Facebook – hero or villain?

When it comes to social media, there are a number of totally unwarranted assumptions being made by the people using it, and some outright lies being told by the providers of such free services. If you’re not terribly knowledgeable about that scene, by social media I mean Facebook, Twitter and any “free” application that allows you to interact with friends or acquaintances using the internet.

Dealing with the assumptions first, there’s nothing for free in this life, and believe it or not my younger readers, that does include the usage of social media. Rest assured and despite whatever PR spin is being put out by the providers, they’re looking to make a buck out of you. Sure, the story they spin is something like they’re working towards making the world a better place by bringing people together, or some other feel-good PR bollocks to that effect, but the bottom line, as in a profit/loss ledger, is they want to make money out of your ass.

None of the companies providing these services are registered charities; they’re all listed on Dow, NASDAQ, the Footsie or the Nikkei in one form or another. They have shareholders who quite naturally expect a return on investment and year on year increasing annual growth, which those companies better deliver, or their investors will sell that stock. These companies make money out of you by selling information about you, which you’ve provided, to advertisers and the truth to be told, anyone else prepared to pay for it.

To put it bluntly, their business model is to sell information about you, with no altruistic considerations allowed to get in the way of that simple objective.

To give you an illustration of how valuable your data is, I recall many years ago having a conversation with someone who worked for the Reader’s Digest magazine. This would be in the days before email was invented, never mind the internet. Their business model involved getting people to subscribe to the digest and their way of picking up new subscribers was simply to do a blind mailshot to all the addresses in an area. Even after the costs of printing and postage were factored in, a response of 2-3% of new subscriptions was considered a very successful mailshot.

Imagine if you were another company who, for a fee, could have provided them with a list of people in that area who’d made favourable comments or expressed a desire to subscribe to the Digest, and you can see how Facebook makes its money.

Another assumption being made is that if you play around long enough with your privacy settings, you can somehow restrict all access to whatever type of social media group you’re involved with; business, family, friends, old pals or the local hush-hush swinger set hanging off chandeliers like half-naked Flying Wallendas traversing the neighbourhood. People have been complaining for years at how complex and byzantine setting those privacy rules actually is, and people like Facebook have been promising for that same number of years to simplify the software in that area.

Get a grip here, they’re never going to make it easy for you to protect your personal information, because if they did, it’s adios amigo to their business model.

The other big assumption is that even if all that twiddling with your privacy options actually worked, you’ll have barred all people who you wouldn’t like to know a lot of personal information about you or your friends. Well, if we’re talking third-party strangers, you might just have succeeded, but you’ve done bugger all to protect your information from whatever company, such as Facebook, that is providing the “free” service. All that data sits on their servers and they have complete, unrestricted access to it, no matter what your privacy settings are.

They sell the lot, and again, that’s their business model. Why the hell should they provide a “free” service to you they can’t make a red cent from?

Moving over to the lies, they are myriad and range from the bare-faced to the subtle lies of omission that a Jesuit education may have warned you about. The big one is that any information you’ve decided to share on your wonderful Facebook or whatever page is still yours. It isn’t. In one form or another, they’ll flog it on. Again, we’re talking their business model.

Another lie being told is your data is safe, but every IT professional over the age of twelve and one half years old knows that anything you store on a computer can be got at by one means or another. It’s not exactly hidden knowledge that most of these social media apps, irrespective of privacy settings, have custom installed wiretapping facilities feeding information to various law enforcement or national security agencies.

At the other and non-governmental end of the spectrum, any piece of software, especially a complex one, is hackable. Given time and some elbow grease, a security breach is inevitable. Between those extremes are all those wonderful add-on apps you can get to enhance your Facebook experience but again, most of them once you’ve given them access to your account, simply mine it for information about you and all the people you’re interacting with. Facebook is aware of this everyday rape of their user’s data, but doesn’t give a shit since they’re already making money hand over fist.

Another great lie, and it’s always trotted out after there’s been a breach of security and data has been siphoned off, is that the vulnerability has been patched, your data is secure and nothing of that sort will ever happen again. You’re totally safe. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief and after a slight nervous pause, gets back to typing in yet more bloody information about themselves. God is back in his Heaven, Ford is in his flivver and all is once again right in the world.

No, it isn’t.

