Absurdity Is Surrounding Social Media

There was a time when a brash young Mark Zuckerberg had business cards which stated:

I’m CEO, Bitch.

Now the boss and founder of Facebook is more likely to spend his time apologizing. His latest supposed sin is that he did not do enough to prevent other people from breaking the terms of his website and lying in general. Consider this assertion:

We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.

Those were the opening lines of an apology that Zuckerberg issued via adverts in the press. We can understand why he did it; CEOs will apologize for anything if it saves their company’s share price. But Zuckerberg was wrong to make this assertion because failing to protect is not the same as failing to take reasonable care.

It is fair to expect Facebook to take reasonable measures to protect information, just as we would expect a car manufacturer to take reasonable measures to make cars that do not crash. But I do not expect cars to prevent me from driving off a cliff, and I do not expect every breach must primarily be the fault of the organization that was compromised. There are some very naughty people in the world, and a subset of those naughty people have tremendous resources at their disposal. This means there will always be breaches, so long as there is data which can be breached.

Sometimes most of the blame belongs to the organization which has been breached. However, we should not ignore how other parties could have behaved better. In the case of the Facebook breach, the developer of an app broke Facebook’s rules. That developer misled users of that app, who relied on Facebook’s stated policy as far as they thought about the potential consequences of what they were doing. The developer deserves punishment, despite his nauseating claim that he is a scapegoat. Another business incited the violation committed by the developer. That firm also deserves punishment. But they are not the only parties whose actions made this breach possible. No breach would have been possible if Facebook users had not used the offending app, nor if people refrained from putting information on Facebook in the first place.

Facebook gets an easy ride in the USA because its privacy laws are so weak. They face more severe challenges in the European Union, so they were doubly unlucky to be breached by an academic working at a British university who sold that data to a British company. The EU can congratulate itself on adopting rules which say if one organization passes personal data to another then they must contractually bind the receiving organization to protect the data too, but this ignores the weakest link in the data chain. There is no law in Europe that prevents an individual giving away their own personal data frivolously, foolishly, or with total disregard to their safety. Human beings are allowed to do that. And many of them do.

Perhaps the #DeleteFacebook movement should be considered an awakening, but that means it has stirred a generation of Rip Van Winkles who slept through the last ten years. What Facebook does today is no different to what it did a decade ago. It provides a free service with the intention of harvesting data so others can exploit that data. Many other businesses have essentially the same model. Now some people are saying they will delete their Facebook profiles because they do not want their information shared. They may announce their intentions on Twitter, which is why the movement has a popular hashtag. But if they never wanted their information to be shared, then why did they share it in the first place? It is called social media with good reason. The whole point of using Facebook is to make announcements to others. Whilst you might not want the ‘wrong’ people to hear what you say, I have little sympathy for anyone who complains they have been overheard whilst talking loudly in the street.

There are many other people who do not care if they are overheard. They use social media precisely because they want an audience. This leads to increasing pressure to block voices deemed unhealthy to the body politic. Some of the censorship demands are reasonable. Many are not. Businesses are increasingly being told they should decide who is allowed to speak via social media. This is unfortunate; businesses should not be expected to decide who deserves a voice or who deserves an audience. At the same time, I am wary of trusting that power to governments either. Only a simpleton assumes governments can be relied upon to place the public’s best interests ahead of the government’s interests.

Social media can only empower free speech if almost everybody is free to say almost everything. If we start limiting the speech of many then we undermine the social compact necessary to preserve free speech generally. So rather than appointing an increasing number of supervisory councils that are supposed to tell social media firms how to pick and choose what is permitted, and rather than encouraging greater investment in artificial intelligence to select what is allowed, I would rather society adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach to the ways people use and abuse free speech. If a terrible message is being spread to a great number of people, then stop the source. If it is being spread to a tiny number, then it is no wiser to block their use of social media than it would be to break up the public meetings they may arrange. The ‘wait and see’ approach would also afford greater clarity for social media firms; if the government cares enough to identify a problematic message, then it may be worth taking action, but not otherwise.

Amidst all these debates about who can communicate what to whom, some people sued the US President because he blocked them on Twitter. Their argument is that being blocked denies them their right of free speech. This seems like an odd concept to me; should Donald Trump be forced to read every single tweet addressed to his Twitter account?

Of course the point of this ridiculous law suit is not whether Trump wants to read the tweets, but whether other followers of Trump should have the freedom to read them. If you cannot respond to a particular Twitter account you cannot use it to reach other followers of that same account. Take that principle to its logical conclusion and anybody holding a political rally must allow their opponents as much time on stage as they like, because those opponents will want an unlimited right to tell the audience why their beliefs are wrong. Once again, a group of lawyers and control freaks want to undermine a perfectly sensible feature created by a social media firm to permit anybody to decide who they communicate with. Instead of embracing the elegant solution of allowing the supposed recipient of a message to choose if they will allow correspondence from a particular source, these legalistic social media utopians would prefer a complicated mess that repeatedly begs questions about who is permitted to give or deny access, and on what grounds. Perhaps they would prefer to create a mess because each new mess creates more work for lawyers.

Contrary to the protestations of people too enamored with the technological marvels they invented, there is no new substance to any of these arguments about the use of social media. The same age-old impulses to control other people are being manifested via the same age-old debates about the limits of free speech. Yet the principles that encourage sensible people to tolerate free speech are so simple they can be taught to a child. Perhaps our educators should spend more time doing that, because too many adult voters seem not to know them, and too many politicians indulge the immaturity of those voters. The principles to be followed when using social media are those which should be followed generally, namely:

  • If you want to keep a secret, do not tell it to anyone.
  • If you do not like what you are hearing, stop listening.
  • If you are upset by what people really think, then toughen yourself up.
  • If you abuse others, expect to be disliked.

If everybody abided by these principles then there would be no great debates about controlling social media. But then, if there were no great debates, there would be even less reason to pay attention to the people who pursue them so vigorously.

Modern technology affords us a new way of being vexed by vanity. Some care too much about being liked, so defer too much. Others suffer an excess of ego. The same person may exhibit both defects at different times in his life. Social media provides a new kind of amplification, but all its content can be explained by the immortal virtues and vices of the human species. Everybody is the CEO of at least themselves, and everybody is a bitch too.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is a recognized expert on communications risk and assurance. He was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and others.

Eric was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He was a member of Qatar's National Committee for Internet Safety and the first leader of the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team. Eric currently sits on the committee of the Risk & Assurance Group. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

Commsrisk is edited by Eric. Look here for more about Eric's history as editor.