Facebook screwed up. Just about everybody agrees on that (except, possibly, Facebook). The company shared user data way too aggressively and tolerated election abuse on its platform. Making everything worse, Facebook execs Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and others have been disingenuous about the company’s efforts to protect their customers versus the competing need to make money off of them.
But the Facebook scandal, if you can call it that, is not Equifax, or Wells Fargo, or Sony, or Takata, or one of the many other instances in which ordinary people directly suffered serious harm because some company screwed up. In our eagerness to be outraged, we are confusing harm with discomfort and absolving ourselves of bad choices that contribute to our perceived suffering.
Facebook offers free services in exchange for information about its users, which it allows advertisers to access so it can make money. The company’s business model isn’t a secret. For much of its 14-year history, Facebook has been cagey about what, exactly, it does with user data. We now know it was invasive, in some instances—such as letting advertisers Spotify and Netflix read users’ private messages to each other. It also let political-research firm Cambridge Analytica scrape user data to build promotional tools for Donald Trump when he was the 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
Another huge mistake was letting Russian propagandists run wild on the site starting around 2014, to stir up outrage and influence elections in the United States and other countries. Facebook seems to have been legitimately unaware this was happening for a while, but once it knew there was a problem, it drizzled out the details, obviously hoping the whole thing would blow over. We may still not know everything Facebook knows about the attempted and successful manipulation of Facebook users.
Facebook’s chronic fumbling has now triggered a quit-Facebook movement. Veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg said (on Facebook!) that he’ll be deactivating his account. The NAACP is calling for a boycott, because Russian operatives inordinately targeted African-Americans with voter suppression efforts during the 2016 election. Amid heightened interest, Consumer Reports recently set up a guide on how to quit Facebook. If you peruse Twitter, everybody seems to be doing it.
Fair enough. Americans can obviously drop any service they want, for any reason. But Facebook’s privacy violations and scam accounts are pretty low on the list of incidents that have actually hurt a meaningful number of people. Even if you don’t like what Facebook has done and allowed on its site, it’s worth asking whether that has caused you any trouble.
As far as we know, nobody has stolen Social Security numbers from Facebook users, or financial account information or anything else that can be used for fraud and identity theft, as hackers have done with Marriott, Equifax, Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan and many other big companies. It’s unsettling to think some Facebook advertiser might be looking at your personal messages, but that’s not remotely as awful as the Apple iPhone celebrity photo hack. And there are no deaths directly attributable to Facebook’s privacy violations, as there have been with faulty Takata airbags installed in millions of vehicles.
In a few countries, such as India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, thugs have used Facebook to incite violence against ethnic minorities and other targets. That’s appalling, but it’s also a crime Facebook did nothing to abet, and it’s not an inherent part of the business model, the way data exploitation is.
For Facebook users who care about privacy, there’s been a thickening stream of information during recent years on the risks posed by social media, and tips for how to protect yourself. Don’t use Facebook to log into other apps; go to the trouble of creating unique accounts, instead. Don’t post unnecessary personal info such as your birthdate and pictures of your young kids. Decline “friend” requests from strangers with no obvious connection to you. Take advantage of all the privacy settings that let you keep your information to yourself.
And most of all, don’t believe everything you see on Facebook, or anywhere on the Internet. The Russian propaganda effort succeeded, to some degree, because it spewed bogus information confirming the biases of people disinclined to fact-check claims they want to be true. Facebook should never have allowed those accounts to exist, but Facebook users, in many cases, should have known something was fishy and sought better information.
When something is free, there’s usually a catch. With Facebook, we’ve known what the catch is for some time: the digital bread crumbs you leave on the site have value, and Facebook knows how to cash in on it. If that hurts you, then by all means, ditch the platform. If it doesn’t hurt you, then it might seem like a fairly good deal to get free social media by doing nothing more strenuous than simply being yourself.
Disclosure: The author’s personal investments includes shares of Facebook and other technology companies.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman