One of the biggest corporate scandals of the past year has been the revelation that Facebook has routinely shared, and essentially sold, personal data and information about its users to advertisers, marketers and political consulting firms.
Of course, using the term “scandal” is a bit of stretch. Because anyone who has been paying attention for the last 12 years has been at least remotely aware that Facebook’s data sharing practices aren’t just some unhappy side effect of its business. In fact, Facebook’s data sharing is its business, full stop.
Here’s the funny thing about all the outrage in response to this big revelation: It’s not real. Those of us who are active on Facebook and other social media are often so addicted to using it and oversharing about our personal preferences and opinions that we clearly don’t care who sees it.
But wait … didn’t Facebook just report disappointing revenues and issue poor forward guidance Wednesday, sending the stock to the biggest one day loss for any American public company of all time?
Indeed it did. But those poor results were not the result of Facebook users revolting against the data sharing scandal. In fact, Facebook’s more pressing and enduring problem is that it is not acquiring new, younger users year after year. Fewer younger users means weaker growth. This is why so many corporate brands target younger consumers despite the fact that older people tend to have a lot more disposable income.
But that still leaves us with the serious question of just how severe the effects are of Facebook, Google, and so many other tech companies mining, storing, and sharing our personal information. An even deeper fear many have is that data has been used to influence our elections and perhaps undermine the very existence of our democracy. That’s been the thrust of the argument many have made about the 2016 election, as they allege Facebook sold key voter data to a firm working with the Russians who in turn used that data to craft brilliant online messages and ads that convinced millions of people to vote for Donald Trump … or something like that.
No, we shouldn’t forgive Facebook for hiding its actual business practices. We especially shouldn’t forgive it for its current highly dishonest ad campaign claiming it never intended for our information to be improperly shared. But we should start being a little more honest about ourselves as politicians, voters and human beings.
Let’s start with the politicians. Anyone who thinks the Democrats are doing themselves any favors by jumping on and obsessing over every suggestion that the 2016 presidential election was somehow rigged is kidding themselves. Worse than that, the Democrats are stifling any real chance to improve their messaging and available array of candidates by refusing to accept defeat and learn from the loss. Worst of all, they’re fanning the flames of deep resentment among their voters. That resentment has already manifested itself with a terrible rise in violent politically motivated attacks in America, from moderately disturbing incidents like threats and a few punches thrown at “Make America Great Again” hat wearers to the much more serious shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise last year.
Then let’s look at the voters. Political consultants and campaign managers are among the most overrated professionals in America. 90 percent of their job is determined by qualities their candidates possess long before they ever decide to run. Same goes for political ad campaigns, which usually only serve to remind voters of a decision they already made.
That said, some political ad campaigns are better than others. And the ads Russian organizations inserted onto Facebook and other internet sites were definitely not in the “better” category. In fact, most of the ads looked like they were produced by a fifth grader with no knowledge of the American public but an obsession with violent comic books and the Crusades. One look at those ads and you can see why a panel of experts determined there’s absolutely no evidence they swayed even one voter to change his or her mind in 2016. Compared to some of the more famous ads in American presidential election history, like LBJ’s “countdown” commercial and George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, these Russian posts weren’t even remotely comparable or effective.
But beyond politics, we have a more important question to ask about ourselves as thinking human beings with free choice. Perhaps the most profound discussion or dramatization of these kinds of questions in modern American culture is being played out on the hit HBO TV series Westworld.
Westworld is set in a futuristic theme park where robots are so lifelike, they are completely indistinguishable from humans. One of the plots (SPOILER ALERT!) this season is that it turns out the operators of the park have been secretly spying on everything the human guests do while they visit for weeks at a time. The point of this spying and data storing is to offer the guests a chance to live forever in robot form with their brains and personalities preserved inside robot bodies thanks to secret data collection.
In a fascinating twist, it turns out these robot clone efforts all fail even after hundreds of attempts. It’s later revealed that these clones failed not because the company stored too little information for each subject, but because they stored too much.
The accurate message of that plot twist is that we humans are actually much more simple creatures than we realize. Even a small amount of very public data collected about us will allow any third party to accurately guess what choices we’re likely to make with near perfect accuracy.
In other words, it’s a public fact that I am a 47-year-old man who lives on Long Island. Did Facebook and Google really need to spy on years and years of my online activity to guess that I might be interested in ads for barbeque grills and Mets tickets?
Of course not.
We all deserve a certain level of deeper privacy, and a little intelligence while going online or even talking to a friend in public can give us that privacy.
But no matter how despicable Facebook and other online data miners have been and continue to be about what they do and how they really make money, their ability to control our consumer choices, our life choices, and our elections is greatly exaggerated by those with something to gain by sowing fear and deflecting blame.
Let’s focus on the real threats, shall we?
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and watch out for future columns on 5TJT.com.