Devil’s Advocate: Should We Delete Facebook?

Freddie Kellet and Anna-Ruth Cockerham discuss the Cambridge Analytica scandal and whether we should delete Facebook in wake of it.

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Yes – Freddie Kellet

We should all delete Facebook. Now. Have you read the news lately? The long arm of Facebook and its many corporate tentacles have interfered with elections both here and in America, broken laws and profited from our personal data in ways to which we did not consent.

When trying to condense my argument into a phrase, one bible quote came to mind. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21). It seems to me that this can just as easily apply to the most infamous international multibillion dollar company which has had a home on our laptops, phones and tablets for years as it can to the Messiah. Let me explain why.

For some, the revelations from Cambridge Analytica were enough to cast doubt on Facebook, but for me it was just the final nail in the coffin. I never trusted Facebook; I was just complying with social norms. Why should you trust a company which has a business model based around learning as much as possible about you, and then using that information to target advertising at you for profit? The revelation that it is now being used for political means is not to surprising to me. Once you open Pandora’s box, there is no going back.

As a member of a democracy we should not stand for this erosion of the democratic process. What surprises me more is that Mark Zuckerberg initially refused a request from the United States Congress to give evidence about the data abuse he has been complicit in. I think it is very telling that the CEO of this organisation showed a complete disregard for democratic process. The least that can be expected of the CEO is that he stands up for his organisation’s actions, but even that was too much — before the pressure of public scrutiny became too great, that is.

Fair enough, Facebook has now launched a tool to make it easier to delete third party apps data. But that does little to coax me back. This is little more than a PR exercise, a desperate attempt to recover it share price losses and regain user trust. It does little for my misgivings, its business model remains intact, even if political forays are off the menu for a while.

I think the problem with my argument is that while it is easy to convince people of Facebook’s moral and political issues, it is hard to convert that to action. Why? Life without Facebook is hard. In St Andrews Facebook is just about as crucial to life as clean water, Pablos, and Dervish. It is part of the bread and butter of student life. How else would we know what is going on, organise our calendar, and most importantly tag our friends in cat memes? Without Facebook we would be reduced to sending dull (albeit efficient) emails.

I think it is fair to talk about the Facebook culture, which for us St Andreans is compounded by our unique town. Never mind the echo chamber; what about the rumour chamber? Is Elaga cancelled? Over spring break people seemed very keen to peddle the myth that it was, with people desperate to sell their tickets for anything from asking price to a pint of beer. The organisers felt sufficiently threatened by these posts that they had to produce a video explicitly saying it is not cancelled. The thing I find most interesting about this is that less people saw it than the original rumours!

The power of St Feuddrews, and pages like it, is not to be underestimated. I think one person under the veil of anonymity and armed with a smartphone could produce enough convincing St Feuddrews content to grind this town to a halt.

Is it really healthy that we can anonymously post about anything. It was quite funny to see people bad talking Elaga. People should be able to vent there feelings, and if that has to be anonymous then fair enough. But that comes with consequences. The posts in response were practically borderline propaganda which I would bet money on were written by the event organisers. Do we really want this boiling pot of anger and frustration in our lives? I’m not sure I do.

What about the alternatives? I propose we return to the old fashioned email; dullness seems to be a fair compromise in return for dropping our support for a corporation such as Facebook. We vote with our ballot papers in elections, and our data on the internet. We are complicit, and more than that, we support the entity which we know interferes with the democratic process. This has to stop. These few weeks after the Cambridge Analytica revelations are our election, so we must vote in the only way we can. Delete Facebook.

But that is not without a significant loss; we surrender our personal data, independent thought, and faith in the democratic system. That must outweigh the few giggles we get from seeing embarrassing pictures of our friends on that night out they thought everyone had forgotten about and a few memes.

No – Anna-Ruth Cockerham

Facebook – anyone and everyone has used it. It is an internet giant and a staple of the modern day, but with Cambridge Analytica using it to fiddle with our elections and the revelation that they might even be reading your text messages, many are calling for you to deactivate your Facebook. But Facebook is not the problem, and pointing the blame at them will just allow a scandal like this to happen again.

We all have that friend who deleted Facebook. They will tell you that Mark Zuckerberg knows everything about you – and they may well be right. Facebook does keep a record of every post you have ever made. They do read your cookies. They may even know when you have sent a text, but does it really matter? Your friend will say that they know too much to just serve you a few different ads. However, the data that digital companies like Facebook collect does the world a great deal of good. Aside from ads, Google uses it to help identify would-be terrorists, Android phones across the world are used to track the weather, and banks use it to prevent fraud, and that’s just what’s happening right now. Soon your home will be filled with online accessories, making Big Data unavoidable, but also meaning your fridge could tell the local supermarket to bring you some more milk, your cars will drive themselves with no traffic delays, and your Apple Watch could let your doctor know about an impending heart attack. I would say that those are some big changes to throw away because you fear the Facebook algorithm.

At the end of the day, that is all Facebook’s data collection is really about: improving their world for you and companies – off and online – have been doing this all along. Ever had a store loyalty card, or been asked for your postcode at the checkout? Businesses have always been watching your habits for profit, and you probably never realised it. Even if we put an end to Facebook in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, we will not exterminate the threat of Big Data.

You shouldn’t worry too much about this data collection anyway: it’s almost always just an algorithm, Facebook does not employ people just to read your texts. Almost all Big Data – including that of Facebook – is collected for legitimate purposes and the fantastic new world this brings us should be preserved at all costs.

However, this world of information can and does fall into the hands of the wrong people, and we are leaving ourselves almost powerless to stop it. Whilst we are busy looking at Facebook, we are forgetting about other companies like Cambridge Analytica that will keep using our data for the wrong purposes. Instead, we need regulation to catch up with the online world and actually start penalising those who are committing the crimes. Have you ever wondered why politicians were so quick to point fingers at Facebook? They are turning the blame away from themselves. Our favourite technology companies – the ones so often blamed for these incidents – are doing more to protect the online world than our own governments. They often have massive cyber-security divisions dedicated to protecting your data, meanwhile, government policy has not caught up. Cambridge Analytica did this because they were allowed to. Nobody stopped them. Nobody stopped the people who hired them. They failed to stop your data being stolen. When people blame Facebook for these scandals, all they do is hide how little work our governments have done to prevent them. Regulation in the digital age needs to step up and protect us from threats like Cambridge Analytica, not scapegoat Facebook.

When we boil the problem down to deleting Facebook we make people think the problem is easily solved and make them less aware of the real danger. The people who used their Facebook accounts to fill out Cambridge Analytica’s survey did not know the information could be used to shape election results. When people think the problem lies with Facebook or Twitter or Google or Amazon, they do not stop to look at the data they share and what can be done with it, they stop to point the finger. Deleting Facebook will not stop Cambridge Analytica – data will always be out there. We stop those like Cambridge Analytica by teaching people the damage that can be done with data and how to be careful with it and by enacting policy that prevents these threats from existing in the first place. Blaming Facebook simply turns your head away from the problem and lets those out to harm us work behind closed doors.

Deleting your Facebook account may bring you some comfort but know that you are only hiding from the problem. Do not delete your Facebook. Instead, understand how Big Data can shape the world around us, positively and negatively.

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