So, my mom just asked me if Facebook is still “safe.”

Posted on April 6th, 2018

Filed under: General Noise — Karl Olson @ 12:38 AM

With a lot of caveats, yes, it and other social media sites are safe.

The caveats are it is only safe if you can turn a skeptical eye to every last thing vaguely informational/educational/news-like item that comes across your feed, especially anything advertised to you or anything you feel strongly about, and also if you’re in a position to keep your profile open only to your friends and keep that list of friends very well curated. If you already tend to check on snopes, scientific journals and traditional print media websites for anything that’s shared by your small set of friends or advertised at you, Facebook is no worse than the rest of the internet, or at least no worse than the e-mail forward saturated inboxes older internet users have been dealing with since they got online two decades ago on AOL. If you’re actually some what familiar with statistical best practices like sample sizes and experiment design, and/or have a good sense of journalist best practices, you might even be in a position to help stop the spread of fake information in your circles here. Your friends need you in their feed, often, keeping them informed and honest!

However, as a person who has been online since childhood and thus learned the hard way to always research everything I see online, especially if it seems to good or bad to be true, and as someone whose job involves collecting and analyzing a ton of data directly on behalf of businesses that’s collected by voluntary participation in online research panels, the notion of “safe” is a very complex and fragile one if any of those things above start to fail. If you’re not in a position to be choosy about your friends (at the very least which friends are muted or not,) the odds of having a friend who will pollute your feed with things that are bypassing your natural skepticism are higher, and you’ll buy into lies or even end up being scammed or manipulated subconsciously. Even your real-life, childhood friends, if they’re not skeptical internet users, can end up bypassing your normal vigilance, because you’ll tend to believe them. If your natural skepticism is generally low, this is definitely worse, because bad arguments and fake news are everywhere on social media, and when you don’t have the ability to filter it out for yourself, you will likely to spread it around.

Even if you’re very diligent, the data you share online also makes you and everyone you’re friends with a target for advertising designed to be about the things you all like, or vastly dangerously to yourself and to the society as a whole, the things you all hate both consciously and unconsciously, regardless of whether it’s real or fake. As such, your own skepticism is that much more critical towards safe, rational use of social media. This is to say nothing of how irresponsibly your data may be handled by social media websites and other parties with access to them in other ways, but even the on-label use of Facebook is to keep you reading by any means necessary with basically no ethical sense of how that’s done. It’s just worse when your data is then correlated by third parties to stuff you’re doing off Facebook (always use private mode, never save cookies!)

At it’s worst, Facebook and other social media sites can be malicious gossip distribution machines, carefully trained using everything they know about you to surface the most interesting things to you all the time, regardless of whether those things are real or true, and it’s trivial for people to make ads exactly around that and manipulate you towards their ends if you’re not double checking for secondary sources, and then actively blocking any sources that are pushing garbage, even if they are sometimes friends. If you can’t trust yourself to be super vigilantly skeptical, then no, Facebook is not safe for you, most social media that’s ad-supported and algorithmically sorted is not safe for you, and it’s not safe for the people you’d be on the website with. People, advertisers and the website itself will sink it’s claws into the serotonin centers of your brain to keep you here like an addict if you let them, and will tell you lies to do so if it happens to be what you like to hear, and once it has done so, you’re a vector to accessing your friends.

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