A crisis about transparency (or lack of), we could summarise the Facebook reputation nightmare. Or, as the Times magazine puts it brilliantly: “All this has prompted sharp criticism of the company, which meticulously tracks its users but failed to keep track of where information about the lives and thinking of those people went.” In this apparent paradox lies the first point I would like to highlight in this 4-part analysis: The Myth of Transparency.
If you read books such as Jeff Jarvis’ Public Parts (2011), you know how social media has successfully created a hype about the virtues of living life under the public sphere, in a continuous Self Big Brother. Although back then Jarvis agreed with some sort of protection to people’s privacy, such as the ones proposed by then European commissioner Viviane Reding, he was defending a libertarian, perhaps utopian, view of transparency that disregarded a basic impulse behind the “publification” of our lives by tech companies: data has economic value and social media thrives on marketing data.
What this crisis has brought to the surface and to the attention of regulators was the culmination of a series of privacy issues and breaches involving Internet and more famously Facebook. It is perhaps the beginning of the “end of the innocence” and the realisation by the users that transparency is good when it happens on both ways: from the part of the producer of the data (i.e. us) and the marketer of the data (social media companies). The market has become more mature and people starts to realise that there has never been a truly “free service” by Google or Facebook. As Viviane Reding poses it: we pay the service with our data.
To be fair, these companies never have said that they didn’t use people’s data for different purposes, including making tons of money. However, what people are noticing now is how obscure and careless firms have been in the management of this data – and how vulnerable they are when their minds can be read by data mining companies such as Cambridge Analytic with the controversial, and at the same time, brilliant experiment conducted by Kosinski et al (2015).
People are also realising how social media creates a subtle form of surveillance, by letting unknown organisations to access their view of the world, their relationships and their tastes. By impacting serious decisions like votes in a general election, for example, or referendums, the public opinion starts realising the risks of manipulation in this cycle of data transparency – data mining – campaign management.
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