts. So you can rest easy and plan all future plugs without any fear.

  5. Goon and Gupta, not Goongupta. The book had three authors.

  6. “Without the sensation, you get research papers” — he he surely you are joking Mr. Great Bong! If you feel research papers do not employ sensation, you must not have been involved in much research…

  7. Very objective and even-tempered analysis. Thank you.

  8. It’s all liberal vindictiveness to be honest, who are still smarting under a defeat they themselves were responsible for, but don’t want to take ownership of this loss.

    First, when Obama used it in 2012, big data was hailed as the next big thing – So, it’s okay if the party I want uses it and not the other party? Sure, due to time and greater knowledge around big data, Trump might have used more sophisticated algos (assuming he did), but in principle, there is no difference between 2012 and 2016.

    Secondly, I very much doubt the effectiveness of these campaigns. There are no studies to actually prove this.

    And third, and this is where I feel such slander is unwarranted is that it reinforces the belief in conservatives that the coastal liberals still think of them as mind-controlled robots incapable of making their own decisions due to their relative lack of education, when in fact, they face some real issues which are ignored by liberals in favour of inconsequential issues like the size of Trump’s hands and his mannerisms.

  9. While a lot of the outrage over data sharing on social media is feigned, there still needs to be clearer communication of what the boundaries or limitations of privacy on each platform are. A platform like Twitter where the default is public has an inherent advantage in this respect over Facebook/ LinkedIn/ Naukri etc. where the default is private yet data is accessible to paid users. Platforms should desist from creating a false sense of privacy and security.

  10. Well written post. Also ironical as to how cell phone users throw their personal privacy to the dogs daily while downloading apps and games for free. By simply clicking on “I agree” without even reading what are the consents sought, millions of cell phone users have given access to (and in some cases, permission to modify) their contacts, media, messages; which is obviously not needed for the app or game per se and therefore equally obviously is what the app/game is really seeking to profit from. And who knows who are the makers of these games/apps? Whether from this country or that, allied to this corporation or the other?

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