Facebook saga poses questions on social media credibility

How safe are your social media accounts?

Experts say the solution lies in developing ethical principles regarding the analysis and use of data | AFP Experts say the solution lies in developing ethical principles regarding the analysis and use of data | AFP

Eminent American experts have questioned the credibility of social media platforms like Facebook, which is in the middle of a controversy over a potential breach of user confidentiality.

Although the tech giant yesterday announced that it would bring changes in its privacy settings tools to better protect the users' data, experts are still unconvinced and want such companies to be held accountable on privacy matters.

"Facebook is just one of many social media platforms aggregating our lives, and most users accept these companies terms of use without having read them. Unless we hold these companies accountable, they will continue to dominate others aspects of our lives," Will Potter Howard R Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan said.

"This data breach should put an end to any possibility of Facebook being used for voting, and its an opportunity for all of us to rethink the trust we have put in social media companies," he said in response to a question on the Facebook controversy.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a founding employee of London-based consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, has accused that the firm, hired by Donald Trump during his primary campaign, illegally mined tens of millions of users' Facebook data and then used it to target potential voters.

Following this, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement outlining his firm's role in the scandal and apologised to its billions of users for the breach.

Garlin Gilchrist, from University of Michigan, said that Facebook and the social media platforms that dominate the attention economy are now being called to understand what that responsibility entails.

Erik Gordon, a clinical assistant professor at the Ross School of Business, said the data scandal means that Facebook needed to consider a new model in which it is responsible for content.

"That is a costly model. It's a model that will lose posters and viewers. Facebook's revenue model would be significantly hurt by regulatory changes in how it can turn data on users into revenue and by users getting off Facebook or using it less because of data privacy concerns," he said.

The Federal Trade Commission is already investigating Facebook over its privacy practices and Zuckerberg has been asked to testify before a Congressional Committee next month.

A communication researcher at Cornell University said that the social media giant's announced plans to revamp its privacy tools won't alter the company's core business model, which relies on user data.

He instead suggested that Facebook take steps to build trust.

"For example, Facebook could make its data sharing and advertising policies much clearer to users, be more transparent about what data is shared with apps and third parties, and make privacy settings easier for users to understand and modify," said Natalie Bazarova.

Bazarova said the best way to protect social media users was through public education and awareness-raising.

"Facebook can also change their default privacy settings to allow users to opt in to sharing their information, rather than asking them to make an effort to opt out of it," she said.

"Public education and awareness-raising relating to online privacy can help individual users protect themselves. Users need to be aware that when it comes to the internet, there's no free lunch," she said.

According to HV Jagadish, a professor of computer science and engineering and expert on ethics in computer science, the solution lies in developing ethical principles regarding the analysis and use of data.

"Recent research shows that by observing a few hundred of your Facebook likes, it is possible for an algorithm to predict your personal preferences better than your spouse can predict them," said Jagadish.

He said the politicians and businesses that profit from such data shouldn't be blamed for trying to better predict people's choices, "since it's the role of politicians".

"The problem is that they now have tools so effective that the persuasion happens on a playing field we perceive as not being even," Jagadish said.

Aviv Ovadya of the University of Michigan warned that pushing too much for privacy may impact data portability, or the ability to determine if foreign actors are manipulating online discourse.

"or even the ability to hold Facebook accountable itself," he said.

Ovadya, a Knight News Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, sounded the alarm about the vulnerability of social media platforms to propaganda and misinformation from foreign governments.

"If even aggregated Facebook data is so private that only Facebook can see it, then how can independent bodies determine if Facebook is acting responsibly?" Ovadya asked.