Author's note: The number of compromised profiles was later revealed to be closer to 87 million in April 4 reports, 13 days after this blog was posted.
It feels like I should be whittling something out of an old hickory switch and flicking a thinly structured rocking chair back and forth on my heels when I say it but…
(throat clearing noises)
In my day, Facebook was used for one thing and one thing only — communication. There were no games on Facebook. You could only post text and you got one picture to let people know what you actually looked like.
Well, as in all things, Facebook continued to grow and now it's teenaged digital self has finally gone and become a major disappointment to its parents. We knew it was only a matter of time until FarmVille led to something worse, like Cambridge Analytica. In case you haven't heard — and if you haven't, it probably means you're not on Facebook, so you don't have to worry — a Facebook app (that's short for application, which is a type of program on an electronic device, for those of us whittling away in our rockers) gained access to Facebook users' private information, which then got them information on people with whom they are Facebook friends (another user both parties confirm know one another — keep whittling). Eventually, the number of users who had been compromised reached somewhere around the 50 million mark. For reference, the latests numbers I could find showed there were 2.2 billion users in the fourth quarter of last year, so about 2 percent of users were breached. But that tiny cut has caused an infection. People seem to now realize that social media isn't the safe sanctuary they thought it could be and, as a result the company lost $50 billion in value after news of the breach broke.
You might ask what exactly was so alluring to draw so many users into the trap. According to technology news site CNET, the app which opened the door to breaching the 2 percent was called "thisisyourdigitallife," (these young people and their lack of proper spacing) and offered personality predictions based on what the program could collect about the users and their friends.
That's right. We now live in a world where people download a program to tell them about themselves. #letmetakeaselfie
But here's the kicker. Matthew Rosenburg, intelligence and national security reporter for the New York Times, said in an interview with NPR the app was supposedly using the data for academic research, but was in reality providing data to Cambridge Analytica, which was founded by several people including — wait for it — former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.
So, now there's a flurry of speculation, and some evidence, as to how the data may have been used to influence the 2016 election. The leading theory, thanks to some hidden camera work (which, I don't generally support), is the firm created targeted ads (we rocking whittlers called them advertisements — that one probably wasn't necessary), which were then used to poke and prod the voters into place like cattle being cut from the herd.
Now, to be clear, I don't have a problem with targeted ads. Rather, I think the problem lies in how the company took aim. It took something they knew the masses would click on without question and tailored it to compile information which otherwise might have been difficult to gather. Of course, there's a degree of blame for the public. We don't have to take such quizzes. I for one have never felt the urge to let Facebook tell me which member of the Brady Bunch I seem to be — clearly I'm a Peter. Nonetheless, there's a hashtag (what we old-time whittlers used to call the pound sign, and is now used to note a common topic among online posts) calling for an end to Facebook — #deletefacebook.
But a reactive solution won't solve it. You can close down Facebook, but the other — I'm going to say dozens, but that's probably not right — social media platforms will persist. They too will undoubtedly grow and change and eventually something like Cambridge Analytica will happen to them. It may not be through a quiz or some other app, but it will happen, because people who want to take advantage of one another will find a way to do so.
In the end, I suppose the most effective way to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again is to literally remove oneself from social media entirely — social media abstinence if you will. That said, it would reshape the world, but would be akin to ripping off a large band aid or shooting Old Yeller after he's gone rabid. And I'd go so far as to say the situation is indeed like an illness.
Social media's role in this last election was perhaps the largest it has ever been. We relied on the news coming to us passively. What we saw and read we largely believed. That was our illness. In a notably short period, "fake news" and "fact-checks" were common to headlines everywhere. We had to learn how to differentiate truth from perception — fact from opinion. This is our recovery. I doubt we'll ever fully remove ourselves from our addiction to social media, but we can tone it down. We can starve the fever and feed the cold by using what we've learned about our illness thus far. If we can indeed route the illness from our systems, perhaps we will achieve an immunity. After all, it's going to come back. In one form or another, it's going to come back.