WHY I'M RETHINKING MY USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

I’m rethinking my use of social media, and seriously considering whether to leave Facebook or not. If I were to leave Facebook, I’d also have to leave Instagram and Whatsapp because both companies are owned by Facebook.

I’ve no problem whatsoever with leaving Whatsapp. I only joined – very reluctantly – to make organising the UK protest rally, Families Belong Together, easier for my colleagues. Instagram is another matter however. It’s my favourite social media and I would really miss it if I left.

At the heart of what’s driving my thoughts about whether to leave Facebook are my profound concerns about its ethics, business model and weak governance. I explored this in my article Can Facebook Restore Its Tarnished Reputation?

I wrote this article in response to Carole Cadwaldr’s excellent investigative journalism into the role Facebook played in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concluding my article with the words:

The future of Facebook – and Zuckerberg himself – depends on how he responds to this major leadership challenge. Leadership requires not just visibility, but also authentic action, neither of which has been evident thus far.”

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Since I wrote that article, the UK’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham has completed an investigation and determined that Facebook is to be fined £500,000 for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

This fine is for two breaches of the Data Protection Act, issued after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) concluded that Facebook failed (i) to safeguard its users’ information and (b) failed to be be transparent about how that data was harvested by others.

Facebook has failed to provide the kind of protections they are required to under the Data Protection Act,” said Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner. “Fines and prosecutions punish the bad actors, but my real goal is to effect change and restore trust and confidence in our democratic system.”

The fine itself was the maximum permitted by the law at the time; a law that has since been strengthened under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR now allows for a fine of up to 4% of global turnover, or $1.6 billion in the case of Facebook. A punishment rather more befitting of the crime than the derisory £500,000 fine the ICO has been able to impose.

On Wednesday, Denham said: “This was a very serious contravention, so in the new regime they would face a much higher fine.” Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if the fine now would amount to hundreds of millions of pounds, she said it “could”. Denham added: “This is not all about fines though … any company is worried about its reputation, because people want to feel that their data is safe.”

In her report, Elizabeth Denham raises significant concerns about how data may have been exploited in the Brexit campaign, chiefly by the official Leave and Leave.EU organisations. However the Cambridge Analytica scandal was much broader, involving the 2016 US presidential election. The principles Denham identifies in her report apply equally to democracy in other countries.

The weak response of Facebook’s chief privacy Officer, Erin Egan, was exactly what we’ve come to expect: “As we have said before, we should have done more to investigate claims about Cambridge Analytica and take action in 2015. We have been working closely with the ICO in their investigation of Cambridge Analytica, just as we have with authorities in the US and other countries. We’re reviewing the report and will respond to the ICO soon.”

There are many reasons to consider our use of social media:

  • The impact on mental health and well-being;
  • The effects on productivity;
  • The way in which it’s used by bad actors to troll, bully and intimidate;

However my primary reason for considering my use of social media, and Facebook in particular, is the company’s ethics and the manner in which it’s allowed our personal data to be used for voter targeting to undermine our democracy. As Elizabeth Denham’s report concludes, societies are:

… are at a crucial juncture where trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic process risks being undermined.”

One solution to the issues laid out in the ICO report is tighter regulation. In practice, regulators are playing catch-up, as technology has raced ahead of regulators and politicians ability to grasp, let alone control. They’re chasing a moving target. The increasing use of internet-connected widgets in the home and on our bodies, and – with face recognition – in every public space, guarantees there will soon be unimaginable amounts of data for the unscrupulous to harvest and use.

It’s essential that standards are tightened and the law is able to restrain these bad actors and hostile powers. In the meanwhile it’s essential we acknowledge our own behaviour on social media and consider the role we want it to play in our lives and our businesses.

I don’t have all the answers yet which is why I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Meanwhile, you might enjoy this further reading:

Question: Would you consider leaving social media? My team loves reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.

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