Social media is free because the commodity it is selling isn’t the platform, it’s you. The business of social media is to harvest and sell information about you, through various means. All social media companies — not just Facebook, but Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Google, Reddit, and a range of other apps and services — work this way. They profit by profiling you, targeting posts to you that will keep you engaged on the platform, and collecting more data to make that targeting more precise, and thus more valuable. The more social media you use, the more overlapping, cross-referenced data you are providing (especially since bigger platforms tend to buy or develop smaller ones, like how Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp, so they all connect data sets). And any interested party can gain access to that data relatively easily.
Which is why social media can be so easily exploited by bad actors, foreign or domestic, to target you with psychological attacks that you aren’t supposed to understand. And if one social media company is exploited — because data is shared so readily between them — they pretty much all are. Even if you’re not on Facebook, this affects you, and you should be outraged at this deception.
Yes, this sounds pretty paranoid. To explain myself: I have spent the last decade working in countries that were targeted by intense influence campaigns directed by the Kremlin — countries like Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic States — and have watched how the Kremlin refined and deployed these tactics on social media. I can tell you there’s nothing unbelievable in any of this. The systems described by whistleblowers and evidence uncovered in the recent US investigations and indictments follow the same patterns I’ve seen in other places. These campaigns are never the fault of just one entity, but a fusion of public and private, government and political and corporate assets.
Social media companies have tried to minimize how invasive their data harvesting is by saying it’s just a form of advertising that isn’t really that sophisticated. You know, like when pictures of that chair you looked at once on Wayfair stalk you across the internet by tracking your cookies. But political persuasion and psychological manipulation aren’t being done with ads and cookies. Third-party companies get your data from social media — sometimes from another app or service you signed up for, and sometimes by buying it, but rarely in a way that is very transparent for users. Data analytics firms then use that data to figure out what kind of messages you will be susceptible to. Then a network of fake profiles, communities, and narratives are set up online to appeal to a your specific profile, aiming, over time, to manipulate your perception, impact how you make decisions, and ultimately change your behavior. The resulting posts that show up in your feed are made to look like posts from other users similar to you. They target you, down to the individual level. [Continue reading…]