This is yet another lie and one predicated on the unbelievably common assumption that the theft of data is somehow like the theft of your car. If someone steals your car and you get it back minus a CD player but plus a few dents, it’s still your car and the only one in the world. On the other hand (was it Harry Truman who bemoaned what he wouldn’t give for a one-handed advisor?), data, unlike your car, can be copied endlessly. There’s simply no concept of getting your data back. The damage cannot be undone. Whatever data about you was stolen, is now out there in the world forever and simply can’t be un-stolen.

Cars you can get back, but data loss is very much like virginity in that once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Another lie, and somewhat akin to the lie of omission, is the awareness that almost certainly there are parties out there quietly sucking data out of your system like some sort of cyber vampires, but they’re clever enough to never leave any trace of their activities, nor to boast about it in the undernet. The amount of data makes it too inviting a target. Your data has value, and therefore will attract thieves who see it as an ongoing revenue stream which is not to be disturbed.

The spies you catch made stupid mistakes; it’s the flawless ones you never caught which are every counter-intelligence officer’s private nightmare, but in the digital world the scenario is slightly different. The data being stolen is being used to conduct things like mass profiling, not emptying bank accounts, so if they don’t mention it, you don’t either.

Last weekend, a scandal erupted over the data of 51m Facebook users ending up in the hands of a slightly sinister firm called Cambridge Analytica who by a number of accounts used it to variously influence elections, blackmail politicians and apparently wage digital wars of influence for any customers willing to pay them. You can get a good overview of what the data was used for by following this link, but as usual the spin doctors have been called in and are busy smothering the scandal and stemming a plunge in Facebook’s share price that wiped nearly $36bn off the company’s value in the first two trading days of this week.

Allegations are flying in all directions to muddy the waters and in this case it seems the big players have decided to blame it all on some tosser of an academic they’ve decided is going to take the fall, but as usual some simple thinking yields some stark results. He was given a budget of $800,000 to develop an app which would pay Facebook users $3 to use it to develop some sort of digital profile of their life on Facebook. My mental arithmetic may be rusty these days, and leaving aside the app’s development costs, dividing 3 into 800,000 is not going to come up with 51m accounts compromised, no matter how numerically challenged you are.

Patently, there was a lot more going on that nobody wants to talk about because the logical inference has to be that why be satisfied with a mere 51m accounts when you can rip off the information on all the 2bn accounts a month that actively use Facebook? If I were a data thief, I would, wouldn’t you, Dr. Evil? Of course you would, my naughty little darling.

There’s obviously some sort of backlash going on, with even the co-founder of WhatsApp who sold it to Facebook for $19bn, calling on people to close their Facebook accounts. The downside we’re told is that it’ll take 90 days to complete, which is of course another load of bollocks. Since when does it take more than a second to disable access to a particular web page?

Again though, the Facebook user is being misled, or to put it more bluntly, being lied to. Yes, your page may finally disappear from public view around the time our sun becomes a red giant, but they sure as hell aren’t going to delete the perhaps decade’s worth of data they’ve got on you which you’ve so thoughtfully typed in for them yourself. A user of Twitter recently got a rap across the knuckles from their in-house thought police for a tweet they’d made three years ago. Nothing is ever forgotten and their data storage centres are better protected than Fort Knox, simply because the information contained in them is their corporate gold.

You don’t own the data, they do, and there’s not much you can do about it either. If you read over carefully the Terms of Service agreement you clicked on, or more usually skipped over, you’ll quickly realise you don’t have to be a master of jurisprudence to see every right you ever had to your own data disappeared with a single “I agree” click on a button. The whole thing was carefully crafted by the cream of the Harvard law school graduates to leave you with nothing.

I wrote an article a number of years ago that highlighted the dangers of sharing personal information on the internet. Rereading it, it was perhaps a mite too dramatic, but it was based on an event that actually occurred. With this current breach not only of data security, but trust in these social media firms, people are perhaps finally starting to think sensibly about their casual dissemination of their own personal data into the internet.

It would be flattering to my ego to think I could be so prescient about the pitfalls of spewing personal information out, but the article was based on a phenomenon I’d observed nearly a decade earlier. It was an otherwise sensible person interacting with a simple program called Eliza that you basically had a typed conversation with. All the program did was reflect back to you whatever you’d just typed in, but invariably turned it around into an open-ended question by prefixing phrases like “Why do you feel” in front of its reply to the noun you’d used in the last sentence. eg Why do you feel isolated?

