Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Facebook's new features mean even more of our data will be created - so how can we stay safe?

From Facebook Dating to 'Secret Crush', how do we continue to protect our most private data on the social platform?

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote introducing new Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram privacy features at the Facebook F8 Conference in San Jose, California on April 30. AFP.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote introducing new Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram privacy features at the Facebook F8 Conference in San Jose, California on April 30. AFP.

It’s the world’s biggest social media platform, with 2.3 billion active users. It also owns the biggest image-sharing app (Instagram, with a billion users) and the biggest messaging app (Messenger, used by 1.5 billion people). But despite these impressive numbers, Facebook frequently stands accused of failing to take the concerns of those billions of people seriously, whether it’s in relation to privacy, online abuse, politics or mental health.

Last month, prominent US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quit Facebook, describing it as a “public health risk” which causes isolation, depression and anxiety among users. While the vast number of people who continue to use it could be an indication of enduring public loyalty to the platform, its detractors believe that it’s become too entwined in people’s lives for them to leave.

Facebook knows this and for years it has attempted to combat problems and tweak the service in a way that might dampen criticism. In 2012, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote a strategy book for employees in which he said: “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” The platform evidently still sees itself as vulnerable, despite its size.

Facebook says 'the future is private'

Last week, at Facebook’s annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, Zuckerberg sought to persuade the world that his company has its users’ best interests at heart, and as his speech streamed on Facebook, viewers were even asked to vote on whether they thought the platform was “good for the world”. However, the results of the poll were not revealed.

“The three fastest-­growing areas of online communication are private messaging, Groups and Stories.

Mark Zuckerberg

Throughout the speech, Zuckerberg stressed that privacy was at the core of the company.

“Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves,” he said, asserting that “the future is private”.

He would find it difficult to make such a claim about “the past”. There have been dozens of privacy scandals at Facebook in the past decade, most notably last year’s Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Four weeks later, it admitted it had “unintentionally” siphoned the email contacts of 1.5 million users without asking. It is little wonder that Zuckerberg’s resolution in San Jose was greeted with silence inside the hall and raised eyebrows outside.But “the present” doesn’t seem to be particularly private, either. On March 21, Facebook disclosed that it had stored millions of unencrypted Facebook and Instagram passwords in a way that was accessible to its employees.

Zuckerberg's dream of a publicly connected world is gone, from now on he wants us to interact in silos

But is the act of asking people to express themselves and share material online compatible with any kind of privacy? Zuckerberg believes it is. His particular definition of privacy, stated repeatedly during F8, is to keep users’ data away from strangers.

His former dream of a connected world that pooled its ideas and thoughts in a publicly accessible space has gone. From now on, Facebook will encourage us to interact in silos, our activity visible to selected groups of acquaintances but away from the prying eyes of strangers who might seek to influence, antagonise or cause us harm.

“The three fastest-­growing areas of online communication are private messaging, Groups and Stories,” Zuckerberg said.

By emphasising these aspects over its News Feed (the constantly updated record of our activities and interests), the hope is to create a more intimate platform.Private messaging, by its nature, is restricted to those who participate in the exchange; Facebook Groups feature discussions around particular topics between like-minded people, while Facebook Stories are intended for a selected audience and disappear automatically after 24 hours.

But privacy does not mean there will be no restrictions on what Facebook knows about its users. Any activity undertaken on Facebook, whether it’s visible to the public or not, defines a person.

Even if Facebook does become a collection of community spaces rather than a vast town square, the platform remains all-seeing and all-knowing. It has to so it can sell advertising.

Even more of our data will be created with Facebook's new features

As a money-making organisation whose revenue was $55 billion (Dh202bn) last year, Facebook’s ultimate aim is to persuade us to buy things, and there were announcements at F8 that clearly indicated this.

Zuckerberg claimed there had been “a major shift in how we run this company”, but behind the cosmetic changes, will there be an end to corporate apologies followed by new corporate promises?

Its competitor to Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, will be made more prominent in future designs of the platform, while on Instagram we’ll soon be able to shop for products without leaving the app.

It’s a reminder that Facebook has never been a public service and its exhortation to join more groups, send more messages and “meet new friends” could equally be read as “create more data”.

Even more of that data will be generated by new features such as Facebook Dating, and another entitled “Secret Crush”, which will inform Facebook contacts if they both have feelings for each other.

In addition, while some features are now less prominent, they won’t be going away. Facebook isn’t in the habit of slimming down; according to one of its product leaders, Facebook Messenger is growing into a social network in its own right.

Is the new social media platform mantra "innovate first, worry later"?

A decade ago, all of this might have seemed frivolous, even exciting, but in the current climate it’s far from benign. As Facebook introduces new features, measures are also taken to ameliorate the worst effects of the older ones.

At F8, Zuckerberg announced an increase in the use of artificial intelligence to help tackle trolls, scammers and other bad actors, suggesting this war will now be fought by data scientists rather than ­moderators.

Another new feature was the introduction of an “away mode” for Instagram, designed to allow people to step away from the platform when the toll on their mental health becomes too much. There’s a sense that every social media platform conducting these public experiments has a mantra: “Innovate first, worry later.”

The new Facebook will be known as FB5. The app has changed its look already, and later this year the website will follow suit. Zuckerberg claimed there had been “a major shift in how we run this company”, but behind the cosmetic changes, will there be an end to corporate apologies followed by new corporate promises?

As Facebook users watched Zuckerberg’s F8 speech, and noticed it clearly displayed which of their friends were also watching, they may have pondered that question. They might have concluded, with some justification, that radical change is highly unlikely.

Updated: May 6, 2019 04:49 PM

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