Data and the small steps you can take to look after yours
A blog post for #digiwellnesswednesday
As a millennial (those born 1981-1997) I have spent my journey into adulthood on social media, first Facebook, and then the others. Firstly on a computer, when the most exciting thing a phone could do was allow you to waste hours on snake, then a smartphone. Before I start, let me be clear that I don’t think everything about social media is terrible. In its early years it’s cited as a massive catalyst in spreading democracy, it spreads joy among friends, information between massive groups with shared interests and helps small businesses reach thousands of people for small amounts of money in a way never possible before.
Yet the way it is used by larger companies has changed beyond recognition from the days an 18 year old young woman sat and inputted her favourite things while working behind the counter of a sweet shop on her gap year. And it’s not just your status updates – every time we ‘accept cookies’, search on the internet, enter a competition, or agree to Ts and Cs we are sharing information about ourselves.
“As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart. When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, could you still tell the difference between yourself and their marketing experts? Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account – they are in a race to hack you, and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.”
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
As this great podcast from Emma Gannon points out, the Netflix documentary revealed that data is now more valuable than oil. It’s left many people claiming they will remove themselves form social media altogether. Why?
While Cambridge Analytica has now ceased trading many companies still use the same ideas for their own profit. This is now called “Survelliance Capitalism”.
Survelliance Capitalism basically means everything we do that involves interacting with technology (our data) is recorded and harvested. This information is then used to make money. You have become a product for one business to sell to another.
At its best it helps companies predict behaviour while also targeting you so specifically it has major influences on your purchasing decisions. At its worst the algorithms built to harness that information will eventually control your behaviour in the way explained in the above quote, manipulating not just what you buy but how you vote and your outlook on life.
Harari uses an Apple Watch or FitBit as an example of how this might work: if a device measures your heart rate then that device might know you better than you know yourself once it learns that your heart reacts to certain images, colours and stories before you’ve acknowledged your reaction yourself.
We already know that software can design and distribute adverts that vary depending on who is seeing them and that it can test how effective ads are and learn how to adapt them.
I’d point out that this software takes big budgets – your local businesses, your friend’s Facebook page, even small agencies such as Comms Kick cannot use this software. It’s no longer just ‘nice’ to support local, it may protect you from sharing too much data. After all, while the platform will still see your activity, the small company will, at most, simply count you as a number, perhaps see where (geographically and on which websites) it's digital adverts have performed best, or what content got the best reaction but it is not likely it will do more than that.
So what if you don’t want to disconnect because of all the aforementioned good stuff that comes from being on social media? Or what if you own a business and can’t suffer the consequences of coming off it and losing your business page? Here are some steps I’m taking on my personal accounts to try to take the best of social media without feeling hacked:
1.Who does this benefit if I share it? Social media has long been criticised for feeding our natural instinct to show off. I’d argue there’s a fine line between pride and vacuous showing off but in these narcissistic times when it seems every other Instagram post is an #ad it doesn’t hurt to ask why you’re sharing something. I now only share if it benefits a small business, a cause I care about, is a genuine recommendation I'd have found useful or if it’s funny. After all social media did bring us goats bouncing on bendy sheets of metal and for that I will always be grateful.
2.But I know about this stuff so I’ll know what’s fake or an ad right? I’ve accepted I can easily be manipulated. You should too. The way our data is being used is something we couldn’t have predicted even twenty years ago. The regulations aren’t good enough. I remind myself whenever I see something on any social media platform that I’m seeing it for a reason, it’s targeted at me. My timeline might make me think there’s a lot to worry about as a parent here in the UK, yours might make you concerned about a trade war. Or maybe it'll just keep selling you road bikes!
3.What about the kids man?!? If the odd thing regarding my child pops up because of a friends post then so be it but for the main, I now don’t feature him. Like any proud parent I’m guilty of sharing happy times and proud moments. However, with precarious privacy policies, face recognition advancing and in anticipation of many a row about screen time, I no longer post anything featuring my child and am currently removing old posts which do. The better educated, more wary Generation Z often post about practises such as deleting their Instagram content once its three months old and taking measures to spot fake news. Click the link, it's an interesting viewpoint.
4. Connect with things you're not even keen on. However much I may disagree with an organisation or news outlets opinion I try to connect with accounts and pages with different viewpoints as it makes it harder for algorithms to understand your behaviour. For example if there’s an election coming up, I now like the page of every local candidate regardless of my own politics. This has lost me Facebook friends but if I see them in person, I’ll explain 🤭
5.I turn off location services on my phone unless I need it. Go to settings>privacy>location services . Sounds paranoid but why does every website I visit need to know this? It’s not foolproof by any means but it’s a little step.
6.I haven’t nor will I ever send my DNA to a company for ancestry information, nutritional advice or otherwise. This article explains why it is so dangerous and until privacy laws are regulated more tightly it’s too big of a risk to take, it seems crazy to me that these are now so popular they've become affordable.
I think the way we can connect with each other and find out information now is fantastic and I see tech companies themselves asking for regulations. So until these arrive this is what I’m doing. Have you changed your behaviour online lately without coming off social media all together?
#digiwellnesswednesday was started by Comms Kick in the belief that we are all responsible for learning how to use new technology safetly. Each week @commskick shares a useful tip or idea so we can get the best out of social media, smartphones and internet use. Just follow the hashtag to stay up to date or share your tips.