It didn’t actually understand what was being typed, but the simple trick it used was the equivalent of Rogerian psychotherapy in that it passively and non-judgmentally encouraged people to explain their thinking about why they had certain feelings or attitudes.

It was in the days when AI was taking its first faltering research steps, but what I found both astonishing and truly appalling was how quickly so many users of the program anthropomorphised their interactions with it, to the extent that they’d cease interacting with it if there was any danger of anyone else in the room seeing the personal information they were typing into the thing. If they’d called the program XJ7FX5, a suggestion I made, rather than Eliza, the results would have been a lot different for psychological reasons I think are intriguing, but I’d enjoy your speculations thereon.

Any takers?

Upon thinking it over, I realised our natural instinct is to be gregarious creatures, so we’re easily inclined to have deep conversations not only with each other, but also with entities we’ve no proof of who live high in the Heavens, the gods of the four elements, our ancestors, stone circles, so why not even something so amorphous as a computer program?

From there, it’s not a big step to having intimate conversations with a complete stranger on the other side of a computer you’ve decided to “friend”, to use Facebook terminology. The safety net is you can always “unfriend” them (God help the English language in the internet age), but while that person can represent a personal liability that is understandable in terms of everyday experience, to my mind the real danger is the companies who’re providing the social media platform that enables such interactions.

They’re too big, too powerful, too arrogant and abusive of what’s obviously market monopoly positions – they don’t give a damn about what people think of them until it starts hitting their stock options. Once you set up Google to be your browser home page, you’re their bitch from now on, because they control your information flow input. They barely pay any tax in any country they operate in because they’re so global, they can play one government’s tax authority off against another.

Speaking as someone who deeply mistrusts the monopolistic power and growing arrogance of firms like Facebook, which have obvious ambitions to impose their politics on others, I can only cheer Zuckerberg’s disaster and hope for many more of them. By dirtying up their brand and therefore increasing public suspicion of the increasingly manipulative agendas of social media providers, a needed dilution of their influence will be arrived at.

I have no personal interest in sites like Facebook for all the reasons I’ve covered above. However, in the run up to the 2018 mid-terms, the concern I have is that services like Twitter and Youtube are excoriating any postings by anyone vaguely conservative, never mind supportive of Trump. For people who’re supposed to be so media slick, they’re pretty slow on the uptake, but the penny is finally dropping.

The post-match analysis of the liberal disaster of 2016 is that Trump simply bypassed the traditional media, and instead used social media platforms to get his message across directly to the voter. It worked brilliantly and all the liberal geniuses of Silicone Valley, who may be worth billions but were still trying to grow pubic hairs, missed Trump’s move completely.

What’s going to be interesting about November is how much they’re going to try and block off their social media platforms to him and his supporters.


Related articles by Pointman:

The evil empire of the internet must be broken up.

Internet censorship and whither shall we go?

Twitter is fundamentally corrupt.

A welcome to the dark side.

Click for a list of other articles.

19 Responses to “Facebook – hero or villain?”
  1. philjourdan says:

    Trump was not the first. Nor will he be the last. You again soaked your article with a deep understanding of what is going on (I do work in the business and know how true your words are).

    Facebook is not your friend. It is not going to help you at all, unless it helps them more. People do not understand that concept with business or countries. While they can have a “BFF” (I hate that term), companies do not. They have the “BIS” (best income source) and do not care about anything else!

    One comment you made – “data, unlike your car, can be copied endlessly. “ – especially hit home. My grandson sexted a picture of himself (not uncommon unfortunately). When his mother told me, I dragged him aside (kids seem to listen to old farts a little more than parents – just a little) and asked him what he was thinking. His response of course was that the girl would NEVER do anything with it because they were “in love”. LOL! Yea, right. I basically had to explain to him that once he sent that picture, he lost control of it. Regardless of the devotion of his girl friend! I think it finally sunk in (and besides, in the US, it is still considered trafficking in child porn since he was under the age of 18).

