As someone born two years before the new millenium, I’ve pretty much grown up with the rise of social media. At age 13, I was the last of my friends to make a Facebook account. I sat in front of my family computer and watched as chat boxes with messages from my friends popped up at the bottom of the screen. “That means they’re online,” my dad—who already had an account—told me, pointing at the green circles beside my friends’ names.
A few months after I created my account, when I was well-versed in the new digital customs such as trading a “like” for a TBH (short for “to be honest,” a post akin to an end-of-term yearbook message), Facebook announced that they were changing from a personal “wall” to a “timeline.” For some reason, this was a huge deal at my elementary school. We had an assembly in the gym with a guest speaker who told us how to switch to the timeline; and that presentation was also offered to parents after school hours. We were sent home with handouts about it, too.
We were told that when we switched over to the new Timeline, we were supposed to go through all of the content that had been posted and delete anything we didn’t want to show up. I thought all of the fuss about content was strange—wasn’t Facebook supposed to be a fun way to talk to friends and share pictures, jokes and TBH messages? The conversations about switching to Timeline opened my eyes, if only very slightly, to another aspect of Facebook: privacy.
Going about my daily, digital life, I am torn between embracing my earlier teenage ambivalence about privacy on social media, or feeling more concerned about my online footprint.
At the time, I felt pretty unconcerned about my privacy on Facebook. My mom took an interest in it, though. She used the handout from school to help me switch my account and change the privacy settings on my content, which I have kept to this day. Although it seemed unnecessary at the time, I do remember thinking that it wasn’t exactly easy. It felt like I had to change the permissions on every part of my Facebook account—if I set my profile picture to “friends only” it didn’t mean that my statuses were automatically set to the same thing.
I went to a digital-focused high school where I learned about digital citizenship and developed my online presence. My Instagram remains private to this day; my Twitter is public, although for a while I also had a private account. Going about my daily, digital life, I am torn between embracing my earlier teenage ambivalence about privacy on social media, or feeling more concerned about my online footprint.
If you Google my name, you can learn a lot about me. I am quite positive that there is more information about me online than I am aware of; and a lot of it was information I volunteered willingly, through long blog posts about my life, or public posts on social media. This is scary. But in some ways, it is also a reality of growing up with social media, and entering a profession that relies on a digital presence (I’m studying journalism).
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the Cambridge Analytica scandal means for young people like me. Do we care that the personal data of social media users is being used for political purposes? A 2016 study from the National Cyber Security Alliance suggests that 47 per cent of teens are “very concerned” about their account being accessed without their permission; and that 27 per cent of teens are “very concerned” that they might see intense religious or political online which could “make them feel uncomfortable.” You could surmise, then, that young people have some concerns about privacy. But I wonder what those survey results would be if they were gathered today—and I wonder what they’d be if teens were required to research Cambridge Analytica beforehand.
As part of a journalism course last semester, I put my Facebook profile into an interactive documentary called Do Not Track. It tried to build a profile based on my Facebook information, but I wasn’t too impressed with the results. The psychological traits they said applied to me were fairly vague, almost Barnum-statement esque findings. They were only analyzing me based on my 86 Facebook likes, though. So I thought my Facebook data was safe.
Because I grew up in this emerging digital age, I have an inherent trust in social media.
But two weeks ago, New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg spoke to Michael Barbaro on The Daily podcast, and said something that made me reconsider my feeling of digital security. With only 68 likes from a Facebook profile, the brains behind Cambridge Analytica could predict a user’s skin colour, with 95 per cent accuracy, and a user’s sexual orientation, with 85 per cent accuracy. This made me think about the test that I did with my account—and it made me wonder if a firm like Cambridge Analytica really could’ve built a psychological profile based on my 86 likes, one that could influence how I think, act and vote.
Because I grew up in this emerging digital age, I have an inherent trust in social media; like my 13-year-old self, I’m still tempted to think of sites like Facebook as “fun first, privacy later.” Even now that I’m becoming more and more aware of the ways that personal data can be mined from Facebook, I still can’t see myself joining the #DeleteFacebook movement. In a way, I am reliant on social media; for communication with friends, for keeping up with the news, for keeping up the online presence I have been taught to believe is necessary to pursue a career in journalism in the 21st century.
At first, it was hard for me to see Facebook as an adversary, or a weapon that could be co-opted to undermine democracy or target people’s political opinions. But the more I learn about Cambridge Analytica, the more I think back to that assembly my elementary school held. I can only wonder if the same level of caution that my school employed when Facebook switched from walls to timeline is being employed now that personal data is being mined and used to influence real-world events.