No free lunches here…

THE Facebook row about data sharing reminds us of the old saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

This saw is thought to date back to the mid-19th century in the US when lunch, usually cold, was laid on by bars for anyone who bought a drink. This inducement to buy alcohol was much disliked by the temperance movement.

Pubs in this country sometimes lay out plates of free sandwiches and the likes for drinkers, although you don’t see this often nowadays.

Economists picked up the saying that you don’t get something for nothing. Initially we thought that was the deal with Facebook: all that enjoyable time-wasting for nothing, but the price of entry was hidden.

Users don’t pay in money, but in data they share. Your details, likes and so on are the currency in this strange new world. This information is passed on to advertisers who can then target adverts at you individually.

Then it emerged that a company called Cambridge Analytica was using data and behavioural science to pinpoint American voters in a way that is said to have helped Donald Trump in the presidency.

Some of this data came in early 2014 from 270,000 people doing one of those silly ‘personality tests’ you see on social media. This information was harvested, along with the likes and inclinations etc of third parties (ie Facebook friends). By nasty multiplication, the information of around 50 million Facebook friends is said to have been passed to Cambridge Analytica.

‘This was all dragged kicking and screaming into the daylight by good old-fashion journalism’

A moment ago, the words “it emerged” were used to describe these revelations. But none of this emerged; it was  dragged kicking and screaming into the daylight by good old-fashion journalism.

The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr has been chasing this story with dogged brilliance for more than a year now, a pursuit which has involved much personal abuse. Carole seems to have started from the best place of all: wondering why something was as it was and asking awkward questions, again and again.

Some of us have been reading her stories with horrified fascination for all that time. This week her story hit the wider world after secret filming by Channel 4 showed executives at Cambridge Analytica telling undercover reporters the tricks of their grubby trade. It is reported that Facebook had $36 billion wiped off its shares on Monday.

That says much about this strange new world, where companies that on the surface don’t do or produce anything end up being worth untold billions in the blink of an over-eager eye.

The chummy disruptors unleashed by the internet change our lives without us realising until it’s already happened.

Many changes are for the good: the usefulness of Google, the time-frittering joy of Facebook, all that friendly connectedness. The internet enriches and disrupts our lives in many ways: devastating high streets, ending centuries of dominance by the printed media, and so on.

Perhaps I am not untypical, in that this new world  worries me; yet I don’t want to go back to the old world, even if it was easier to understand and to know where you were.

When this scandal broke earlier this week, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stayed ominously quiet. Eventually yesterday he announced – in a Facebook post rather than properly in person – that allowing the misuse of data was “a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it”.

Well, that’s a start, I suppose.

Earlier the temperance movement was mentioned. A modern echo is what you might call the intemperance movement, unruly mobs stirred up by social media.

Just such a Twitter mob is encouraging us to quit Facebook: is that to swap one mob for another; can we truly divorce ourselves from social media; these and other questions buzz about our heads.

I am not quitting Facebook because I like it too much, even if over-use threatens to addle my brain. It’s an enjoyable and occasionally rewarding way to waste time.

But perhaps it is time for Facebook to be more responsible with us; and for us to be more responsible with Facebook.

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