    Facebook’s latest really has nothing to do with the outing of their business model. The Obama campaign bragged about it 6 years ago. But facebook is (like most social media) left of Mao Tse Tung, and that fact that this practice was used by a conservative meant they pissed off their base! And that is what they are scrambling about. They did not apologize when Obama did it. After all, they supported him. But now they have not only alienated the conservative half of the world (at least the ones with any sense of intelligence – long ago), they have pissed off the liberal half as well! (American definitions for conservative and liberal). No company is going to survive by pissing off their entire clientele. And that is what Facebook has done in the past year.

    Remember MySpace.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Margaret Smith says:

    Sorry, my clumsy finger! I hit the 3-star when I meant to hit the title to read the reply.

    Great article. I joined no social media and dislike them all. They can do a lot of good in catching criminals and finding lost or stolen pets but the problems and potential harm perhaps outweigh this for vunerable or unwary people or in the hands of a totalitarian regime.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Blackswan says:

    Back in the Jurassic Period, as a young person on a long commute to the city, I subscribed to Readers Digest (it was easy to handle on a crowded train) and I soon learned that RD on-sold my address details to others after being inundated with ‘special offers’ from all manner of publications.

    It’s the same with every charity donation, every magazine competition we enter, every art union ticket we buy, every online ‘free offer’ we respond to, every retail/supermarket ‘loyalty program’ we subscribe to … ALL of it entails the on-selling of our contact information to any corporation willing to pay for it.

    If consumers are ‘outraged’ that Facebook is keeping tabs on their voting trends, they’d be apoplectic over the close scrutiny their supermarket purchases attract. Analysts can tell you how many people are in your household, whether you have children, babies, pets, how mobile you are by how much fuel you put in your car … all of it … and the information is part of the ‘targeted advertising’ programs retailers all subscribe to. And yet nobody seems affronted by such invasive oversight of their consumer habits.

    People refuse to acknowledge …. When a product is free, YOU are the product.

    Of the many Facebook/retail ‘loyalty’ program customers I’ve discussed such issues with, NONE of them gives a toss. They love their Facebook, they love getting ‘special offers’ from retailers, their invites to ‘VIP customer’ product launches, to participate in ‘focus groups’ … they invariably say they have nothing to hide and don’t care about issues of principle or privacy concerns. Unless Peeping Toms are peering through their bedroom windows, they simply don’t care.

    The furore over Cambridge Analytica is a pure confection. It’s a shell company with few employees and no assets. Closer scrutiny should be made of its parent with whom it shares personnel, an office and phone numbers – Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL Group), described as “a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company”.

    Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political arm, declared –
    “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again.” Into the bloodstream eh? Now where have I heard that expression before?

    The firm also has deep ties to the British defense establishment and Conservative Party. Its first chairman was Geoffrey Pattie, a defense minister under Margaret Thatcher. In addition to Tunnicliffe, the advisory board has included retired Rear Admiral John Tolhurst and Ivar Mountbatten, the great-nephew of Louis Mountbatten, the military hero, and Queen Elizabeth’s cousin.

    Jonathan Marland, a former Conservative Party treasurer who served as a minister for business under former Prime Minister David Cameron, is a shareholder.……


    This Facebook kerfuffle is just part of the distract and conflate pea-and-shell game that the political/military elite play with the taxpaying/voting peasantry. They get away with it because people are inherently lazy and prefer to use their wilful ignorance to absolve them of any responsibility in national affairs.

    Much easier to whine and complain about being ‘duped’ when everything they’ve ever needed to know was a mouse-click away, if only they could be bothered educating themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    • philjourdan says:

      “When a product is free, YOU are the product.”

      This is one of those simple truths, that until voiced (written) is not top of mind awareness. Excellently put!


      • Russ Wood says:

        A while ago, there was a TV documentary (maybe on BBC before they fell to the dark side) called “The Cost Of Free”, that pointed this out.


  4. Blackswan says:


    You ask – are there “any takers?” in discussing the psychology of an AI entity called “Eliza” to one with a serial number XJ7FX5.

    For starters, a feminine name automatically denotes a non-threatening entity; an empathetic nurturing presence to whom one might bare one’s soul.

    It’s why Amazon created ‘Alexa’ and Apple came up with ’Siri’, in softly spoken well-modulated feminine tones. No threat of a carping fish-wife there! After all, most executive PAs are well-organised and capable women.

    Whether we realise it or not, so many of our real-life relationships are attached to an illusory version of what we wish our friends and family are, and reality can be very deflating. It’s a short step and hop to creating a similar illusion about an online ‘presence’ that never argues, requires nothing of us and usually just provides a ‘sounding board’ for verbalising our thoughts and dreams in conversations we’d rarely have face-to-face with others.

    When I got my first GPS I promptly changed the feminine voice to that of a man. I couldn’t stand being told where to go by a woman backseat driver. I figured a bloke could at least read a map and know where he was going.

    Oh dear …. what does that say about me? LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Keitho says:

    The geeks were saying this a decade ago. Most people just shrugged and said they have nothing to hide, so what.

    Unfortunately the collectivization of “nothing to hide” stuff can result in some strange outcomes not the least of which has been some of the geeks becoming very rich. Advertising, marketing, focus groups, bullshit spewing politicians and now Cambridge Analytica have all come along and bitten a chunk out of our bums to advance one cause or another.

    Does it matter? Probably no more than every other attempt to get power and treasure out of us ordinary folk. The antidote, give your kids some principles to live by and do the same yourself. These bastards are like vampires, you have to invite them in before they can infect you so don’t invite them in.

    Warm Regards


  6. Pointman says:

    The Only Reason We’re Examining Facebook’s Sleazy Behavior Is Because Trump Won


    “Parakilas said he “always assumed there was something of a black market” for Facebook data that had been passed to external developers. However, he said that when he told other executives the company should proactively “audit developers directly and see what’s going on with the data” he was discouraged from the approach.

    He said one Facebook executive advised him against looking too deeply at how the data was being used, warning him: “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?” Parakilas said he interpreted the comment to mean that “Facebook was in a stronger legal position if it didn’t know about the abuse that was happening”.



  7. When organizations get too big and too powerful they will abuse their customers. The answer is the Sherman anti-trust act that broke up Standard Oil in 1911 and AT&T in 1984. Microsoft narrowly avoided a similar fate. Pointman brilliantly pointed (apologies for an awful play on words) this out six months ago:

    Liked by 1 person

    • philjourdan says:

      Actually, the Sherman Anti-Trust act was not used in the AT&T break up since it was a regulated monopoly. AT&T did it willingly because they wanted to get involved in other venues they saw as very profitable, but because they were a regulated monopoly, they had to get the government to agree to the break up (shedding the regulated parts – the baby Bells) in order to proceed. As it turns out, the babies ate the mother (SBC) and others in the long distance (lucrative) market (Verizon and MCI). AT&T did keep Bell Labs which was the crown jewel. But yesterday’s patents are not today’s innovations.


    • Blackswan says:

      Great link from 2012 … thanks.

      Quote: “The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store – the largest, most detailed and potentially most powerful in the history of political campaigns. If 2008 was all about social media, 2012 is destined to become the “data election”.

      Given that such an amount of detailed information was available six years ago on Obama’s digital election machinations (which they seem to be bragging about), the current furore of Trump’s alleged use of Facebook data is quite extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • deplorable me says:

        the current furore of Trump’s alleged use of Facebook data is quite extraordinary

        Just remember this simple rule that explains 99.999% of Liberal/Progressive* hypocrisy:
        “it’s okay when we (liberals/progressives) do it; it is NOT okay when *they* (non-liberals/progressives) use our own tools against us!”

        *Liberal/Progressive, etc. as defined in the States

        Liked by 1 person

    • gallopingcamel says:

      When Obama did it in 2012 he was hailed as a “Genius”.

      When Trump did it in 2016 the Left demands that we consider him a criminal!

      Sadly the Left has no shame and therefore does not understand why we are disgusted by their hypocrisy.


  8. Denis Hardiman says:

    Great article Pointman.

    You may like to add an article found here,

    “High-tech corporations have acquired massive power and wealth, dwarfing the might of the robber barons of the past.”



  9. Pointman says:

    Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal affected 87 MILLION people – 40M MORE than first thought: Top exec admits ‘most people could have had their profile scraped’ and Zuckerberg says he made a ‘huge mistake’


    Facebook Labels All Breitbart Stories ‘Intentionally Misleading’ with Wikipedia Pop-Up




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: