My presence on Facebook is fairly minimal. I keep my “friends” list small and I post infrequently. So I wasn’t too surprised when the social media company said I likely was not among the more than 87 million users whose data were swept up by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to Donald Trump and possibly Russia’s interference in our 2016 election.
But as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg answered questions before Congress about online privacy and his company’s reach, I wondered: What information does Facebook have on me?
It turns out it’s a pretty easy thing to find out -- and the results are both amusing and disturbing.
Under “settings” on your Facebook page, select “download a copy of your Facebook data.” The company will compile it and send you an email with a download link. This took 6 minutes on a Wednesday night. The next morning, I opened the index from the files I downloaded -- which included messages, photos and videos -- and started clicking through memory lane.
There were 70 pages of timeline activity going back to December 2007, when I apparently joined, including more happy birthday wishes than I care to count and a July 2010 post tagging my now husband and urging him to “Dance, Sparkler Boy!” (the accompanying photo was missing, which may be a good thing for us all).
There were 35 pages of video uploads (my daughter swimming, sledding, singing); the text of message conversations I’d had with 264 people or groups of people; the many book club meetings I agreed to go to -- or not -- under events; and the half dozen apps I’d connected to Facebook.
The names of the Facebook friends I’ve kept through the years were listed, along with the dates we connected. The people I’ve declined as friends (and when) were there too, and the names and dates of those whose requests I accepted and later removed (apologies to my high school classmates; it seemed a good idea to link up at the time, but after reflection, not so much).
My ad topics included 15 references to BBC publications.
My ads history revealed I’m a sucker for clicking on lists (“26 insanely handy products on Amazon”; “30 hilarious sarcastic responses”; “40 photos for people in need of a laugh”).
And my friend peer group was deemed “Established Adult Life,” which gave me greater personal satisfaction than I’m comfortable admitting.
There was also a roster of 317 companies that had uploaded contact lists that included my information, which allowed them to then target me on Facebook with ads. Among the companies: the Washington Post, Exxon Mobil and, oddly, Oklahomans for Energy Options.
And there was a contact list that appeared to have every name and number that was in my mobile phone, including friends, family and reporting sources. Through my account, Facebook had collected the numbers for my sister and mortgage broker, but also for a woman whose son was killed in Charles Village several years ago, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (from his US attorney days), various legislators and an anonymous source I’d dealt with for a series of stories in 2011 and 2012. You can delete those contacts, by the way -- and bar Facebook from uploading more in the future -- through the “Manage Invites and Imported Contacts page.” Google should be able to steer you there.
How Facebook is using that information is unclear. The company says the contact list, which was apparently uploaded through Facebook’s messenger app, “helps Facebook and Messenger make better suggestions for you and others, and helps us provide a better service.” I take that to mean connecting advertisers to you consumers.
And this is where I’m reminded of the quote: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.”
Facebook isn’t exactly overt about this, but it doesn’t hide the fact either. You don’t even have to download your data to see that you’re a commodity. Under the “ads” tab in my Facebook settings, it shows that I’ve been placed into the marketing categories of “living away” from family and my hometown and being “very liberal” on US politics; it shows what kind of tablets, mobile phones, operating systems and Internet browsers I use; and knows I’ve had a Yahoo email address.
It also lists me as “Multicultural Affinity: African American (US),” based on my Facebook activity, even though I’m white. I’ve since learned this means I’m shown content targeted for black communities, and, until recently, may have been excluded from content because of my “affinity.” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in November that the company was at least temporarily disabling the “advertising tool” amid complaints from the Congressional Black Caucus.
I get it. Facebook makes money through ads.
And at least now I know the price for using the service. It’s me -- and many of you.
The question is, as the company grows bigger and more invasive, how long will we remain willing to sell?
Tricia Bishop is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)