In the first of three Senate judiciary subcommittees investigating Russian meddling in the 2017 U.S. Presidential Election, there were no shortage of hard questions for tech giant representatives (Facebook, Twitter, Google).
10 months on since the inauguration of Donald Trump and the prevalance of disinformation — yes, the much heralded rise of ‘fake news’ coined, ironically, by Trump himself — circulating social media networks remains a concerning trend. The power to influence election outcomes (Facebook in particular has been singled out on this issue) has become a central theme of the Senate investigations.
Significantly, why did Facebook accept political advertisements paid for in Russian roubles. In the video clip Senator Al Franken put Facebook’s Chief Legal Counsel Colin Stretch on the hot seat for Facebook’s seeming inability to connect 2 rather obvious (and highly suspicious) data points:
Franken: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points! American political ads and Russian money: roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”
“People are buying ads on your platform with roubles. They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do: they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together roubles with a political ad and go hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”
It’s nothing really new. You visit a Web site, read an article or consume some bits of content and, depending how much coffee you’ve drank, feel compelled to leave a comment.
“Join the conversation”, “share this post with your friends and followers” are the mantra of those looking to build an audience in what’s become a fractured digital landscape saturated with countless options vying for our attention.
What follows next (still) baffles me. Please sign-in with Facebook, Twitter, or [insert prominent social network here] to leave a comment on our glorious Web site.
Ok, if you insist. Hmm… I’ll choose Twitter.
Web-site-you-want-to-leave-a-comment-on would like to access your Twitter account and “Update your profile“, “Post Tweets for you“.
Oh wait. Let me think about that one for a moment. Hmm… No.
Incredibly there are many sites still employing this rather severe mode of access and APIs that want untethered access to everything under the sun, including your firstborn child.
Content administrators who subscribe to the argument of forcing users to sign-in with their social media credentials would likely say it’s the most effective way to ensure everyone leaving a comment is a real person. Automated bots and trolls on the other hand conspire to pollute discussion threads with bogus or low quality content, so these protocols are necessary the moderators would argue.
Perhaps so, but sites imposing strict rules governing audience engagement, for example, requiring users to log-in with their Facebook credentials or only a few other cherry-picked social networks, is an unfortunate measure for dealing with the mountains of automated crap now circulating the Web. I’m afraid resorting to these tactics only discourages authentic audience participation.
Apparently Facebook has begun re-posting people’s likes at random intervals, usually a prominent product or brand, posted with a hyperlink to a persuasively worded “related article” (a.k.a. Sponsored Story) . On the surface these pseudo-updates look authentic and almost identical to regular status updates, but guess what, they’re published on your behalf completely unbeknownst to you.
Last week my partner mentioned how odd it was that my Facebook updates were routinely including likes for a well-known brand of take-out pizza and Mexican fast food. Conservatively speaking, let’s say this was happening several times per week. Now don’t get me wrong, I love pizza and a good Mexican burrito every now and then, but I wouldn’t say I eat the stuff several times a week.
As it turns out I had in fact become a fan of these particular products several years ago. Now it seems these fast food brands wanted all my Facebook friends to know I was liking these products every week—again and again—presumably around dinner time.
While impersonation might sound a bit strong, Facebook could be seen as taking significant liberties with our likes by making it seem as though we’re actively endorsing a product or brand on a recurring basis. Using our name and profile picture next to an Ad gives the appearance of a legitimate personal status update and makes others—that is, our friends—more inclined to stop and read the message.
From a digital marketing perspective this is a very clever appropriation of our Facebook identity. Although the mild annoyance one might feel when they learn their profile is being used to promote products on a regular basis (and without expressed written consent) could eventually turn sour if friends start formulating certain opinions about you based on what you’ve liked in the not so distant past.
Update: Here comes the enevitable class action lawsuit.
In October , Facebook agreed to a settlement about this whole Sponsored Stories issue, wherein they may have used your likeness in a Sponsored Story ad without your permission. The settlement set aside $20 million for you poor, wronged souls, and now Facebook is starting to get ready to pay it out.
So, in the event your likeness was appropriated you can file a claim to receive a whopping $10 payout from Zuckerberg and company.